You’re scrolling through your news feed. Pictures of friends, family and gifs of cats jumping off couches fly by, but you don’t stop, still you swipe, waiting for something to reach out and grab your attention.
Shoes. You recognise them from your 2am I-almost-bought-them-but-then-didn’t-because-omg-I-have-to-pay-rent-next-week-shopping-spree.
Clean, high definition photos of the product light up your screen. Along the carousel a candid paparazzi shot of your favourite celebrity wearing them while shopping on Rodeo Drive draws you another inch closer.
Two lines of text above the image languidly spell out just why you need them so badly.
Don’t miss out. Limited Edition [insert label here] available for 2 weeks only. Loved by [insert celebrity here]. Soon to be loved by you. Get yours now.
You scan the ad.
The price is nowhere to be seen. But damn she/he looks good in those.
YOU could look like that. And you would be loved. You’d get all the respect you ever deserved. And you’d regret it if you passed up this opportunity to get them, I mean, they’re only available for 2 weeks!
And then what? Will they be sold out? Never to be available again?
You shudder at the thought.
It’s just a click — right? No harm done. Just have a little peek, see if the price has come down at all; what was the price again anyway?
Ok, definitely better check this out….*click*
This article is inspired by Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.
Influence was recommended to me by a friend who sees it as a seminal text on how to convince people to do things.
It’s a book that delves deep into the reasons why we do what others tell us to do, and the tactics that ‘compliance professionals’, as Cialdini calls them, employ to ensure that we listen and act (click!).
Cialdini tries to help us understand how our animal instincts are manipulated every minute of the day by the content we consume, the people we interact with, and the advertising we’re exposed to.
Teaching us how to convince others to do what we want, however, was not his primary goal.
Influence is about teaching ourselves to check our instincts and defend against compliance tactics, so that we can maintain a semblance of control in the face of constant, persuasive stimulation.
A lot has changed since Influence was published in 1984 (yes, Nineteen-Eighty-Four).
The world has become a much more connected place. Big Brother, as envisioned by Orwell, has turned out not to be a single, all-powerful entity that watches over us and controls our every move.
Instead, Big Brother has adopted a collective identity. It tracks our location, it sees us on the subway, it knows what we order at subway, it reads our e-mails, our Whatsapp messages, and it may even listen to our conversations (though it’s not likely).
And we give it all this information freely and willingly.
In return, we get powerful, life changing products and services. And these products get better at predicting what we need, and at providing it, the more information we feed into them.
Right now, I’m sitting in a café in Vancouver that I found on Google Maps.
Google has a datastore of all of the cafés I’ve been to in the world going back seven years (at least), so by searching cafes near me on Google Maps, 95% of the time I end up in a warehouse-conversion coffee roastery in an industrial suburb that pours high-altitude single origin Kenyan coffee (while the roasters play table tennis out back).
Google knows me.
It knows what I like because it knows where I’ve been. And by my using it, it continually reinforces the things that I like. Now, as I’ve more recently started to notice, Google is defining the attributes (or data points) of my likes, and dislikes, for me.
This is one example of compliance.
The data that I create for the provider of the service as consideration for this type of agreement is fed into this Big Brother-esque Compliance Machine, so that marketers, retailers, musicians, artists are better able to target those most likely to use their product or service.
This Compliance Machine is the vast swath of tools and products that use the information we give up so freely to convince us that we need another device, service or thing.
This machine has more information than it’s ever had. It’s the age of Big Data after all — we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes per day approximately, with more data being created in 2017 than in the last 5,000 years of human existence). The Compliance Machine grows more and more powerful the more we interact with it.
The question of whether or not this mass data generation and collection is good or bad for us is one of the big questions of our time, and often the subject of philosophical debate.
Regardless of the moral and philosophical implications, the practical result is that companies and marketers have become very good at manipulating our likes, desires and behaviours to sell us things.
But if we don’t want to engage? The solution would be to just switch off all your devices, your refrigerator, washing machine, GPS on your phone, and throw away your credit card — right?
Well, no. Don’t be silly.
To really fight back against these forces of persuasion, we need to understand how they work.
Let’s take a look at probably the most prevalent and ever-present compliance mechanism used by companies today, to reach hyper-targeted, highly engaged audiences.
The Facebook Ad, put simply, is yet another iteration of the billions of ads that have been served since the beginning of time to convince us that we need some thing. The Egyptians were doing it back in the time of King Tut, carving their advertisements in steel (yes, ancient Egyptians were badasses).
The actual process of using persuasive language and psychology to encourage the viewer to purchase something is more recent.
The example below is an advertisement for coffee (no persuasion needed my friends) on May 26th, 1657 in the Publick Advisor:
In Bartholomew Lane, on the back side of the Old Exchange the drink called coffee, which is a very wholesome and physical drink, have many excellent vertues, closes the orifices of the stomach, fortifies the heat within, helpeth digestion, quickeneth the spirits, maketh the heart lightsum, is good against eye-sores, coughs, or colds, rhumes, consumptions, head ache, dropsie, gout, scurvy, King’s evil, and many others; is to be sold both in the morning and at three of the clock in the afternoon.
[Wood, J. P. (1958). The story of advertising. New York: Ronald Press Co.]
As one of the writers of the many ads we run for my nutrition company, this kind of ad is pretty familiar to me — minus the many embedded clauses typical of 17th and 18th Century writing.
- Keep you full for hours
- Curb hunger
- Promote mental clarity
- Increase fat burning
- Support your hormones
- Taste awesome
Yes, the claims have gotten less specific, and the language much simpler. The writers of this content may well have been reigned in by the regulatory authorities when it comes to promoting specific health benefits.
These efforts to induce compliance — to click the ad, to buy the product — have become less about telling the recipient what action to take, but more about how any action taken will provide a benefit that cannot be found elsewhere.
Instead of trying to sell you a miracle cure in a magazine or TV show under the credible disguise of a doctor, or with reputable sounding name like Publick Advisor, intelligent marketers appeal to your animal psychology.
Ads are no longer about just selling products, they’re about changing our behaviour to fit a mould that will increase the likelihood that we’ll purchase again. Marketers are in it for the long game.
What does this ad tell you about its recipient? How about — an e-commerce growth hacker, running a small digital marketing team, working remotely.
In Influence, Cialdini details a number of tactics compliance professionals use to get us to act. For the sake of brevity, I’ve summarised four of the six key tactics in the book below:
So what about the ad above? What tactics are being used to get someone like me to start using CoSchedule’s content calendar?
If you said Social Proof, then yes, that’s a good start. CoSchedule are using the fact that they have more than 20k users to suggest that they’ve got a quality product, simply because of their sheer volume of customers.
But there’s something else going on here.
There’s actually an inherent suggestion that I, as recipient of the ad am not actually already organized when it comes to their content calendar.
There’s an implication that I’m not planning ahead, and in fact wasting time by not having CoSchedule.
And this scares me. I become afraid that I might not be doing my best work all the time. There’s clearly another way out there that aligns with who I am as a person, I’ve just only been lucky enough to be exposed to it on this rainy afternoon.
Lucky me. Fear + Social Proof = FOMO.
The recipient starts to question if they are in fact organized enough, if there isn’t a better way to do things, and then CoSchedule reminds them, in the image content of the ad that their solution is actually “The Best Way…”.
And all of a sudden, you’re finding yourself itching, distracted, thinking that maybe you should click through, just so that you don’t miss out on a potential opportunity to do your work better, or have a perceived advantage over your peers.
That’s the beauty and power of Facebook Ads. You see them every day in amongst pictures of your friends, family and things you like. The social proof is built-in.
And the cost to the you of clicking the ad is relatively minuscule (a second of your time?) compared to the potential value to the advertiser (a new customer, a new lead to retarget with more ads).
So online marketers have gotten really good at figuring out what makes us ‘click’.
So how can you avoid becoming just another input in the Compliance Machine?
The key, as Cialdini puts it, is to stop the “Click, whirr” of your animal instincts when you’re exposed to the kind of content or situation meant to force your complicity.
In other words, you need to engage your effortful mind (your System 2 thinking) to counteract the automatic response (System 1 thinking) that your body has evolved to supply in the face of the compliance tactics above.
This kind of thoughtful, careful response isn’t always possible, or desirable of course.
We’ve evolved this way for a reason — our instincts are built to protect us against dangers and threats, and help us to make rapid decisions with a wide array of inputs effectively. A lot, or even most of the time these instincts help us make the right decisions.
But with a growing number of media aimed at convincing us to take specific actions or purchase certain products or services, we’ve got to be more vigilant.
We’ve got to start processing information differently.
We’ve got to stop the automatic ‘click’ from happening and take the time to process what we see before we react to it.
Like many Victorians imagined the brain as a machine, or clock, so the Digital era model seems to be the computer.
But we’re not machines. Computers don’t have instincts. Neither do clocks. (Yes, it was kind of fun to write that sentence)
We can’t process all the information we receive according to a set of rules and functions that someone else has predefined, just as we don’t react with mechanical predictability to all inputs.
We should assess when it is we allow ourselves to trust our instincts, and when it is that we stop to examine the evidence and content laid out before us before making a decision.
It’s not a perfect science, decision making. There must be errors in judgement for us to learn when to act, and when to think.
We do have the power to be more consciously aware of what’s out there trying to convince to us buy or believe.
Thanks for reading. We jumped to and from a few pretty heavy, dense topics above without delving too deep into anything in particular. My idea with this article was to try to give an overview of some of the many things that go into the process of influencing us into making decisions in our everyday life.
I’d love to hear what you think! Any comments, questions, complaints are welcome.
And if you’re up for it, I’ve got a few questions for you of my own:
Hope you enjoyed this! If you did, clap for me and I’ll feel super inspired to keep posting more pieces like this in future.
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