The Principles of Persuasion, or How to Sell More Stuff – Part I

Sales Psychology and Business Websites

If you can sell you’ll never go hungry. I’ve heard that a few times over the years and it’s pretty difficult to argue with.

sales psychology

We’ve all come across people who have ‘the gift of the gab’, a way of talking to others that gets them onside, that makes them identify with the talker, that ultimately makes them want to buy stuff from the speaker. And whilst it seems like magic, like a natural gift that is impossible to replicate, it is actually entirely replicable. Those ‘natural born salesmen’ are just that – born with a predisposition to apply many of the principles of persuasion (and for many of them, because it’s all happening naturally they would not be able to explain exactly how they did it). But selling is a skill that can be learnt through study and practice and here I am going to reval the six primary drivers that make people want to buy stuff. The more of these principles that you are able to employ effectively the more sales you will make in your business.

Emotional Vs. Rational

Are you a rational person? Most people think that they are, that their decisions are based on logic, that they themselves decide which actions they take.

This blatantly is not true – if it were the millions of pounds spent on advertising would be wasted. Advertising would cease to exist as we know it – it would become “Awarenessing’; making people aware that a product exists and that the product fulfills functions X, Y and Z. If we were rational it would make no difference how a product was presented, we would instantly identify the core functions of a product and calculate the difference that it would make to our lives versus the cost of purchase and the buying decision – yes or no – would be the outcome of that calculation.

As you are probably realising this is not how things are bought.

Have you ever heard (or said) “but I just wanted it”, or “I didn’t really need it but it was so cheap I thought ‘what the hell'”, or “they only had to left so I thought I’d better get one just in case”?

You may think that these are all justified by logic but as you will see they are emotional decisions each highlighting one of six principles of persuasion.

So what are these six principles?

1. Consistency

Self image is of vital importance to humans and it is this need to appear consistent that leads us to fool ourselves from time to time in order to believe difficult decisions were the right ones.

For example; how many times have you set goals but have not achieved them? If you are anything like me the answer will be ‘many, many times’.

Unless you are an extremely disciplined individual it can be difficult to adhere to your own internal rules and goals, simply because they are arbitrary and it is very easy to justify breaking them. For example, many times I tell myself that I will work until 5pm, but by 4pm I’ve had enough and pack up, justifying it by telling myself ‘I already achieved enough today’ or ‘If I finish early I’ll get more rest before tomorrow and be more effective’ and so on. However if we male that commitment public and tell everyone that my goal is to work to 5pm today it makes it much harder to break that voluntarily.

Now that is a bit of a silly example, but you can see how it works – if you go around telling everyone that you are giving up smoking but fail to do so you know that you will have to answer lots of questions about why you didn’t and some conversations with close family on the subject may be uncomfortable. Research has shown that stating a goal publicly gives you a much, much higher chance of success.

Why? Because we do not wish to appear inconsistent in front of other people.

This principle is exploited in sales and marketing in numerous ways.

First off, have you ever seen those ‘competitions’ in which you are requested to send in a slip stating why you like a particular product. Research has shown that written statements are extremely powerful in terms of consistency. Writing a statement and sending it is the equivalent of a public statement and in terms of behaviour modification works in the same way.

Behaviour modification? That sounds somewhat sinister, but in a way it describes precisely the function of all advertising – the modification of behaviour towards a specific goal (buying something).

Behaviour modification is sinister and much of the early research on the subject came about as a result of the Korean war.

There is a famous film (recently remade) that deals with this subject – it is based broadly on fact but the story itself is fiction.

The film is called The Manchurian Candidate and the original is set during the Korean war and tells the story of a group of US prisoners of war who are brain-washed into becoming assassins for the communists.

The facts of the Korean war are that captured US serviceman were subjected to extremely effective brainwashing techniques by the communists and even upon their release and return to the US continued to express sympathetic views on communism and the North Koreans and Chinese.

The techniques used by the communists exploited certain psychological principles of persuasion extremely well, particularly this principle of consistency. Once the soldiers had been on TV forcibly praising the Chinese system and pointing out the flaws in capitalism and had written essays on why communism was better/fairer and so on the principle of consistency kicked in and at some point they actually began to believe it. In all honesty this is not so surprising, after all we are all brainwashed to some extent by our ruling political, economic and social systems.

The communists also used another sales technique – one that has it’s own idiom; ‘foot in the door’

This also works on the principle of consistency – compliance with a small and minor request can change a person’s self-image and can leave them open to agreeing to a much larger request that they would not normally agree to.

By getting US soldiers to agree with seemingly innocuous and broadly truthful statements such as “Capitalism is not perfect” the communists had started a process that would lead to significant and long-lasting changes in perspective on behalf of the prisoners.

These types of commitments that produce inner change are very powerful because when the reason, or motivation, comes from inside a person it is infinitely more powerful.

The sales technique of ‘low-balling’ is based on this principle;

A car salesman will offer a special deal on a vehicle and then work with the prospect to add more reasons to purchase. What happens next is that the special deal is taken away, but the prospect will still buy the car because they have numerous reasons to purchase, they have already publicly declared an interest and do not want to appear inconsistent. A many-legged table will not collapse if you take away one leg!

Principle 2 – Reciprocation

The principle of reciprocation is a founding tenet of human civilisation. If not for this principle there would be chaos – society could not function as it currently does.

The principle says that ‘One should repay in kind what another has given.’ If someone gives us something we feel duty-bound to reciprocate.

This concept is deeply embedded in the human psyche and can be exploited in various ways in sales.

First of all there is the well-established internet marketing tactic in which people give free gifts from their website – the trick here is that it is almost always not free as it is actually exchanged for an email address.

So this accomplishes two things – firstly it sets up a situation where you have given your prospect something for ‘free’ and they are now obligated to return the favour. Secondly it delivers an email address of a hot lead which can be used to deliver highly relevant sales messages which can further leverage the sense of social obligation felt by the prospect to “give something back”.

This sense of obligation can be artificially created in a prospect to enhance the chance of making a sale;

This works as follows; by making a large, or unrealistic, offer or request at the outset which is then rejected by the prospect leading to a concession of a better offer on your part instantly sets up a situation in which the prospect has been given something by you – you have made a concession and they are now obligated to gibve you something in return!

Psychologically this ‘rejection-retreat’ behaviour makes the prospect feel responsible in some way for the eventual outcome as well as giving them a degree of satisfaction – that they got you to concede some ground. They are now more likely to agree to further smaller requests.

It’s clear in this situation that the things that appear to be at the forefront of purchase decisions – cost, need, convenience – in reality take a back seat to psychological processes that if can be overcome present a clear path to a sale.

Principle 3 – Social Proof

Social proof is huge, especially online where we are interacting with websites rather than people and so are attuned to look for evidence to support our buying decision.

The use of testimonials on a website makes a massive difference to the conversion rate. The style of the testimonials is also important. A text testimonial is better than nothing, whilst a testimonial with a photo of the happy customer is more powerful. But the most powerful testimonial of all is a video testimonial! If we can see someone as they speak well of a product or service it takes away nearly all of the lingering doubts about authenticity – of course it is still possible to fake a video testimonial, but it is much harder than faking a written one.

Social proof is so powerful because “we make fewer mistakes acting in accordance with social evidence than contrary to it”.

The more people doing, or believing in, something makes that thing more desirable/believable.

In situations where people are uncertain they rely heavily on the principle of social proof to inform their behaviour. For example, if you are walking down the street and suddenly you see a horde of people running towards you with terrified expressions on their faces, the likelihood is that you will turn and run also, despite not knowing what the problem is. You would be acting on the principle of social proof – you are taking your behavioural cues from those around you.

As well as the different mediums through which social proof as testimonials can be more or less effective, the principle of similarity is also a major factor in how believable your testimonials are.

Social proof is more effective when it is provided by people more similar to us. The lesson here is that it is important to target your market very precisely and to make different pitches to different segments of your target audience. If your product targets both men and women between the ages of 25 – 55 then you should consider at least 4 different sales pages; women under 35, men under 35 and women over 35 and men over 35 – each of these broad demographic groups will have different drivers and will react more or less strongly to testimonials from certain types of people.



In order to take advantage of these principles of persuasion it is necessary to understand your target market – what drives them, what are the benefits of your product to them, what are the potential objections to buying. Once you understand this it becomes easy to implement these principles by offering ree gifts and interactions that support their self-image, that make them feel they are getting something from you and by presenting them with people just like them who have used and benfitted from your product and service.

Action Steps

Todays action steps relate directly to the three persuasion principles discussed;

Consistency – in this part we talked about how making public statements and micro-committments were a kind of foot-in-the-door towards a bigger shift in behaviour.

How could you incorporate that into your marketing?

Well, micro-committments are quite straightforward – instead of asking for a sale, ask for an email address, instead of asking for an email address ask them to click a link for more info.

Look at what you are asking your visitors to do and ask if it is too big a step and how you could make the gulf smaller – so this reminds me of the Old testament story about Abraham bargaining with God who wants to destroy the city of Sodom

God starts out by stating if Abraham can find 50 good men he will save the city for them, you probably know the story – Abraham asks if God will spare the city for 45 good men, God agrees, and so it goes on until eventually Abraham gets God to agree to spare the city if there are just 10 good men.

So if Abraham had gone straight in with 10 as his opening gambit to go from 50 to 10 in one go would be too much, even for God, but by using slowly incremental changes – similar to micro-committments, he gets a deal at 10!

Reciprocation – there are two implementations here, one at the stage of a website visitor becoming a prospect and one at the stage of presenting a proposal.

So offering something valuable as a free download is a simple way to get people into the reciprocation mindset. Getting people’s email adress is a standrd online marketing technique and if you can gve them something that is genuiningly relevant, valuable and useful then psychologically these people will feel they owe you and so if you set your follow-up email series correcty this will greatly increase the chance of them becoming paying customers.

At the propsal stage use the rejection-retreat technique by pricing your offering high and then making a significant drop.

Now the secret here is to not make it look like you are dropping the price because your prospect says that it is too expensive and they can’t afford it. YOu want to give them a good reason why you are droppingthe price and make it clear this is only for them – not something you do for everyone.

Reasons to drop the price are along the lines of – I know that I can get great results for you or I only work with people I like and get along with and I like you etc

Again it will depend on what type of business you are and what product or service you are selling but the above are two that I use and actually they are both true – I will be more flexible on price for prospects who I know I can get great results for and better results are achieved when I work with people whose company I enjoy.

Social Proof – the third feature was social proof, this is an easy one – get some testimonials and put them on your website, share them on social media, etc – there’s your social proof!