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Creating Influence and Trust in a Place of Uncertainty

Posted on 3.22.2010

Many marketing professionals believe that, because the Internet is a new medium, new rules and techniques must be invented. They are mistaken. Many timeless principles apply to online marketing but have largely been ignored.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, president of Influence At Work (InfluenceAt-, is regarded as the world’s highest authority on persuasion and influence. His books have sold millions of copies, and some of his most important findings are entirely applicable to the online marketing environment.

What Cialdini was able to formulate through his work are several principles of universal persuasion that operate across all cultures and circumstances. You can think of these as automatic compliance mechanisms that, once set into motion, are very difficult to resist.

According to Dr. Cialdini, the six universal principles of persuasion are:

Reciprocation — People tend to return a favor. Give to get: small unsolicited gifts results in outsized return obligation being placed on the receiver.

Scarcity — If I can’t have it, I want it. Perceived scarcity will generate more demand.

Authority — If an expert says it, it must be true. People tend to obey authority figures, or even just those with the trappings of authority.

Consistency — If people publicly take even a small stand on an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment. They will get behind their stated beliefs with action.

Consensus — People will look for “social proof” of the similarities of others’ actions under the same circumstances.

Liking — People are easily persuaded by people they like and are attracted to.

Some of these principles are especially important under conditions of uncertainty, which should be of particular interest to Internet marketers. The Internet is a sweeping, everchanging communications network that creates uncertainty in its wake.


When people are uncertain, they don’t look inside of themselves. They look outside, to the counsel of legitimate experts.

— Robert Cialdini

Authority and expertise must be established before you ask someone to act. Otherwise, you become a blowhard and self-promoter. You can either borrow authority from others, or present them with your expertise.

In order to be credible, you must demonstrate knowledge and trustworthiness. No one can beat you as a communicator if you have these two elements. That means that you must present information in an unbiased way.

But how do you establish trust if there is no time to build trustworthy interactions? How do you produce instant credibility? There is a very good method for doing just that.

Before the most compelling portion of your argument, mention the weakness and drawbacks of your product or service.
— Robert Cialdini

You read that correctly — accentuate the negative.

Using this tactic because it:

1) Shows your knowledge of both the pros and cons of a particular product or service, and

2) Establishes your trustworthiness, because you are willing to show the negative.

Unlike most online marketers, don’t wait until the end of your pitch, press release or blog post to mention your weakness. State it early. Otherwise, your strongest argument is “bouncing off of walls of disbelief.”

Consider these time-tested and strong headlines:

• Avis: We’re #2, so we try harder.
• Loreal: We are expensive, but you're worth it.

In both of these examples, a negative is mentioned upfront, but used to ultimately accentuate the positive. In Avis’ case, their number two ranking in the industry is forcing them to focus on serving the customer better. Loreal is going to cost you, but they only want to deliver the best to the consumer.

Research from psycholinguistics indicates that for practical purposes “but” means “take the info I just told you and put it away; focus instead on what I am going to tell you next.”

Just change the sequence of the words you use, and multiply your profits.


When people are uncertain, they don’t look inside of themselves. They look outside, to the counsel of legitimate experts.
— Robert Cialdini

We see it all the time — your role models are your peers. Much to the chagrin of many parents, the biggest influence on most teenagers is their circle of close friends. It almost doesn’t matter what your tribes are, and all of us informally belong to many. BMW owners, iPhone users and Burning Man devotees are much more likely to tune in to the behavior of like-minded people.

Two important aspects of such “social proof” are especially important:

• The Many others
• Comparable others

The Many implies that something is a “hit” or leader in your specific community or tribe. Once trends take off, the momentum of the leaders makes them very hard to overtake. Any objective evidence of leadership within a particular tribe or subgroup is very important.

Comparability is a sense of how similar someone is to oneself. For example, I will not be influenced nearly as much by the actions of others with whom I do not identify. So, the closer the marketing is aligned with my specific circumstances and relationships, the better.

In a landmark study, Dr. Cialdini changed the messaging on hotel bathroom signs, across three different price points ranging from inexpensive to luxury brands. The signs asked guests to hang up their towels after use if they did not want them washed, and to leave them on the floor if they wanted fresh towels.

Each request was identical, except for the type of messaging used in the headline.

• “Recycle and do it for environment” — this was the standard control and resulted in 38-percent compliance from guests. This was followed by one of the following two headlines.

• “Cooperate and join us” — this resulted in a lower, 36-percent compliance because it was perceived as a self-serving request on the part of the hotel to save on operating expenses. You can’t claim partnership, you must earn partnership.

• “The majority of guests are reusing towels at least once during their stay” — this appeal to The Many portion of the consensus principle resulted in a much-improved 46- percent compliance score.

But how do you create a sense of comparability in this setting, when anonymous and random people stay at the hotel? What possible kinship of comparability can there be among them to further turbo-charge results? As it turns out, even a tenuous kind of kinship is enough. The next headline tested was:

• “The majority of people who stayed in this room are reusing towels at least once during their stay” — this combination of The Many with Comparable resulted in a stunning 54- percent compliance rate.

The use of appropriate testimonials is critical. And the testimonials should not come just from experts but also from peers. They should also change in order depending on the target audience. Lead with the most comparable circumstances.

The Internet is a place of uncertainty for many people. It evolves quickly, and often the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming. Create authority and trust in this environment and you will be able to influence action — under any circumstances.

About the Author: Tim Ash is the CEO of, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and software tools to improve conversion. He is the chairperson of and a frequent speaker at top Internet marketing conferences. Tim is the author of the bestselling book Landing Page Optimization.

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