What are we really talking about when we’re talking about conversions?
Persuasion, right? Influence.
When we talk about conversions, we are—most of the time—discussing ways we can be more persuasive, more influential. We’re interested in meeting the needs of customers, fans, and followers and doing so in a way that truly speaks to them.
So how can you persuade—i.e., convert—better?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the hacks for conversion and persuasion begin with psychology. Understanding why someone clicks or why they retweet requires you to look at the way the person is wired, the way we are all wired. To understand persuasion and social media influence, to get at the heart of conversion and likes, it helps to understand how your audience thinks and feels. Here’s a primer.

The psychological theories of influence and persuasion

One of my favorite places to learn about psychological theories is Dave Straker’s Changing Minds website, which is full of theories written in layman’s terms, organized neatly into specific categories and clusters for easy reference. One of those categories is persuasion, and Straker lists 10 different psychological theories that deal with how to influence others. 
Here is a brief snapshot of each of the 10 theories, many of which might sound familiar to you—either because you’ve employed them in the past or because you’ve had others try them on you.  For more information on any of these, click through the links to see Changing Minds’ cited research and examples.
When you express with certainty a particular attitude, that attitude hardens. The opposite is true as well: Expressing uncertainty softens the attitude.
The minority in a group can have a disproportionate effect on influencing those in the majority.  Typically, those in the majority who are most susceptible are the ones who may have joined because it was easy to do so or who felt there were no alternatives. Consistent, confident minority voices are most effective.
This theory involves a persuasive person deliberately breaking one of the four conversational maxims. These are the four:
  1. Quantity: Information is complete and full.
  2. Quality: Information is truthful and accurate.
  3. Relation: Information is relevant to the conversation.
  4. Manner: Information is expressed in an easy-to-understand way and non-verbal actions support the tone of the statement
4. Priming
You can be influenced by stimuli that affect how you perceive short-term thoughts and actions. Here’s a really smart example from Changing Minds:
A stage magician says ‘try’ and ‘cycle’ in separate sentences in priming a person to think later of the word ‘tricycle’.
A common social norm, reciprocity involves our obligation to return favors done by others.
You want what is in short supply. This desire increases as you anticipate the regret you might have if you miss out by not acting fast enough.
(Note the “Just for Today” text in the example email below.)
Persuasive messages tend to decrease in persuasiveness over time, except messages from low-credibility sources. Messages that start out with low persuasion gain persuasion as our minds slowly disassociate the source from the material (i.e., a presumably sleazy car salesman and his advice on what car is best).
We are influenced strongly by others based on how we perceive our relationship to the influencer. For example, social proof on web copy is persuasive if the testimonials and recommendations are from authoritative sources, big brands, or peers.
This approach, based on multiple years of research by Yale University, found a number of factors in persuasive speech, including being a credible, attractive speaker; when it’s important to first or go last; and the ideal demographics to target.
Certain words carry more power than others. This theory breaks persuasive words into three categories:
  • God terms: those words that carry blessings or demand obedience/sacrifice. e.g, progress, value
  • Devil terms: those terms that are despised and evoke disgust. e.g., fascist, pedophile
  • Charismatic terms: those terms that are intangible, less observable than either God or Devil terms. e.g., freedom, contribution
(We’ve written before about the power of specific words, including the five most persuasive words in the English language: You, Because, Free, Instantly, and New.)
You might consider these 10 theories the building blocks of the persuasive techniques explained below. With this foundation of psychology in place, let’s move on to some applications of these theories in your social media marketing, website planning, and content creation.

How to write for what we all crave

We all know how important food, water, shelter, and warmth are to survival. Any ideas what’s next most important?
The Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s, shows the advancing scale of how our needs lay out on the path to fulfillment, creativity, and the pursuit of what we love most. The version of the pyramid you see below (shared by the Doorway Project) shows the five different layers of needs.
Hierarchy of Needs
The three steps in between the physiological needs and the fulfillment needs are where marketing most directly applies.
  • Safety
  • Belonging
  • Esteem
In Maslow’s pyramid, the descriptions for these needs don’t exactly have a marketing perspective to them, so it requires a little creativity to see how you can tailor your message to fit these needs. Christine Comaford, an author and expert on the subject of persuasion, has found safety, belonging, and esteem to have incredible value for our everyday work and our creative lives:
Without these three essential keys a person cannot perform, innovate, be emotionally engaged, agree, or move forward … The more we have of (these three keys) the greater the success of the company, the relationship, the family, the team, the individual.
Her experience has helped her hone three phrases that are key for influence and persuasion and for creating this sense of safety, belonging, and mattering that we all need. Here they are:
  1. “What if.” This phrase removes ego from the discussion and creates a safe environment for curiosity and brainstorming.
  2. “I need your help. This flips the roles of dominant and subordinate, engaging the other person and providing a transfer of power.
  3. “Would it be helpful if.” This phrase shifts the focus from the problem to the solution.
Here’s an example from Nick Eubanks of SEO Nick who uses the phrase “I Need Your Help” directly in the subject line of an email. (Come to think of it, each of these three would be fun to try as email subject lines.)
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How to win friends and influence your audience

When you talk about influencing people, our ears perk up at Buffer. Our company culture and values are based on a book by Dale Carnegie called How to Win Friends and Influence People. The advice from Christine Comaford above has that familiar ring of Carnegie to it.Remove your ego. Default to happiness and positivity. Be welcoming to others.
In a lot of ways, a discussion on persuasion and influence could begin and end with Carnegie’s book. Here is just a segment of the book’s table of contents, filled with ideas on kindness, generosity, and partnership. (Carnegie would probably dislike that I’m having you read just the table of contents—he advised readers to read each chapter of his book multiple times.)
Win people to your way of thinking
  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge.
Isn’t that great stuff?
We aim to include as many Carnegie principles as we can in the way that we communicate in emails, in comments, and of course on social media. Here are some examples from Twitter of how our Happiness Heroes practice friendliness, sympathy, and seeing things from someone else’s perspective.
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We’re not the only ones who love Carnegie’s book, either. An article on Copyblogger by Andrew Schrage and Brian Spero broke down the specific ways that you can grow an audience and market your content based on Carnegie’s principles. The full article contains 10 tips. Here are two of my favorites:
Avoid misleading headlines. A staple of Carnegie’s proven methods involves recognizing the importance of others. Too often we forget this and treat online audiences as easily manipulated rubes.
Instead of writing clickbait headlines that aim to coerce, it’s better to practice clickable headlinesthat work for more virtuous reasonsDigg.com aggregates the top stories from the web and delivers them with headlines that are informative and clever without being manipulative.
Digg.com headline
The second Carnegie tip from Copyblogger goes like this:
Save people money. In “How to Win Friends,” we learn the importance of talking about what people want and showing them how to get it.
In other words, talk about benefits instead of features.
Here is a screengrab from the landing page of Keen.io, an analytics service for developers. Instead of explaining the features of the product—the APIs and the SDKS—Keen talks about benefits.
keen io
While not as overt as the analysis on Copyblogger, Minda Zeltin, president of American Society of Journalists and Authors, wrote on Inc.com about her own experiences with persuasion and influence, referencing indirectly a lot of the attitudes expressed by Carnegie.
Here are a few specific examples that Zeltin cites that deal directly with how you speak to others:
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Michael Hyatt nails these elements of persuasive speech in his communication with email subscribers. In addition to a few emails I’ve received apologizing for broken links or other mistakes, Hyatt is also so kind and generous in the way he approaches his conversations. Here is an email that includes both a big thank you and some praise.
Michael Hyatt email

The persuasion slide: How an influential nudge leads to conversion

Here’s a fun way to look at persuasion: as a playground slide.
The idea comes from Roger Dooley of the blog Neuromarketing who uses the variables of a person on a slide to show how different factors affect the outcome of influence. Here’s the graphic he created to explain the idea:
Persuasion Slide
Essentially, here’s how it works:
You give a customer a nudge (a tweet, a blog post, a phone call, an ad).
Gravity, that customer’s internal motivations, help move the customer down the slide.
Additional motivation that you provide (the angle of the slide) can serve to enhance the gravity. If a customer has low internal motivation, it will take a steeper angle to get him or her down the slide.
Friction, seen here as the difficulty (real and perceived) in converting, causes the slide to slow down to varying degrees.
The nudge could be most anything persuasive, for example a couple of psychological theories that we outlined above. Amplification could mean that the customer is further cementing his values and attitudes as he propels down the slide. Social proof could be a stronger push down the slide, resulting in a faster conversion.

Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street reads a lot of books—up to 14 each month–so it means something when he picks Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion as one of the most important books he’s read. In the book, Cialdini outlines six principles of persuasion, most of which will likely sound a bit familiar based on our previous discussion on psychology.
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Do any of those sound familiar? Put another way, Cialdini’s list could look like this:
  1. Reciprocation, i.e. Reciprocity Norm
  2. Consistency,  i.e. Amplification Hypothesis
  3. Social proof, i.e. Social Influence
  4. Liking, i.e. Social Influence (again)
  5. Authority, i.e. Yale Attitude Change Approach
  6. Scarcity, i.e. Scarcity Principle
One of the common threads from Cialdini’s list is that of social. The principles of liking, authority, and social proof all deal with relationships with others: We are persuaded by those we like, by those whom we deem to be authority figures, and by the general population. Here are a few unique applications of these, as told by Cialdini and Parrish:
One way people exploit this is to find ways to make themselves like you. Do you like golf? Me too. Do you like football? Me too. Although often these are genuine, sometimes they’re not.
Liking is similar enough to consistency that it bears pointing out the difference here. Someone might say, “Do you like having more visitors to your blog?” They aren’t necessarily looking for a connection with you (as in Liking) but rather they’re seeking Consistency. Of course you’ll say yes, and in theory, you’ll have a harder time backing off that statement when you are pitched a product or service later.
Something as simple as informing your audience of your credentials before you speak, for example, increases the odds you will persuade the audience.
Noah Kagan does this for the each guest post he publishes at OK Dork. He writes a quick intro on how he made the connection with the guest writer and all the amazing credentials the guest writer has.
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Social proof
People will more likely say yes when they see other people doing it too. Social poof is not all bad. It’s one of the main ways we learn in life.
Basecamp has a great example of social proof on their website, showing the wide variety of respected clients that use the product—and doing so in a fun, approachable way.
Two others that are worth pointing out are consistency and scarcity.
Personally, consistency is the one I find myself most susceptible to, and I identify a lot with how Parrish describes the effect: ”If you ask people to state their priorities and goals and then align your proposals with that in mind, you make it harder for people to say no.” really hit home for me. Parrish connects this to the IKEA effect, the way you love your IKEA furniture because you’re invested in it from building it yourself.
As for scarcity, Visual Website Optimizer wrote an extensive post on all the different ways you can use scarcity to increase e-commerce sales. Have you noticed that Amazon tells people there are only a certain number of products left? That’s scarcity at play.
Smash Bros

Hooks: Psychology in action in your copy and on your site

Throughout this post, I’ve tried to highlight some good examples of the psychology of persuasion as it exists on the web. It’s great to know the theories; it’s also helpful to see the techniques and applications. Bushra Azhar, a persuasion strategist and founder of The Persuasion Revolution,wrote down several of her techniques that she has used to great effect in creating persuasive copy. Here is a sampling of the ways she’s used to invoke positive emotions in website visitors.
Disrupt then reframe
You can disrupt routine thought processes by mixing around the words and visuals that a user is used to seeing then reframing your pitch while they’re still figuring out the disruption. Researchers tested this technique by pitching a product as costing $3.00 versus 300 pennies; the penny pitch was the clear winner.
A unique implementation of this is on TeuxDeux’s pricing page. Instead of standard names for their pricing tiers, TeuxDeux went with a disruption technique with the copy and then reframed the pitch with the pricing info below.
The key to good storytelling
We mentioned above the theory about ultimate words, and we’ve written recently about the power of storytelling in your content. Azhar points out that a step beyond storytelling is making sure that you are telling the right story. She references the book Made to Stick, which talks about the three stickiest and most memorable story plots.
1. The Challenge Plot: A story of the underdog, rags to riches or sheer willpower triumphing over adversity
2. The Connection Plot: A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap, whether racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic or otherwise; think of the film The Blind Side
3. The Creativity Plot: A story that involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle or attacking a problem in an innovative way
The Groove HQ blog regularly starts blog posts with a storytelling element, often using variations on The Creativity Plot to hook readers and give that nudge down the persuasion slide.

Opportunities for persuasion

By now, I’m sure you can see just how much psychology is involved in the art of persuasion. By extension, you can also see psychology in the social media messages and marketing tactics of some influential brands.
When it comes to applying the principles of persuasive psychology, here are a few places you can start:
  • Your calls-to-action
  • Your headlines
  • Your tweets and updates
  • Your emails
  • Your product descriptions
Almost anywhere that you have words or visuals—anywhere that you create or manage content—you can turn into an opportunity for persuasion.
What places on your website and in your social media marketing have you used psychological persuasion? Which of these theories do you recognize, either in your own marketing or in the marketing of others? I’d love to take this conversation further in the comments.