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On April 29th, 2007, the Boston Globe published an interesting article in praise of peer pressure. Coming shortly on the heels of the NY Times article about cumulative advantage, it gives a separate set of examples on how to use the public display of popularity to shape user behavior, a topic I covered in a recent post.

Based on research by Robert Cialdini, the article gives examples of how sharing data on behavior norms can help curb unwanted behavior in fields as diverse as vandalism of national forests to drinking on college campuses or getting hotel guest to reuse towels.

“The norm is like a magnet,” says Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University who is an author of the new study. “What’s appropriate to do, in most people’s minds, is what other people like them do.”

Cialdini’s book “influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” was one of the few books from business school that I’ve gone back to read repeatedly. Its worth checking out if you haven’t already.

In the book, Cialdini quotes six “weapons of influence”:

* Reciprocation – People tend to return a favor. Thus, the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. In his conferences, he often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1937.

* Commitment and Consistency – If people commit, verbally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement. For example, in car sales, suddenly raising the price at the last moment works because the buyer has already decided to buy.

* Social Proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more accomplices would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic.

* Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. Cialdini cites incidents, such as the Milgram experiments in the early 1960s and the My Lai massacre.

* Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like. Cialdini cites the marketing of Tupperware in what might now be called viral marketing. People were more likely to buy if they liked the person selling it to them. Some of the many biases favoring more attractive people are discussed.

* Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand. For example, saying offers are available for a “limited time only” encourages sales.

It isn’t hard to see parallels for all of these in social media:

Reciprocation: Thanks for the add! and Facebook‘s gifts.
Commitment and Consistency: No wonder brands, bands and politicians love to be “friended” – user affiliation marketing is stronger because of this effect.
Social Proof: Game mechanics applied to social media: keeping score
Authority: Watching “A” list bloggers, or top Diggers
Liking: Tila Tequila
Scarcity: HotorNot‘s digital flowers.

I’d love to hear about more examples in comments!