Persuasive design according to Cialdini’s 6 principles – pt1
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Persuasive design according to Cialdini’s 6 principles – pt1

on / by Guido Jansen

Persuasion is an attempt to change attitude or behavior (or both) without using coercion or deception
—BJ Fogg, 2003

If you’re into website testing, you may have read about psychological persuasion techniques and maybe even read the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion from Robert Cialdini. Cialdini is professor in Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and in his meta-research he found six very persuasive selling techniques or Weapons of Influence, as he calls them.

The research from Cialdini is about human behavior in general, but human behavior is found to be very consistent across different media. Therefore we can apply these phenomena to websites and can test these principles remotely.

In part one of this two-part post I will have a look at the first three principles. The other three principles will be posted next week. Let’s see how you can put this scientific research into a more persuasive website!


If you give something away for free, most people feel compelled to return the favor.

Offline applications

Help someone moving, and they will help you with something next time you ask for something. Give someone a sample for free, and many will feel obligated to do something back (like buy a full package or a subscription). It’s very simple, but really effective and one of the most powerful mechanism that are part of how our whole society works.

Online applications

Giving away digital goods is easy and doesn’t cost you anything. But the customer knows this and the effect isn’t that big if it isn’t something of real value to that customer. A few years ago ‘Free shipping’ might made people want to return the favor. But it’s become such a common gift that people often expect free shipping which cancels the reciprocity effect.

To gain maximum effectiveness, try to be the first website that gives the item away for free, be unexpected and make it as personal as possible. If you have a lot of knowledge in your company that can be really helpful to (potential) customers, sharing that knowledge through a blog is a great way to call on the reciprocity effect.

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Note: You see many sites offering something like ‘Post message X on Twitter/ Facebook and get eBook Y for free!’. This is smart for the social sharing effect this will yield, but this nullifies the reciprocity effect because it is reversed (customer action is required first) and the customer actually ‘pays’ for the item with the message so (s)he will not feel obligated to do something in return.

Commitment & consistency

When you agree on something, or perform a certain action, that becomes part of your self-image and will cause your future decisions to fall in line with these previous actions.

Offline applications

If you buy a certain brand today (let’s say Coca Cola) and maybe even follow them on social networks, you’re very unlikely to buy or follow another brand (Pepsi). After we’ve made a commitment (especially when it’s public), we want to be consistent so the outside world sees us as being a stable person.

Online applications

Try warming people up to your brand by first letting them commit with small (public) steps. Think about placing a comment, liking you on Facebook, following you on Twitter, downloading an e-book, ordering a trial product or signup for your newsletter. If you can commit someone to one or more of these small steps toward your brand, they will stay with you when they need your premium product. It’ll be hard for customers to turn to an unfamiliar competitor.

Usabilla also provides a free starter package as part of the product line
Usabilla also provides a free starter package as part of the product line

Remote testing ideas:

Create small ‘commitment steps’ that potential customers can make towards the ultimate goal: buying your product and/or services. Provide screenshots of your site with several easy commitments that potential customers could make. Test to determine what your visitors easily commit to, and what not. The smallest/easiest commitments should be put in front of new visitors and the larger commitments in front of returning visitors, or visitors that already committed to (multiple) smaller commitments.

Social Proof

When we see (many) others using a product, that confirms to us that the product is good.

Offline applications

When Apple launches a new product, you can bet on many people standing in line outside of the stores. A great form of Social Proof: everyone walking buy sees that there must be something great going on!

Online applications

The number of online visitors, comments, Facebook Likes, Google +1s, Twitter followers, user statistics… You can use all of these to prove that you are an authority, that your product is being used and that people like (talking about) it.

Remote testing ideas

Surround call-to actions with social proof. “X visitors download this e-book this month” or “Product X was bought Y times in the last week”. Test if there is a difference in the conversion before and after you added the social proof items. Also test different versions to find the most effective one.

Stay tuned

Next week I will post part two, where I will take a look at the other three principles of persuasive design. Any comments in the meantime are highly appreciated. Untill next week!

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Article by

Guido Jansen

Guido Jansen is Senior Conversion Consultant at Online Dialogue. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, Guido enables e-commerce companies worldwide to sell more by improving the customer's experience and the company's optimization process in a more scientific way.

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