I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk given by Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin (not the actor) at the Royal Society of the Arts earlier in September, all based around their work that has led to the publishing of a new book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.

I’ve become increasingly keen on treating Marketing & Market Research as a scientific discipline, as a way of moving away from treating it as an art form and moving it into a domain where people are actually able to explain to the average punter what it is that we do, without leaving them with a blank stare. Part of this was borne out of reading Thinking Fast & Slow (Kahneman), and also reading How Brands Grow (Sharp), but also the realisation that in amongst all the erratic behaviours and attitudes that people show and state, there is the potential for ‘rules’ that apply to large-scale patterns. Rules are meant to be broken of course, but if we learn from past behaviours we will undoubtedly have a better understanding of the probability of this behaviour happening again in the future.

Cialdini was at pains to state that their work based based on a range of studies across a number of conditions, locations and scenarios, which identified three core motivations that work when encouraging, motivating and persuading people to make changes:
1. The motivation to make effective and rewarding decisions
2. The motivation to affiliate and gain the approval of others, and;
3. The motivation to see oneself in a positive light

The motivation to make effective and rewarding decisions
This motivation was broken into two parts that encourage both effectiveness and reward:-
1. Make sure the goal is realistic enough to achieve…
2. …while at the same time, making it sufficiently challenging to ensure a sense of accomplishment.

Sounds easy enough in principle, but all too often we set a single, specific goal (i.e. lose a specific amount of weight) – even more so for our marketing campaigns & strategic objectives. These are often realistic or challenging, but less likely to be both which makes it less motivating in general. By simply changing the focus of the goal from a single specific element to a ‘high-low’ goal (i.e. lose weight, within a narrow range), the level of achievement is significantly higher which points to a more persuasive message to be using.

The motivation to affiliate and gain approval of others
We all know how important it is to feel a sense of affiliation with a group, and to be part of something where you are ‘mutually exchanging’. The example that was used discussed the hotel industry where they ask us as guests to re-use towels to help save the environment despite us all knowing it’s a way of saving money. Martin talked about an order of reciprocity when affiliating and gaining approval, and how brands should talk about giving something first rather than leaving the first move with the consumer. Using the hotel example, chains that ask guests to re-use towels first before they make a contribution to an environmental cause would be less successful than others that advise guests on the contributions they have made already, as this is more likely to affiliate and gain approval, thus being more persuasive.

The motivation to see oneself in a positive light
Here, they talked about how we all want to be seen in a positive way, and maintain that view. There was a fascinating example of how there were different experiments used within the NHS to get people to keep their appointments, an issue that was costing the NHS many millions of pounds each year. By simply handing ownership of the appointment recording process over to the patient and getting them to write down the details on a card, it immediately generated a commitment to the patient that required them to live up to be seen in a positive light. The outcome was an 18% reduction in no shows, potentially saving significant sums of money for the NHS. I found this particularly interesting as traditional marketing wisdom would suggest making changes to simplify the process and to make it easy for people to engage with, but that actually reduced the sense of ownership & motivation to fulfil the goal as it wasn’t something that they’d been a part of.


All examples that Cialdini and Martin talked about demonstrated simple, small changes that went on to make a big difference. And perhaps that is one of the biggest lessons that scientific studies have delivered to us about persuasion, that it doesn’t need to be large scale and grand, but a series of smaller nudges based around these three core motivations to be most powerful.