Case Study: How I Used Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion to Get 1 Million Likes
As marketers, we spend most of our professional lives trying to persuade people.
We write new landing page copy to increase conversions. We’re dreaming up campaigns to re-activate lapsed users. We write blog posts to convince people to pay attention our company.
But persuasion at work goes beyond simply getting customers and prospects to do things. We’re also constantly trying to influence people that we work with.
Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?
- Securing budget approval from management
- Requesting Engineering to implement tech
- Negotiating with agencies/vendors
Thinking further outside of our marketing roles – we can quickly find situations where being good at persuasion makes a big difference:
- Getting people to show up to meetings on time
- Salary negotiations at performance reviews
The key to winning all of these is knowing how to influence and persuade people.
Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion
Robert Cialdini is the author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which is a must-own and must-read for any marketer.
Cialdini reveals that we’re all hard-wired to respond to 6 principles or “buttons” of persuasion. When people press these buttons, our immediate reaction is to comply without thinking.
I’ll now walk you through how these 6 principles work. To illustrate them more clearly, I’ll give you an example of when my team used these principles to win company-wide support for a huge marketing project. I’ll also give some ideas on how you can use them in typical work situations.
Case Study: How My Team Used These Principles to Get 1 Million Likes
Get 1 Million Likes for a Facebook page in 45 days.
It was the summer of 2012 and I was doing product marketing for a SimCity Social, a Facebook game for Electronic Arts. 1 million Likes was the directive handed from above to our marketing team.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Especially working for a big company like EA. Call up a few press people, buy some ads, get promo from other games, and the rest should take of itself. Easy peasy.
Not so simple.
The majority of brands don’t have this luxury. We have to stay on-message.
Our team’s years of experience with Facebook marketing showed us that content acts as a multiplier. When done really well, you’ll squeeze a few extra percent out of your base, but it won’t work miracles.
The real challenge for brands is simply getting people to your page.
First, think about the effect of press. We had an E3 announcement that could provide a strong initial push, but all of our previous data and experience told us that this would be a one-off burst of Likes. It would produce a brief surge, but after that, the news cycle will move on to something new.
Second, ads. The game was not yet live, so we had no idea of the LTV (lifetime value) metrics of the game and thus couldn’t smartly assign a marketing budget. We could do a few small, surgical ad spends to maintain growth, but it could not be the backbone of our strategy.
Lastly, cross-promotion from other teams. In theory, this is easy: this is just asking people who are already on your team to help you. EA was a big company with teams worldwide; surely it would be easy to sign up support for such a visible project.
But again, not so simple.
Building Company-Wide Support Was The Key
Remember, this is the summer of 2012; the Facebook gaming wave was on the decline so it was hard to drum up excitement and enthusiasm. Facebook games were no longer sexy projects that you immediately wanted to be associated with.
To make matters worse, our game’s ship date was constantly changing. Even if people wanted to help us, it was hard for them to schedule promo when we kept saying that we’re going to launch “sometime next quarter”.
Furthermore, I’d never talked to the great majority of these teams, and thus didn’t have any personal connections I could call on.
So while we were technically working for the same team, for all intents and purposes, I would be cold calling and cold emailing them. They weren’t really under any obligation to support the game other than to be nice.
All these obstacles meant that my team and I had to be very good at persuasion. We had to get these near-strangers to agree to not only promote our game, but to give us a full-throated promo — we wanted more than a just a tiny link buried at the bottom of a newsletter.
As we pulled out all the stops to get to 1 million Likes, I noticed that our team was following Cialdini’s 6 principles to the letter.
Here’s a detailed breakdown Cialdini’s principles, with some real-world examples from our campaign.
Authority: Follow The Leader
Someone with a higher status than you tells you to do something, so you do it.
If your doctor tells you to do something, you’ll listen and take his advice seriously. Between the two of you, your doctor’s education and experience trump your own health care expertise. You value his opinion so much that you pay for it.
Authority is so powerful that it can influence people beyond the first degree. Your friends recognize the power of your doctor’s words as well — they will understand if you miss a party due to “doctor’s orders”.
Authority: How we used it
Name dropping. We were working on a project that was strategically important to top brass. Sometimes, people would be slow to respond to our cross-promo requests, but once we name dropped a VP here and a Senior Director there, everything suddenly seemed to get done faster.
In a corporate environment, authority is arguably the most powerful weapon you have in your persuasion toolbox. But you also don’t want people to feel like you’re coercing them into helping you. It was important to name-drop delicately while communicating urgency.
Authority: How you can use it
Tie your project to a visible strategic objective. Maybe your VP Marketing sent an email to everyone saying that your team must become more “data driven”. This would be an excellent opportunity to propose implementing an analytics suite you’ve had your eye on, or for you to attend a relavant conference.
With the VP’s endorsement, any resistance to those ideas from other teams will more easily fall away.
Reciprocity: I’ll Scratch Your Back, You Scratch Mine
People are wired to repay debts and return favors. If you ask a friend to drive you to the airport, you feel obligated to say yes when he asks for your help to him move to a new apartment.
You’re out for lunch with a friend. The bill arrives. You reach for your wallet, but your friend has already given her money to the waitress. She says that it’s no problem, but in the back of your mind you make a note to pay next time.
Reciprocity: How we used it
Calling in favors. My boss at the time had been working at EA for many years and had gotten to know many people within the company. When we ran into resistance, she was able to find someone on the other team who she’d helped out before. This person then went to bat for us and made sure everything went smoothly.
Reciprocity: How you can use it
Think of reciprocity as building goodwill within your team. It doesn’t always have to be about transactions and trading favors.
The easiest way is to simply to be pleasant, friendly and visible within your team.
You know the constantly-stressed-out IT guy? Inviting him out for a coffee break can easily win you an ally. If there’s a new hire that looks confused and overwhelmed — be the first to offer your help in learning the ropes.
These people will not only view you in a positive light, but are now also subconsciously primed to find a way to pay you back.
Consistency: We Want Our Actions To Match What We Present Ourselves To Be
We absolutely detest people who are inconsistent. Imagine how you feel about a friend who always promises to arrive on time, but is rarely punctual. We view these people as flaky, unreliable, undependable people.
We hold ourselves to this standard as well. If we think of ourselves as someone who is healthy and regularly exercises, we will think twice before someone offers us chocolate cake. If a friend asks you to donate to their charity run next summer, you will feel a strong obligation to follow through on that promise when they come to collect.
Consistency: How we used it
Holding people to their word. Since we had a constantly shifting launch date, it would have been easy for people for cancel their commitments to promote. We were like an acquaintance who keeps saying “we should grab lunch sometime” but never follows up. It was easy to forget about us.
One way we got around this was to find ways to make their commitments as public as possible. In update emails and meetings, I would thank people for agreeing to promote the game.
We put people’s names in the widely-circulated status update decks and marketing plans. Not only was this helpful for us, since this was a large project — it helped keep people accountable to their commitments.
Consistency: How you can use it
Publicly celebrate and label behaviors that you want to continue seeing.
For example, I used to have a problem with a team where people constantly showed up late to meetings. It all stopped after I said this at the start of the meeting:
“I just want to thank Mike, Alex and Kate for showing up perfectly on time today, I know I can depend on you guys to always be on time so we can get things done.”
Not only were those three never late anymore, everyone wanted to be viewed as people who were reliable and punctual.
Liking: We Are Influenced By People We Like
We enjoy doing things for people we like. If your best friend asks you to babysit his dog for a weekend, you’ll agree in a heartbeat. If your annoying coworker asks you to do it, you’ll find an excuse.
It’s simple to use the Liking principle at work if you’ve had sufficient opportunity to get to know your coworkers personally. This is why companies do team building, retreats, drinking nights, etc. Getting to know someone as a friend outside of work often improves the working relationship.
What’s interesting about Liking is that it doesn’t take much to form a bond.
In a psychological experiment, strangers were asked to choose their favorite between two paintings. Participants did this alone; at no point in the study did they come into contact with anyone other than the administrator. After picking their favorite, they were allowed to see the choices of other participants.
The next task they were given was to distribute money to all participants in the study. They could do this in whatever way they saw fit.
The study found that people gave more to those who liked the same painting they did.
Simply having trivial things in common with other people is enough to have an effect.
Liking: How we used it
I did my homework on the other teams. Even before I sent the first few cold emails, I looked into what they were working on and looked at their marketing efforts, then suggested improvements or ideas. My goal was to provide value and show genuine enthusiasm. It’s hard not to like someone who wants to help you.
Matched their communication style. Remember, EA is huge. For some of the teams I was contacting for help, I’d never even heard of their games, much less played them. I had no idea they even existed. I was sure at least a few would think the same about my project.
If I wanted to maximize my chances of getting what I wanted, I had to do everything I could to make sure I wasn’t seen as a foreign stranger from a distant department who was suddenly giving them work.
I figured that one way I could reduce my foreign-ness was by matching their communication style. I would start by reaching out to them in the channel that they use the most. This, coupled with my background research on them, would create a sense of familiarity.
So I decided to approach everyone differently. Using the notes from my homework, I made assumptions based on their projects, level of experience and job title.
For younger people who were working on newer games, the first thing I did was add them on Skype.
For people who were working on mature products, or anything packaged goods, I called them on the phone as a first step.
For people who were a little more senior, or involved in many things (e.g. someone who is both doing product and marketing) I started with an email.
Before I tried segmenting my approach, I just tried to add everyone on Skype, since this was how I preferred to communicate. That was going okay — a bit slow, but okay — but I noticed things started getting done faster once I started talking to people where they were comfortable.
Made our team look like a winner. I spent weeks creating an infographic that described our project in detail. The content itself wasn’t important — it was just a regurgitation of things that were easily found in the piles of PPTs that were circulating.
Thankfully, our game was blessed with a great art team, so the infographic looked fantastic. People like things that are successful, and enjoy helping winners. In our case, making our marketing collateral look shiny and polished went a long way.
The point was to share this info in a way that got people excited.. After I sent it out, it went viral within the company and I immediately got dozens of emails from far-flung departments asking how they could help.
Liking: How you can use it
Be visible among your team. This is easy if you’re working in a startup, but can become extremely difficult when you’re at a big megacorp. Find ways to be an interesting voice.
Start conversations, take initiative to lead projects and hang out with people from different teams. Hold a regular marketing meeting (just make sure it doesn’t suck). Make sure people have heard of you. It makes doing internal requests a lot easier.
If you’re constantly showing that you’re a smart person who is constantly adding value, people will be more receptive to you when you come calling.
Presentation matters. Appearances are important even when it comes to reports and charts. Take the time to learn how to get good at making attractive Powerpoint slides or how to do some basic Photoshop kung fu.
In this day and age, it’s inexcusable to have nasty looking documents, especially from someone in the marketing team.
Scarcity: We Instinctively Seek To Avoid Loss
Something weird happens to our brains when it encounters scarcity. When we are offered the chance to acquire something that is rare and will soon disappear, we experience several emotions at once, the combination of which puts our critical thinking on hold and makes us susceptible to persuasion.
First, we instinctually prize things that are rare. Our brains use an item’s rarity as a proxy indicator for its value. “It must be valuable because everyone wants it!”
Second, we hate losing things. This applies to tangible goods; think of the painful feeling you get when you realize you left your phone in the cab.
This painful feeling also applies to intangible things like opportunities.
Imagine you’re out shopping and come across a pair of shoes in your size that you like, but is just slightly out of your budget. The salesperson then tells you that it’s the last pair in the store and that today is the last day you’ll be able to buy it; they’re clearing inventory because next season’s items are arriving tomorrow. Does this information affect your decision?
Third, competition. Not only are we averse to losing things, we hate losing them to other people. This is why people do ridiculous things like stomp on each other for a discounted TV on Black Friday.
Scarcity: How we used it
Limited time offers. One of the ways we were able to get so many people to promote us is because we promised to return the favor down the road. This was a great deal for them — send us some love now, and later on we’ll promote you on our million-strong Facebook page when we’re up and running.
The kicker is that we had a limited amount of cross-promo inventory to offer. After all, the point of our Facebook page was to promote our own game. It would be silly if all we did after our launch was talk about other games.
As excitement built for our project, more and more people around the company were offering to help with cross-promotion.
In order to secure agreements the teams who could offer higher-value promotions, we reminded them of the limited nature of our promotion inventory and the amount of people looking to fill it.
Scarcity: How you can use it
Don’t make anything open-ended and show the value of acting now. Having a set fixed end date for any project stirs people to act, even if that end date is arbitrary.
This goes for little things like getting people to pay attention in meetings:
I have a hard stop in an hour, so let’s keep this focused.
You can even use it when you’re getting your next marketing job:
I’m interviewing with several companies this week and need to make a decision by Thursday. Can you let me know your decision before then?
Or when you need to push along a stalled negotiation:
Hi company ABC, I need to see your best price on this project since we’re now rolling into the next quarter. That means new budgets and we may have to start over on negotiations, or we may even scrap this project entirely. I think we can do great work together so please let me know your final number.
Social Proof: There’s Safety in Numbers
A few months ago, I was at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the largest seafood market in the world. Due to the availability of fresh fish nearby, there were blocks and blocks of sushi restaurants in the surrounding area. Everyone who’s been to Tokyo tells you that you must have sushi at one of these restaurants.
Unfortunately, I’m not from Tokyo, and can’t read Japanese, so I had had no idea which ones were good and which ones were average. The great majority of restaurants were near-empty, with only 1 or 2 people eating inside.
But one restaurant had an extremely long line that snaked around the street. The inside of the restaurant was packed and everyone inside was taking pictures of that food.
Guess where I had lunch that day?
In the absence of information, you will base your decision based on what other people are doing.
Social Proof: How we used it
Name dropping. In the section about Authority, I talked about how we name dropped VIPs and management to inspire a sense of urgency.
In this case, we name dropped to show traction and momentum. We had a list of people and teams who were signed up to support. We shared this widely.
This was particularly effective if someone was being flaky about committing their time and resources. Once they saw that similar teams were helping out, they were more likely to help as well.
Social Proof: How you can use it
Getting endorsements. Say you want to migrate your company blog to a WordPress setup. Before bringing your proposal to the decision maker, meet with the Engineering/IT/design teams to get their opinion on it, with the view of getting them on board with your plan.
When you take your plan to your boss, it’s already got people signed up to it. It’s easy to support something that already has momentum.
Conclusion: Getting to 1 Million Likes
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering if we hit our goal.
We did hit our goal of 1 million Likes, but we were late by about 2 weeks. This was because we decided to slow down cross-promotion because we started to fear that we would overload the game on day 1.
The product team decided to play it safe and ramp up gradually, slowly funneling people into the game to verify that it was stable (it was). This meant that we needed to tap the brakes lightly on our launch marketing efforts.
Interestingly, this was completely opposite to the strategy that the SimCity PC team would execute nearly one year later.
Just goes to prove that many different cultures and corporate ecosystems exist within a large corporation. Everyone’s got different priorities and goals. Strategy changes all the time.
So if you really need to get something done across many teams, you need to use every weapon in your toolbox. Persuasion is chief among these weapons.
Thinking about how you can use Cialdini’s persuasion principles can make a huge difference in how your project turns out.
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