The psychology of influence and persuasion

Jul 29th, 2015

In today’s world, we receive an average of 10,000 messages per day. What psychological principles can we apply to cut through the clutter, optimise the impact of our marketing campaigns and improve conversions?

We humans may think of ourselves as a logical, intellectual race, but psychology keeps proving that we’re emotional creatures at heart.  Antonio Damasio, a well-known neuroscientist and respected author once said: “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think”. Consciously or not, feelings are what drive our purchasing decisions, brand preference and customer loyalty.

Buying decisions are based on 20% logic and 80% emotion

Studies show that the ‘likeability’ of an ad has a much greater influence on a consumer’s intent to buy than the information in the ad about the product. In addition, the more positive the content, the more likely it is to to go viral: Google’s Abigail Posner describes this as an ‘energy exchange’ and that “the gift of sharing amplifies our own pleasure – and is something we’re hardwired to do”.

Lesson: Create an emotional response to motivate people to take action.

John Lewis – The Bear & The Hare from Blink on Vimeo.

Analogies, similes and metaphors are powerful tools for persuasion

It helps to simplify complex information and aids understanding, which reduces the scepticism and defensiveness which can stem from the fear of the unknown.

Lesson: Emphasise similarities and draw comparisons, like O2’s ‘be more dog’ campaign.

o2 be more dog

We prefer images over words and experiences over explanations

Our brains process visual content such as infographics, video and slideshows more effectively than text alone. It also makes this kind of content popular and highly shareable on social media.

Lesson: Communicate visually to bring information to life for your customers and stand out from the crowd.

infographic about infographics


We feel obliged to return favours

The common and powerful social reciprocity norm shows that people feel obliged to return a favour (even if they didn’t request the favour in the first place).

This is behind the principles of content marketing and inbound marketing: you’re essentially giving away advice and resources that are valuable to customers and potential customers. This encourages them to give you their contact details, sign-up to your mailing list and, hopefully, spend money with you in future.

Lesson: Free content, free gifts and free trials (like Spotify’s, below) generate genuine leads.

Spotify offers a free trial

We’re more influenced by people we like

Research has shown that this partly accounts for the success of demonstration parties, where hosts invite friends and family to their homes to demonstrate and sell products (think Tupperware and Ann Summers).

Lesson: Find common ground. Establish a friendly, genuine and approachable brand voice on social media, blogs, ecomms etc. Show how you relate to your audience to encourage people to identify with you.

We’re scared of missing out

The fear of missing out can be a potent motivator to take action and is known as the scarcity principle. Think of those annoying ‘sale must end soon’ ads for sofas on telly.

Lesson: Create excitement and a feeling of immediacy with limited edition products. Highlight closing or end date for offers, like these PPC (pay per click) ads:

PPC ads for beds sales ending soonPPC ad leeds festival tickets limited number available

 We like to feel part of a group

Belonging to a group with shared characteristics appeals to our primitive needs to feel safe and establish social identity. From supporters of a particular football team, to One Direction fans, to those who can afford to demonstrate their status by owning a Lamborghini, we’re all pack animals at heart.

Lesson: Focus on relevancy and shared characteristics. Utlilise social media groups or create your own exclusive groups for customers and potential customers to be part of. Encourage visitors to sign up to your database to receive special content, limited offers and sneak previews.


People take action when something:

  • appeals to their emotions
  • makes them feel good
  • seems easy

Keep these basic factors in mind when creating marketing messages.

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