Skip to content
Joanna Swartwood, Director of Marketing and Revenue GrowthWed, Aug 7, 2013 9 min read

The 6 Principles of Influence & How They Fit Into Marketing

I just finished reading (OK, listening to) Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It was recommended by my peer Luke, who pointed out that Dr. Cialdini has a fascinating way of tying together instinctual human reactions and carefully calculated marketing initiatives. The book explores six influence principles, which are used every day in marketing tactics. 

The 6 Principles of Influence & How They Fit Into Marketing

The six principles of influence are:

  1. Reciprocity - When someone gives us somethig, we feel obligated to provide something in return
  2. Consitency - When we say we'll do something or identify a certain way, we're prone to continue doing so in the future
  3. Social Proof - If we witness a crowd behaving in a specific manner, we tend to follow suit 
  4. Liking - When we enjoy the presence or personality of an individual, we feel good about complying with their requests
  5. Authority - We're more likely to take instructions or oblige with the requests of individuals we percieve as established or authoratitive
  6. Scarcity - The more fleeting or rare something is, the more we want it

If you haven't already read Influence (or nodded your head in agreement as you listened to it in traffic, like me), here's Dr. Cialdini discussing the six influence techniques detailed in the book:

Dr. Cialdini examines these six principles as being intrinsic human responses, and explores how they are often used and abused in marketing and sales. But rather than imploring that these influence principles should never be leveraged for business development, he instead argues that consumers should seek to avoid companies using them dishonestly.

I appreciate that as a psychologist, Dr. Cialdini doesn't attempt to discredit all marketing and sales professionals as inherently malicious because of our propensity to utilize the tactics for persuasion. But I also agree that these principles are often abused.

To balance out the two, I've compiled some examples below of each influence principle being used appropriately, and poorly:


The Good
Within the marketing sphere, reciprocity can be tricky to execute without bluring the ethical lines. In my experience, the best use of reciprocity is to continually provide value and resources to your clients without expecting incremental spending in return. Often, this utility pays off in the form of brand advocates, which are a phenomenal marketing resource.

The Bad
Unfortunately, some sales representatives utilize reciprocity in a negatively aggressive manner to secure purchases. For example, you may find yourself feeling pressured to buy a car after a sales representative has "done you the favor" of washing the car you pulled up in, or offering a gas gift card.

Social Proofbest-seller
The Good
When I pulled up Amazon to share the link to Influence, the site told me that the book was a #1 Best Seller with a 4.5/5 ranking. This is a phenomenal form of social proof, as it implies that masses of people have purchased and loved this book. Even better, Amazon provided me with glowing reviews from [hopefully] real people who bought the book.

The Bad
Have you ever read a blog post, thought "That was great - I'm going to share!" and then changed your mind after seeing the zeros prominently displayed in the blog's social sharing buttons? You're not alone.

Social proof only works if it convinces our prospects that others are acting. It's OK to not include the social sharing rate on your page if it doesn't positively reflect your intended message. In fact, it's a great idea.


The Good

Chris Brogan has mastered the ninja art of beng his genuine self online while maintaining a credible professional persona. 

Although I don't anticipate purchasing one of his courses, I subscribe to his blog updates and marketing emails nonetheless because I just like the guy. And rest assured - if the day comes that I have to ability to take a course of this nature, his will undoubtedly be the one I opt for because of his likeability (coupled with his amazing reputation, of course).

Even when he comes out and blatantly makes a sales pitch, he does it in the most endearing and honest fashion. See the email above for proof.

The Bad
My favorite example of manipulative liking is the proverbial salesman who claims to have every hobby in common with you, hails from the same town as your mother, and went to a college right up the road from yours. The key to validly being "liked" is being genuine, which we can't accomplish if we're dishonest with our contacts.


The Good

Authority isn't exclusive to individuals, it can be tied to organizations or idea movements as well. Subway has done a great job alligning their products with the authority of the American Heart Association by promoting their recognition as the first quick service restaurant to reach Heart-Check Meal Certification. 

Do any of us actually know what the Heart-Check certification is? Of course not, but it doesn't matter. Because when 12:00 PM rolls around and we start to wonder what lunch will satisfy our hunger without clogging our arteries, Subway will be top of mind.

The Bad
A few years back, Oprah and Dr Oz featured segments on their popular daytime programs exploring the possibility that Acai berries might be the weight loss secret the world had been waiting for. The discussions were meant to be informational for viewers and answer questions about the berry's potential.

In what quickly turned into an advertising frenzy and consesquent lawsuit, several Acai diet pill manufacturers tied Oprah and Dr. Oz's names to the supplements, positioning them as endorsers and attempting to piggyback off their notoriety. This wans't just false authority - it was false advertising and illegal use of the celebrity's likeness.


The Good

One of the most popular ways to use the consistency principle for good is to ask people to take pledges committing to certain behavior. Based on proven human behavior, we're more likey to behave in the way we've verbally committed to. We see this exemplified in the popular It Can Wait pledge to stop texting and driving and the viral Dumb Ways to Die initiative.

The Bad
Retargeting is a great way to draw potential customers back to your site if they leave before making a purchase. This certainly abides by the rule of consistency, reminding them that they viewed a page before and therefore are likeley to be served well by visiting again.

The one key retargetting behavior that abuses the consistency principle is act of shamelessly bombarding a user with the same ad over and over again. Frequency caps are easy to set up in any ad campaign, and should absolutely be implemented to avoid going from reminding of consistency to what feels like stalking.


The Good
HubSpot has done a great job communicating the time scarcity leading up to Inbound '13. They've set up clear cut off dates for discounted entry to the event, which prompts users to purchase registration now rather than waiting. The scarcity is clearly communicated, and it's legitimate.

The Bad
I appreciate email updates from my favorite brands, especially when they remind me that I sale I've been meaning to shop is ending. However, I don't appreciate when I'm contacted nearly every single day with a warning that a sale is ending. 

How exciting can an offer be if a similar one happens every day? This isn't scarcity, it's more like the boy who cried wolf.


Now that you're familiar with these principles, where have you seen them at play in marketing? Have you been using a few of them without even realizing it? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

New Call to action