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The art of seduction in the digital media

Marketing is the art of seduction. Dr. Robert Cialdini is a guru of marketing seduction techniques. He is best known for his book on persuasion and marketing, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The American psychologist describes in his book ‘Influence’, the six universal principles of persuasion. We spoke with Cialdini on the application of these principles in the digital and social world. How universal are these principles?

By: Berber Hoekstra en Klaas Weima

“To research your book you spent three years going ‘undercover’ to study the main laws of persuasion and to observe real-life situations of persuasion. Is that right?”

That’s right. I participated in various training programmes without people knowing my true identity. I have learned to sell cars and insurance and collect donations for charities. What emerged were the six universal principles of influence: reciprocity, social attachment, consistency, liking, authority and scarcity.

“To what extent do these six principles apply within the digital and social media world? Are there any differences to the ‘real’, physical world?”

“This is a good question. I call them the universal principles because the principles are applicable in a variety of situations and circumstances, including digital communications but it does ask for a different approach. Research has shown that if we negotiate by e-mail in about 30% of the cases we do not get a satisfactory result, there is no mutual agreement. The 30% drops to 6% if there is an increased sympathy for the person we are negotiating with. This is achieved by first exchanging information with each other, asking about hobbies, interests, background and so on. So we need to apply the basic principle of sympathy into our digital communications in the same way we do in other social communications.”

Do you agree that brands are tending to focus more attention on people who are highly influential, with for example, a lot of Twitter or Facebook followers, than on individuals that do not have a lot of followers. Is there a sort of social discrimination going on? What do you think?

“I agree with you but this phenomenon is no different than in any other social and human interactions. Think back to your school days and the influential individuals. These are the persons who draw attention to themselves. With the currently available technologies, the marketing organisation is able to identify the influential individuals in the networks that the marketers do not know about. We can apply an effective marketing strategy on the influential individuals to change the knowledge, attitudes or behaviour of a whole network. And here is the best bit: the most influential people within a given network are in turn influenced by their own network. So we don’t just have to focus on one individual. We can influence those individuals by influencing those around them. That democratises the process.”

Big brands are busy focusing their attention on collecting as many ‘likes’ as possible on Facebook. Is there a psychological reason why brands are busy with the universal principle of liking?

“We prefer to interact with the people that we know and like. Through the like-button on Facebook we can see how many friend like a particular brand or service. We are not talking here about the principle of liking but about the social proof principle. If my friends indicate they like a brand, I can also decide that brand suits me. Digital and social media have revolutionalised the six principles of influence. Just look for example at the reviews on Amazon.com.”

It is easier to influence people if you are working for an inspired brand like Apple or Mini. What tips and advice can you give marketers who work with a low involvement brand, such as a toothpaste brand or an insurance company to inspire them?

“What inspirational brands have in their favour is the excitement  and energy associated with them. They have incorporated energy into their brand. A toothpaste or insurance company needs to create the same excitement in their market. Of the six principles, the one that creates excitement more than any other, is scarcity. Telling people that this is the only place where they can get a certain product, or this service. The idea of not having something causes us to be excited and to want it.”

What is the number one mistake that marketers make in advertising from a persuasions perspective?

“For me, it’s something related to a story that a colleague of mine told me. He is a marketing professor at the University of Florida in the United States. He has spent the last sixteen years of his life looking for the single most effective influencing tactic. I saw him at a conference and he looked at me and said: “I have found the most effective persuasive tactic.”

And what was it?

“Not to have a single persuasive. The right approach is to go into every situation and look to see what is really there. Do you really have scarcity to provide? Use it. Do you really have authority that you can bring to bear on the situation? Use it. Do you really have social proof? Use it. That’s the key.”

Which principle affects you personally the most?

“The principle that has had the most impact on me personally is the one I call reciprocation. The idea behind this principle is that if someone gives me something, I feel compelled to give something back. Let me give you an example. There is a hotel that I recommend more than any other hotel. It is the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. I was there as a speaker at a conference and the organisers had arranged that the speakers get penthouse suites at this hotel. I went to my room and wanted to write a note to a friend of mine back in the United States. I opened my desk draw and instead of finding an envelope with the name and address of the hotel on it, the envelope had my name in gold letters embossed on it.”

It exceeded all expectations!?         

“Exactly. They personalised something for me. It wasn’t an advertising or promotional mechanism for the hotel. It was for me personally. It’s not just what people give to you, it’s what people give to you as a result of tailoring it specifically to your needs, to your challenges, to who you are. That’s what gets to me every time. I never stop recommending this hotel.”

About dr. Robert Cialdini

Dr. Robert Cialdini is an expert in the field of influencing techniques. A professor at the University of Arizona specialised in the psychology of persuasion, Caildini has written several best sellers. Cialdini has recently received a lot of attention from marketers and advertising professionals about his book ‘Influence’. In this book he describes six universal principles of influence. His universal principles are characteristically simple, easy to understand and applicable for everyone.

The six key principles of influence according to cialdini

  1. Reciprocity: If people get something for free they tend to return a favour.  For example, free products with a subscription.
  2. Social Proof: “If others like it, it must be good.” This principle is based on seeing man as one of the herd, we base our opinion on the opinion of the majority. For example, rating a holiday address on a travel website.
  3. Commitment and Consistency: When people have made an initial commitment, gradually build up a relationship with them. For example, a website visitor clicks on YES to become a subscriber to your newsletter.
  4. Liking: People prefer to associate with people they like. Come across interested, be sympathetic and empathetic if you need to get something done by someone else. For example, invite the consumer  to a special event.
  5. Authority: People will tend to obey authority figures, rather than a statement from a child. For example, a prominent blogger who writes a positive product review.
  6. Scarcity: Perceived scarcity will generate demand. People do not like the feeling of missing out on something. For example, the limited edition of the latest iPhone.


Klaas Weima from interactive communications agency Energize regularly interviews influential marketers and visionaries with a fresh approach to the marketing profession. The interview with Dan Ariely and many others are free to listen to via the iPhone app (keyword Earned Attention in the iTunes Store) and www.energize.nl/sparkcast/.

The most inspiring interviews are published in the Journal of Marketing. The recordings of the Sparkcast have been made possible by the sound studio, Dedacom in Amsterdam.