Pre-suasion and the art of selling ideas early

If you are trying to persuade somebody around to your way of thinking, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler, you need to start sowing the seeds earlier than you might think

In a recent marketing trial, an online furniture store brought its customers into its website through two separate home pages. Half of their visitors were brought through a portal with a picture of fluffy clouds while the other half were brought to a page that featured coins on its wallpaper.

The results were fascinating. Those who visited the idyllic ‘cloud covered’ page were more inclined to buy more comfortable furniture over those who initially interacted with the ‘coin page’ and who consequently made purchases that were altogether more considerate of their budget.

This is just one of many examples that feature in Dr Robert Cialdini’s new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.

“I was always interested in the process of persuasion,” says Dr Cialdini, “how we can move people in a particular direction by the content of the message that we send to them and my earlier book, Influence, was about what we should put into a message in order to move people in our direction. What my new book deals with is the process of gaining agreement with the message before it’s sent.”

Published in 1984, Influence has sold over 3 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 30 languages. Warren Buffet cited Influence as one of his favourite business books and Cialdini is recognised the world over as one of the leading experts in the study of persuasion.

Robert Cialdini: ‘What my new book deals with is the process of gaining agreement with the message before it’s sent.’ Picture: Brandon Sullivan
Robert Cialdini: ‘What my new book deals with is the process of gaining agreement with the message before it’s sent.’ Picture: Brandon Sullivan

“That furniture store example is great,” says Cialdini, “because it shows that what the visitor saw first channeled their attention into what they saw next to be consistent with the mindset that they were initially put in.”

Cialdini uses the metaphor of the gardener to explain his idea of pre-Suasion. “It doesn’t matter how good the seed is. If you haven’t prepared the earth properly ahead of time, it just won’t bear fruit.”

And in order to do that, a communicator must find, what Cialdini refers to as the “privileged moment”.

“It’s the key moment that allows the communicator to create a state of mind in recipients that’s consistent with the forthcoming message,” he explains. “We can arrange, if you like, for people to be attuned to our message before they encounter it.”

Marketers and message communicators are only now recognising the need to create this privileged moment, according to Dr Cialdini, and too slowly.

“That’s what I discovered when I went and infiltrated various training programmes of marketing, sales, recruitment, advertising, fundraising and so on,” he says. “It seems that only the very top performers understood the leverage they would get by arranging the moment before they delivered the message to be consistent with the goal of that request.”

Pre-suasion and the art of selling ideas early

Contrary to what many people might think, the goal and consequently the message isn’t always driven by sex.

“Sex certainly draws attention to an ad,” says Cialdini. “But it doesn’t always persuade people to say yes to the ad if the product isn’t connected to sexual uses. So tight jeans, perfume, lingerie... sex sells those kinds of things because that’s how people intend to use those products but it doesn’t work for soft drinks or cleaning detergents. Research shows that using a sexual context or a sexy model in those kinds of ads has no significant effect.”

What we do like, is people like ourselves, according to Cialdini, but in the age of the all seeing, all conquering and all marketing internet, it’s worth distinguishing between those who are really like us and those who are pretending.

“That’s something we have to be careful of,” says Cialdini, “because there’s a tool that marketers have at their disposal now where they can find all sorts of information about us and then they can approach us and claim to have a commonality with us on some trade or hobby or interest.” So is there a difference between persuasion and manipulation?

“For me, manipulation is using language or persuasive tactics to deceive people into assent, to mislead them,” says Cialdini. “Influence, informs people into assent, it educates them if you like. There was a great study done in Beijing, China, where a restaurant manager marked certain dishes on the menu as ‘one of our most popular dishesl and each became immediately 13 to 20% more popular. But the thing here is that the ‘most popular’ designation was absolutely true. So as a visitor to that restaurant I benefitted from that influence. I’m not deceived by it. It wasn’t the case that the manager starred those items that were selling poorly. That would be manipulation.”

It’s a fine line, admits Dr Cialdini, and one he thinks businesses need to keep an eye on if they are to survive in the long term. “The importance of using any of these principles in an ethical manner is paramount, That’s if you want to maintain a continuing relationship with people that allows for growth, profitability but most importantly mutually beneficial exchanges.” A persuasive argument indeed.

  • Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade is published by Simon and Schuster


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