Dr. Cialdini’s book Influence, although published in eighties, is one of the most-heard reading tips that the pros give to aspiring marketeers.

I first heard about the book when watching Dutch internet marketing guru Aartjan van de Erkel interview author Robert Cialdini. After that, I noticed the title popping up everywhere.


So what’s all the fuzz about?

I’ve read it, twice, and I must say that I see why so many marketeers think this book is important. Cialdini, quite brilliantly, exposes a number of weapons that influencers can use in order to produce a ‘yes’. He is quite resourceful in citing examples from a variety of divergent studies.


Weapons of Influence

In his book, Cialdini describes a number of psychological principles, deeply rooted into human nature, that ‘compliance practitioners’ use to get us to comply with their requests almost effortlessly. By using these ‘weapons of influence’, compliance practitioners take advantage of psychological shortcuts that we humans have developed.

When triggered, these shortcuts operate mechanically; they activate a response that is not logically effectuated but automatic. This gives tremendous powers to skilled exploiters of these mechanisms to circumvent our logical decision making process and direct our actions towards their intended purpose.


We need shortcuts

These shortcuts, however, are not imperfections in human nature. In fact, they help us cope with the extraordinary complicated environment that we humans have created for ourselves.

That is, they allow us to come up with automatic reactions to the avalanche of changes and decisions we face in our everyday lives, with minimal cognitive effort. The automatic reactions that these principles provoke work just fine in a great majority of times.

In a world where technology and society evolves much faster than our cognitive ability ever can, we are less frequently able to analyze and consider all relevant information when making decisions. So instead, we rely on these shortcuts and act based on a (seemingly) representative feature of the situation.

If we wouldn’t have these shortcuts to fall back on, I believe we would have great difficulty to get to the point where we take action at all.

In the words of Cialdini:


“Without them (shortcuts) we would stand frozen – cataloging, appraising, and calibrating – as time for action sped by and away.”


Let’s dive in:



Lesson #1: The power of ‘because’.



One of the most fascinating things I learned about psychology, is that it often takes us very little time to make up our minds.

YES – we are quick to judge because in most cases we simply have very little time to come to a complete understanding of an issue. So, we make a quick decision and we stick with it.

As a result, we have a great need to justify our actions. The lesson here, is that when you help people to justify a desired action, they are more likely to perform that action. The strange thing is, however, that we don´t necessarily need bulletproof logic in to order to help people justify why they should comply.


The copy machine experiment

For example, one of the studies cited in Cialdini´s book shows that in almost 95 percent of cases, people complied with a request to let a researcher skip ahead of them and use a copy machine when their request was phrased in a way that included causality, i.e. the word because. 

Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine?

Sixty percent of subjects complied with this request.

Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine because I’m in a rush?

This one includes a real reason for the request and the word ‘because’. Ninety-four percent complied.

Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine because I have to make some copies?

That one includes no apparent reason for the request, but ‘because’ makes it sound like a real cause for the request was offered. Ninety-three percent of subjects still complied.


Give them a reason

In contrast to some of the people that have written about this, I don’t believe that the above illustrates that the word ‘because’ triggers some kind of magic button in our brain that lets persuaders get away with anything.

However, the underlying theory still holds true: When phrasing an argument, request or call-to-action, copywriters should be wary not to skip the step of justification. 

Writers should use causality (or any other form of justification) whenever possible to give readers what they need: a reason to believe what they’re reading.

Only the most skeptical readers will stop to think about whether your justification is accurate and complete.


Stating why-questions

Besides using causality, another great way to do this is by stating outright the why-questions that readers are likely to have when learning about your offer.

Most used is, of course, ‘Why choose for xyz?’.  Much better examples, however, are the more specific and more critical questions such as ‘Why should I pay more for xyz?’, or ‘Why is xyz is so much cheaper than abc?’, or, for newcomers: ‘If xyz is really that good, then why aren’t you one of the big players?’. Answering these why-questions, instead of ignoring them, works like magic to help people justify their decision to buy from you.



Lesson #2: The contrast principle in human perception.



You can make people perceive things very differently when you place them in contrast with the thing that preceded it.

The most widely used example of this, is when you put one hand in a bucket of ice water and the other in a bucket of hot water. Then, put both hands in a bucket of lukewarm water simultaneously. If you try this at home, you’ll be amazed with the result: with one hand the water feels cold and with the other hand the water feels hot, even though both hands are in the same bucket.

But the effects of the contrast principle are not limited to temperature sensation. For example, American university students, when looking at pictures of members of the opposite sex, rated the physical attractiveness of the photo subjects lower if they had been looking at attractive models in magazines or TV shows first.


Contrast as a sales technique

Every salesperson knows that if you sell the most costly item first, then the lower priced items will seem trivial in comparison (think options on a new car, accessories in fashion stores etc.). Personally, I believe that low-balling the sale rarely works but the technique is still widely used. Fortunately, there’s also another way to apply the contrast principle in sales:

Salespeople will sometimes make you offers that they don’t even intend to sell you, for the sole purpose of making their second offer look better in comparison. Cialdini uses the example of realtors taking prospective home buyers to so-called ‘setup-properties’ (rundown houses at an enormous price), before taking them to the house they actually intended to sell, which looks like a sweet deal in comparison.


How to use contrast in writing

In writing, there are a number of ways in which you can apply the contrast principle. Obviously, you can compare your stuff to your competitors’ stuff. Trash talk is never good, but simply mentioning a competing offer (before diving into your pitch), can work to amplify the impact of your USP’s.

Second, you can use contrast to create a problem-solution frame in which you compare the current situation to an ideal situation (i.e. a situation where your product or service is used). In this sense, contrast is used to build tension (i.e. to ‘hook’ readers). This keeps them at the edge of their seat, wanting to find out exactly how this ideal situation is accomplished. This type of frame (everyone seems to give it a different name) is widely used in storytelling.

Third, just like in presentations, you can use contrast in your tone of voice. Alternating longer, more sophisticated pieces of texts with short and snappy core sentences that bluntly state the point  is an proven way to maintain the attention of your audience.

Finally, using contrast within the same sentence can have an invigorating effect:


“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what YOU can do for your country.”

– John F. Kennedy



Lesson #3: The human gift of reciprocation.



The principle of reciprocation played a major role in the evolutionary journey of our species, on its way to dominate the planet. In order to develop the more complex relationships that allowed our ancestors to work together and build societies, the human race needed a rule that would protect the advance of our species against freeloaders – those members that take away without giving in return. According to many, the ‘gift’ of reciprocation is one of the characteristics that define us as human beings.


So what is recipocation?

The rule of reciprocation is that we, as it is often coined, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. The social purpose of this rule is to stimulate the development of give-and-take relationships, by allowing individuals to initiate such a relationship without the fear of loss (giving and receiving nothing in return).

In order for this rule to work, human beings, when presented a favor (or gift),  face both an internal urge and social pressure to reciprocate that favor. Failure to reciprocate leads to negative social consequences (disliking) and to an uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness towards our benefactor.


On a sidenote: why it feels good to give back

After reading Charles Eisenstein’s book ‘Sacred Economics: Money, the Gift and Society in an Age of Transition’, I believe that the economical relationships of our ancestors were mainly about giving gifts, rather than trading. Eisenstein argues that gratitude and generosity are aspects that are deeply anchored in human nature.

He relates this back to fact that life itself is a gift. The consequences that this notion has for human thought is proven by its presence in the very basis of the three largest religions. Religious leaders used this very principle to impose humility and gratitude unto their followers.

The point here is that, inextricably connected to this sense of gratitude, is our urge to give back.


Whether you like it or NOT

Interestingly, the reciprocity rule works even though a target has never even asked for a gift. What is more, this rule is so overpowering that it works even when subjects had indicated that they did not even like the sender of the gift.

Please note that reciprocation is about exchanging gifts rather than trading, which means you can use this principle to give a little and ask for a lot more in return.

Here, Cialdini uses the example of Krishna’s, soliciting for donations at crowded public spaces. Unsuspecting passerby’s are presented with a flower that is handed to them or pinned to their jacket. Of course, a receiver is not allowed to refuse or to give back the flower, because “it is our gift to you”. However, his donation would be much appreciated of course. Although most people have learned to carefully avoid the remarkably outfitted Krishna’s, once they are faced with a warmly smiling Krishna handing them a flower, most people are simply unable to just take the flower and walk away.


Reciprocity in internet marketing

So let’s take this back to internet marketing. In terms of copywriting, the reciprocity rule underlines the power of writing for a friend, rather than an audience. I’ll write more on that later in this blog.

However, I believe that the reciprocity rule that Cialdini describes has significance for the conversion tactics that are often employed on websites. How many websites do you see where companies give something away for free? Usually, it’s some kind of information resource that allows you to benefit from their experience. Most common examples are whitepapers, guides or ebooks that are offered in exchange for your e-mail address. 

However, I personally think that in order to unleash the full power of the reciprocity principle, simply giving something away for free before making your offer is not good enough.

Because the many examples that Cialdini uses in the reciprocity chapter of his book, are all instances where influencers use social pressure when facing their subjects face-to-face.

But, in essence, browsing a website is not an experience that is very personal, despite even the greatest efforts to make it look that way. There will always exist some distance between internet authors and their audience in the minds of website visitors, and social pressure on the internet is almost non-existent.


Why personal is better

So the lesson for internet marketeers, in my honest opinion, is to make to make their gifts personal. An increasing number of businesses now employ the tactic of sending a personal e-mail first, before delivering the free resource.  It’s important to keep it short at this point – just asking prospects to briefly state why they’re interested in your gift. As long as it has a personal touch to it.

Then, when delivering the product with another personal message, be sure to inform your prospects that you will remain at their disposal in case any questions arise (you could even ask for their remarks or feedback).

This may increase the number of prospects who won’t bother to answer. But if a quick reply is too much effort to obtain a free gift, than you should question just how valuable this resource is to those prospects and, consequently, how likely they are to buy from you eventually.

The lesson for marketeers: by presenting your free materials as personal gifts rather than handouts, the social pressure to buy (as a result of the reciprocity rule) is much larger.


In part two, I’ll write about the five other lessons I’ve learned from reading ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini.