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The psychology of referral: Cialdini’s six weapons of influence

By Andy cockburn

Mention Me


The Drum Network article

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February 19, 2020 | 7 min read

Mention Me’s business is rooted in human psychology. To build a successful technology platform that depends on one person referring a brand, product or service to another, we had to seek an understanding of what compels us to act and what influences people to take a particular course of action.

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Mention Me highlight how marketers can use Robert Cialdini's psychology of persuasion to reap results.

In this piece, I’ll discuss how successful marketing campaigns are rooted in psychological persuasion, the tools that should be in every marketing toolkit, and how these can help convert your campaign into powerful results.

Influence and persuasion

We don’t often stop to think about it, but we’re all constantly making decisions based on incoming stimuli, and vice versa. Our words and actions impact the behaviour of others.

One of the most cited books on this subject is Robert Cialdini’s 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion'. First published in 1984, the book remains an essential item for every marketer’s reading list.

A large part of successful marketing campaigns, and tangibly referral marketing campaigns, is an understanding of that perfect mix of persuasive ingredients that convinces us to act; and channeling this into your marketing strategy.

Weapon of influence no.1: reciprocation

"We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us. Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.” Cialdini.

People like to return favours. To prove this, Cialdini cites an infamous social experiment. In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz sent out 600 Christmas cards to complete strangers. Despite not knowing a single addressee, Kunz received over 200 (mostly enthusiastic and thankful) Christmas cards in return.

Why did so many people respond to a stranger? In short, it’s the rule of reciprocation. People are conditioned to follow the rule of “give and take”.

The key takeout here for marketing programmes here, is to make it clear how each party benefits. An individual is more likely to make a purchase if they know the friend who referred them will also benefit. So make sure your messaging clearly communicates the mutual benefits of your referral reward.

Weapon of influence No.2: commitment and consistency

The desire for consistency comes down to wanting to align our external behaviours with our inner beliefs and values. When we make a promise, we feel obliged to fulfil it. When we make a decision, we like to feel it was the right one. When we commit to something, we like to justify it.

This rationalisation is why, when someone does a favour for someone else, they tend to view the recipient of their good deed more favourably — acting as retrospective affirmation of their endorsement of that person. The rule of commitment and consistency.

A key takeout for a referral marketing programme, is to be unafraid of asking for repeat referrals. When a customer commits to sharing your brand, the rule of consistency and commitment suggests they’re more likely to refer again because doing so reinforces their belief that the initial referral was a wise decision.

Weapon of influence No.3: social proof

Human beings are tribal by nature. If we’re uncertain about how to act, we take cues from those around us. To demonstrate how strong this urge is, Cialdini references an experiment where one or more people in a public setting suddenly fix their gaze up to the sky. Steadily, a growing number of bystanders would join them, looking up to see what the others were staring at, until crowds would eventually form… all looking at nothing. That's social proof in action.

A key take out here for marketing campaigns, is not to overlook the opportunity to reinforce peer-to-peer endorsement of your campaign, whether that’s through quotes or showing how many happy customers have already taken up your offer. It’s all about framing the action of sharing a wider marketing or referral offer as an expected social norm.

Weapon of influence No.4: liking

Cialdini uses the example of Tupperware parties to demonstrate the rule of liking. These were basically social get-togethers, engineered by a Tupperware sales rep, to get friends and neighbours to share, discuss and endorse Tupperware products. People are far more likely to buy products if their virtues are communicated by familiar faces. Often, we end up buying a particular product simply because we like the person selling it to us.

A key take out here for marketers running referral campaigns, is to remind potential new customers of the relationship between your brand and their friend. Prominently feature the referring friend’s name, and you'll instantly associate the shopper's potential purchase with positive feelings toward that person. No matter how wonderful your brand is, these feelings of friendship are likely to be much more powerful than those you can inspire alone.

Weapon of influence No.5: authority

Ultimately, selling a product is all about building up trust. And in order to be trusted, you need to position your brand as an authority. Cialdini writes about the sense of duty to authority within us all. People tend to obey authority figures, he says, even if asked to perform objectionable acts. The Milgram experiment infamously demonstrated this theory.

An authoritative identity is built by demonstrating professional credentials and expertise.

A key takeout for marketers here is to build badges of trust. Make your branding sharp and professional. Sprinkle content with cues that reinforce your professional knowledge and expertise. Clearly communicate your products' unique selling points and value proposition.

Of course, the seal of authority from your customers is also very powerful. Testimonial quotes and case studies can really boost conversion rates.

Weapon of influence No.6: scarcity

People desire the things they perceive as less available. That's the principle of scarcity.

There are plenty of examples of the principle of scarcity in action within e-commerce. For instance, sites like tell customers how many people have viewed a hotel, how many have booked, and how few rooms are left. Tactics such as this heighten anxiety over the possibility of missing out, generating a sense of urgency to act as soon as possible.

A top takeaway for marketers, is that scarcity can be used in several ways. From restricting how long a new customer has to use a referral offer (e.g. seven days) to limiting how long a referrer can share that offer. Scarcity can be used for promotion periods when you increase or change the referral offer for a limited period (a week or a weekend, perhaps) to drive activity. Uber and several of our clients do this to great effect.

In summary

Cialdini’s six weapons of influence provide an excellent blueprint for marketing campaign conversion optimisation. Next time you’re piecing together your marketing programme, from influencer campaigns to a refer a friend programme, think about putting some of the above weapons of influence to use. After all, marketing campaigns are designed to influence and persuade, and so it makes most sense to first develop an understanding of what factors could contribute to this success.

Andy Cockburn, CEO at Mention Me.


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Mention Me

Mention Me's referral marketing platform fuels growth for 450+ leading retailers & brands worldwide.

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