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The Science of Persuasion: How to Influence Consumer Choice

image for jacoblund / Getty Images
jacoblund / Getty Images
  • Consumer behavior is the study of what influences individuals and organizations to purchase certain products and support certain brands.
  • The six universal principles of persuasion are reciprocity, commitment, pack mentality, authority, liking and scarcity.
  • Marketing campaigns can influence consumer behaviors because they elicit reactions, utilize imagery and word associations, and cause you to feel emotions such as nostalgia and fear.

How do you get a person to buy a product or service? Psychology holds answers to questions that have preoccupied marketing departments for decades, particularly surrounding how to influence people and how people respond to attempts to influence their behaviors. 

"Persuasion is no longer just an art; it's an out-and-out science," said Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. "Indeed, a vast body of scientific evidence now exists on how, when and why people say yes to influence attempts."

Consumer behavior refers to the study of what causes individuals and organizations to purchase certain products and support certain brands. This area of study focuses primarily on behavior, motivations and psychology, which are influenced by the following three factors, according to Brandwatch:

  • Psychological factors. The way a person responds to an ad campaign depends largely on their own perceptions, attitudes and general view of life.

  • Personal factors. Demographics such as age, culture, profession, age and background play major roles in forming consumers' interests and opinions.

  • Social factors. A person's social groups affect how they shop. Their income, education level and social class influence their buying behaviors.

Marketing can be highly effective in influencing consumer behavior. Here are some of the factors that contribute to that success, according to an article from Business2Community:

  • Reactions. One of the reasons marketing campaigns are effective is they cause consumers to react to them. The more people react to your marketing campaigns, the more they will talk about them. And the more they discuss your brand and products, the more likely people are to buy them.

  • Imagery and word associations. Using imagery and word associations is a great way to attract attention to your brand. For instance, if you are looking to target young people, you may use popular phrases and memes as a part of your campaign. This causes your audience to start to associate your product with things they already see as hip and trendy.

  • Nostalgia, fear and other emotions. Another major way marketing affects consumer behavior is by evoking emotions such as nostalgia and fear. For instance, if a product is tied to certain brands, thoughts, images or music from your childhood, this may influence you to buy a product as a way to recapture your youth. On the other hand, if a marketing campaign causes you to become scared or fearful, you may be influenced to buy the product as a way to relieve anxiety and protect yourself.

Cialdini synthesized years of research on social influence into six universal principles for understanding attempts to influence human behavior. Both businesses and consumers can use these principles to better understand the inner workings of purchasing behaviors and to determine which strategies are most likely to succeed.

  1. Reciprocity. Humans often feel the need to return a favor or reciprocate kind gestures. For consumers, this might mean offering a free sample or a generous discount, for example.

  2. Commitment. Once someone is engaged with something, they are more likely to stick with it. In business, this means cultivating brand loyalty; once someone is working with a product or using a service, they are more likely to commit to paying for it again.

  3. Pack mentality. If more people do something, others are likely to do it as well. When brands can demonstrate their popularity or satisfaction across a wide customer base, other consumers are more likely to buy in as well.

  4. Authority. People are more likely to listen to an expert than anyone off the street. So, while pack mentality is important, having a relevant expert speak to the effectiveness of a brand's product or service is essential to converting new consumers.

  5. Liking. People who are similar to the target consumer are more likely to persuade the consumer to buy. People from similar demographics – whether in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religious inclination or even shared interests – are far more effective at persuading consumers than those they perceive as vastly different.

  6. Scarcity. People tend to want what they perceive they cannot have. Making a product or service seem exclusive or as if it will go out of stock if they don't act quickly often makes it more enticing to the consumer and increases the likelihood that they will buy in.

Armed with these six principles of influence, companies can more adeptly navigate their potential consumers and convert more to sales. However, Cialdini warned against crossing the line between influence and manipulation, as the latter could spell disaster in the long run.

"People, companies and marketers need to ask themselves whether the principle of influence is inherent in the situation – that is, do they have to manufacture it, or can they simply uncover it?" he said. "No one wants to be a smuggler of influence. Claiming to be an expert when they're not, exploiting power – those eventually will have negative consequences.

"We can focus too heavily on economic factors when seeking to motivate others toward our offerings and ideas," Cialdini added. "We would do well … to consider employing psychological motivators such as those we have covered here."

Business News Daily Editor

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