Last week I had the chance to visit dr. Cialdini’s 1-day seminar about the Principles of Influence (refresh: here). Not only did I attend, but I also arranged for an interview with dr. Cialdini about the application of the 6 PoP’s in the field of Social Media Marketing. We had already discussed the topic briefly via e-mail, along with some other thoughts about the 6 human emotions that form the basis of behavioural motivation, resulting in the click-whirr heuristical behaviour that the PoP’s are based upon. As a media psychologist, I was already familiar with the PoP’s and was looking for a more in-depth conversation with dr. Cialdini about Social Media.

In this blogpost I would like to share dr. Cialdini’s thoughts with you by means of a transcribed interview with raw audio files to go with it.

Question 1: The most important Principle of Persuasion when following or connecting.

[MC]: When deciding to follow or link with someone in social media, people tend to look at

1. Who are you
2. What can you bring me
3. What do others have to say about you?

These questions obviously bring up the principles of Liking, Reciprocity and Social Proof or Consensus. What do you think, if you had to appoint one, is most important principle to consider if you want a lot of followers/connections/friends, lets say ‘audience’ on social media?

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[RC]: Well, I would say that Social Proof is the most fundamental and widespread of the principles of influence. But: when we are starting out, we don’t have it! So what we do is use Linking and Reciprocation to build our followers. And then, we have the chance to use Social Proof – Consensus – on our side. But we should never try to use something that isn’t there, that isn’t naturally part of the situation, by lying with statistics or counterfeiting the information in any way. But within a stag-like manner we can begin with reciprocity – what we provide people -, we can begin with Liking and similarities to others and that will drive a genuine Social Proof presentation.

Question 2: How to make scarcity work in an Social Media environment

[MC]: Social Media is all about sharing, giving and receiving. In other words, I think reciprocity is one of the key building blocks of social media. In this environment where everything is free, downloadable and abundantly available, how can we still use Scarcity to get others to move in our direction?

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[RC]: Just because everything is free and abundant, doesn’t mean it is equally good. So, what we can do is emphasize the unique or special features of what we have to offer. So that we employ the rule of Scarcity not in terms of how available our information is, but how unique it is, how uniquely valuable it is, how uncommonly informative it might be. And that causes people to want it because they can’t get that anywhere else.

[MC]: And if the product itself is abundantly available?

[RC]: (laughing) That’s great! You will sell a lot!

Question 3: Becoming an authority

[MC]: The Internet is a great platform to show off your Authority in a certain area of expertise. What would you say is more important here, quality of publications (giving more, Reciprocity) or quantity of publications (being seen everywhere on the Internet, Social Proof)?

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[RC]: Well, there turns out to be research to answer this question. Authority is more important, impactful and more influential on topics of fact. If you are an expert on the matters of fact then you should emphasize your authority when you are presenting that information. To become an authority on a certain area of expertise, first share valuable information. After that, publish evidence from authorities who already agree with you.

Question 4: The critical mass of Social Proof or Consensus

[MC]: In social media we are used to high numbers. Lots of followers, page views, quotes, retweets etc. Could you tell us anything about the ‘breaking point’ or ‘critical mass’ when Social Proof will kick in? Do Social Media need a critical mass point then offline media?

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[RC]: Actually, I think Social Media require a lower breaking point than offline media, because they incorporate the concept of similarity in ways that offline media often do not. In Social Media we know that the people in our network share our interests, share our background. That’s how we selected them to be in our networks (and how they selected us to follow, MC). And that similarity feature allows smaller numbers of individuals to still be a breaking point because “There are a lot of people like me who are doing this”. They don’t have to be as many people as dissimilar others. So actually, I think Social Media provide a lower breakpoint.

Question 5: Commitment and Consistency in Social Media

[MC]: In social media, it is only a small effort to ask your friends or followers for a small favor. Review something, retweet a message, ask an opinion. What kind of a digital request would provide a good ‘basis’ for requesting a larger favor later on, thereby using the principle of Commitment and Consistency?

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[RC]: A request where the response to your request, the reciprocal response (the favor that they do), is actively, publicly and voluntarily made. What you should do is ask for something that requires action from an individual and is very public (like a comment on a website, MC), something that you can ask them to share on other websites later (or within their own network, MC). Those three things make for a strong commitment to you.

[MC]: So what, according to you, would be the limit of the effort required for the first request in the rule of Commitment and Consistency? Enough effort to make them feel like behaving consistent, but not too much to scare them away?

[RC]: That is a fine line, you’re right. What you have understood about this is that the request should be just effortful enough that people will do and it will seem like a meaningful step that they have taken. So it has to be right on that borderline.

MC]: Let’s take Facebook as an example. The clicking of a ‘like’ button is a very small effort but publicly made (gets shared in your own network). For instance, ‘liking’ a product. As a manufacturer of lighting products I would like to know who pushed or clicked this button for a certain product so I can ask them later for a bigger request, for instance visiting a seminar. Is this ‘liking’ enough of an effort to create a sense of consistency in future requests?

[RC]: What the manufacturer would say is: “We saw that you pushed the ‘like’ button. In keeping with your preference for this kind of lighting fixture we are happy to send you additional information on that topic that you have already said you have a preference for.”
So, you characterize what they’ve done in terms of something internal to them. For instance, if it were a cancer awareness campaign, you would characterize “Because of your recognition of the importance of this cause, we wonder if you would be willing to be the leader of a team in your neighborhood.” So, you characterize it in terms of the larger issue, not that small thing that they did. The message is “It is logically consistent with what you have already done that you would do this larger one, because you are favorable to this cause or to
this type of consumer product.” Call it; call the commitment.

Question 6: Social Proof and the Bystander effect

[MC]: Social Proof tells us we will be more likely to show certain behavior when (enough) others show it, while the Bystander effect is based upon the theory of diffusion of responsibility. In other words, the more people around, the less I will feel personally responsible for taking action in situations the appeal to my sense of responsibility. How do the principles of Social Proof and the Bystander Effect relate?

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[RC]: Most of the time they are not in conflict because the actions of others don’t make similar actions on our part unnecessary. For example, the research about the Chinese restaurants in Beijing. If we say ‘there are our most popular items’. The bystander effect doesn’t influence that, Social Proof just makes you want it more. But sometimes there are conflicts, and this is your point.

Lets say, in your network or organization, you would like people to donate to a particular charity. If a certain person knows that everybody else has given, they might think ‘well, they don’t really need my contribution’. Under these circumstances, what I would recommend is to say “Last year 95% of the people in this network or department donated.” Or “In the past 95% of the people I asked to comment on my blog were willing to do that.” And then “Would you be willing to do so this time/year?” You state the fact, and that this is the norm. With regards to the bystander effect: it hasn’t been made unnecessary for you to act yet. The message is: “Nobody else has done it this year, so I still need you to do it!” Establish the norm, for instance from the past if you have that information.

Question 7: The negative side of Social Proof

[MC]: Social Proof seems to behave in a negative way, too. When a lot of people don’t do something, we will see that as the norm and join them in not taking action.

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[RC]: We’ve done some research in the petrified forest in Arizona where I live, there’s a big sign: ‘So many people have stolen pieces of wood from the forest that it’s undermining the integrity of the forest’. That sign tripled theft! But if we said ‘If even one person steals, it undermines the integrity of the forest’, that cut theft in half compared to no sign.

[MC]: That’s difficult. On one hand you have your experience – a lot of people steal – and on the other had you would like to have Social Proof of not stealing, but it’s not there!

[RC]: Well, it turns out that the managers of the parc made a mistake, because only 2% of people steal. So actually they made two mistakes: First of all, they didn’t use the real Social Proof: the 98% of the people who don’t steal. Secondly, they made stealing seem like the norm when it wasn’t! So it’s all about the norm. Norm is essentially Social Proof.

Question 8: The wisdom of the Crowd

[MC]: Are there any other tips or insights that you can think of I could share with my readers, things they could use in their Social Media efforts right away?

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[RC]: For me, it might be one that I got from listening to Esther Dyson, who is one of the earliest voices of internet marketing. Here’s what she said: “The real advantage to marketers of the internet is not to communicate to their customers but to use it to allow their customers to communicate to them, the marketers”. This means you set up and monitor user groups, interest groups, customer networks that allow marketers to learn rather then to teach about their product. This will be great for creating Social Proof!

Lots of companies introduce new products. They would only do that if their testing showed that this was very popular among their test groups. They never tell you how popular this was! They should say ‘This was one of the highest scoring products among our test group’! And that can be not just for physical products like food but it can be for a website or information or a news service or something like that. The message should be “This tested great among all the people that we tried it out on the internet” (MC: Especially if the recipients of the message share common interests or profiles with the test group, similarity -> Liking)

Summary: Most important Principle of Persuasion in Social Media

[MC]: What I’m really hearing you say when listening to all of your answers is that Social Proof or Consensus is a very important influencer in social media.

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[RC]: I think it’s the most powerful and widespread source of influence in social media. But we can’t claim it until we use some of the other principles to build it. Use scarcity, liking, authority – those things that you do have – to build social proof and now it’s rolling for you, it’s gathering size and speed for your impact.

Final words

So there you have it. Use this knowledge wisely, ethically and honestly. In an online world where everything can be measured and statistics are everywhere around us, make Social Proof work for you. In the past years I have consulted for quite a few companies on how to apply these principles to their own specific situation. I even incorporated them in my Social Media Strategy plan and written a dedicated blogpost about the Psychology of influence in Social Media (both in Dutch)

Lost of times, I got the impression that Social Proof is among the key principles when dealing with online campaigns. Now, this assumption has been confirmed by dr. Cialdini himself, along with new insights on how to build Social Proof using the other principles.

I would like to thank Bob Cialdini again for his time and effort, it has been an inspiring meeting.

If you have any questions about the principles, social media or the combination of the two, feel free to drop me a message in the comments, I’ll  answer to the best of my abilities. And don’t forget to tweet about this interview, rate it and share it since you already took the time and effort to read and listen to it 🙂

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