Six Shortcuts to Persuasive Copywriting: Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Influence

Do you want to know how website copywriters write sales pages that jiu jitsu readers to take action?

Picture this… You walk into a business where you’re greeted by a friendly salesman. The salesman explains his products to you while handing over free samples. You thank the salesman for the samples. Not at all, he says, while pointing to a wall of photographs of happy customers. After the salesman runs through the features and benefits of what’s on offer, he lowers his voice. He wants you to know, sales are going crazy and everything is nearly sold out. In no time at all, he won’t have anything left to sell you however much you want the products.

You walked through the door mildly curious. Now, through some Jedi mind trick, you’re opening your wallet, relieved that you got here just in time.

Actually, there was more than one Jedi mind trick in that mix and all of those “tricks” can be found in Robert Cialdini’s incredible book, Influence. These principles can be used to sell any product or service in person or in words. If there were a copywriting Wikipedia, you can bet Cialdini’s principles would be there as a cornerstone.

There’s more to persuasion than a killer value proposition

Your audience is doing its research but making decisions fast, maybe on the headlines only. You might have a great value proposition, but you might still miss out if you don’t know how to benefit from your audience’s mental shortcuts. But once your copywriter has your marketing and advertising dialed-in, your content and sales could be benefiting from primal psychology.

The best ever copywriting book that isn’t (explicitly) about copywriting

Back in 1984, Robert Cialdini was moved to write Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. His words detailed the research behind what would later be known as Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence. The research resulted in principles can be used in any business or industry for face-to-face sales, copywriting or content marketing. These incredible tools of persuasion are

* Likeability

* Reciprocity

* Social proof

* Commitment

* Scarcity

* Authority    

Copywriters make these six principles the bedrock of successful copywriting for the products or services they’re marketing. In fact, if you’ve ever been persuaded by any marketing, scratch the surface and one or more of the six principles will be at work. That’s why the principles of influence are taught in our landing page copywriting course.

So there’s nothing new about the principles, they just get put to new uses by copywriters. Today, for example, Influence is applied by businesses to their conversion rate optimisation (CRO) for websites, landing pages, social media and anywhere they write marketing copy. CRO is just like any form of marketing: it’s all about content for sales pages that taps into human psychology to persuade potential customers to take the action you want them to take: a conversion.

By understanding how these principles work on readers, your copywriter can use the principles in your copywriting and website design to turn your readers into clients. 

In this post, we’ll look at all six of Cialdini’s principles of influence as they apply to website copywriting.

How being likeable in your copywriting sells a product or service

When it comes to copywriting or content marketing, it turns out you didn’t leave popularity contests behind in the playground. Your likeability is relevant long after high school: your likeability influences people’s willingness to work with you and their willingness to buy a product or service from you. That’s true whether you’re being likeable in person or on a landing page.

Think about all the times you said yes to a marketer or salesperson who knew all the right things to say. Maybe you didn’t even need to buy the product or service, but you bought it because the person selling the service or the product won you over because they were likeable. When it comes to persuading clients and generating new business, this being likeable can be applied to good copywriting in several ways.

Your copy can mirror good design. Good website design, for example, makes sure that any images of people look like the business’s target clients. That’s because we’re more likely to like people who look like us; it’s basic human nature. You can follow the same line in your copy by writing the way your target clients sound or the way they expect you to sound. Copywriters selling children’s toys would probably adopt a fun, cheerful tone of voice. But a copywriter aiming at high-level executives might sound more professional in order to appeal to their audience.

If you’re playing the long game through content marketing, finding the right tone can help you to demonstrate likeability over time, making eventual sales more likely.

What about likeability and SEO?

Naturally, if you can get more people to your website then you’ve got a chance of getting more business. If you can improve your search ranking, you’ll have a chance to do get more people to your website. This makes likeability an important aspect to incorporate into your SEO and conversion optimisation tactics. How? Being likeable makes it more likely that people will share your content. Sharing your content creates backlinks — links to your website from other sites (including sites like Facebook). More backlinks mean more direct traffic (potential customers clicking on those links). However, backlinks are also the rocket fuel of SEO because search engines take every link as a vote of confidence in your web content.

4 ways to make your website more “likeable”

1. Look up your industry and what it does on Wikipedia

Fastidious editors pluck Wikipedia clean of jargon to keep its entries clear to anyone.

Here’s Wikipedia on copywriting, for instance:

“Copywriting is the act of writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing… to increase brand awareness and ultimately persuade a person or group to take a particular action.”

And here it is on content marketing:

“A type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material… that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.”

Copywriting and content writing are frequently confused, but not by anyone who has read those two definitions. Copywriting on a website, for instance, drives action; content writing on a website (writing blog posts, for instance) stimulates interest without seeking an action.

How close is Wikipedia’s language about your industry and services to the way you talk about those things?

2. Read your reviews

What words and phrases do clients use when they write about you or your services?

You’d be well advised to use those terms. (The purist in you might resist because the terms aren’t strictly correct, but do you want to be right or do you want more business?)

Australian builders have got this down. No Australian says they’re building a house; they’re building a “home”, even though the word “home” is broader than “house”. That’s why you won’t find websites for any “house builders” in Australia, only “home builders”.

Your industry has developed phrases to capture concepts succinctly. Inside the business, they make discussion easier. Outside the business, you can endear yourself to clients by swapping to the phrases they use.

3. How do clients write when they recommend your services?

Similar to reading your reviews, ask your clients what they say to someone when they’re recommending your service. They won’t say that you leveraged long-term solutions to isolate their capital growth. They’ll say you made them more money in the long term. So that’s what you should say, too.

If you don’t want to ask your clients directly, look for relevant forums where people ask for help. What do the people answering queries say when giving recommendations?

4. Talk to the people who know your clients best

Who in your business talks to your clients? Salespeople? Account managers? Customer support staff? Ask them to take you through the questions they’re asked and their sales pitches. No one in the business will know better how your clients talk than the people who speak to them every day.

Reciprocity (more for content marketing than copywriting)

How would you feel if I bought you a coffee?

Besides warm and fuzzy feelings, you may feel a desire to repay my generosity in some way. Repaying me would be reciprocity and this desire for reciprocity works in business as well as socially. Triggering reciprocity is the reason why waiters hand out mints with your bill or why food businesses give out free samples in supermarkets. Waiters and food businesses are trying to trigger the subconscious obligation you feel to give back to them — by buying their product.

When it comes to copywriting and CRO however, the reciprocity principle isn’t as persuasive as the other principles of influence. Nowadays, readers on a website aren’t often grateful to find a freebie like a downloadable PDF. Your customers expect that sort of thing in the online content mix, so even if your entire landing page is designed to give something away, that freebie is unlikely to trigger any itch to repay the favour.

Content marketers can build reciprocity over time because content marketing builds value cumulatively, whether that’s through blog posts, white papers or email marketing. After receiving enough content marketing, your potential customer might start to feel they owe you something. At that point, your content marketer can turn to talking about your value proposition. However, copywriters looking for the reader to take instant action are better off looking at the powerful benefits of Cialdini’s other five principles.

Could reciprocity help your SEO?

I might not be a big believer in reciprocity online in the true Cialdini sense, but I do think it’s a good SEO copywriting tactic. When you give away something useful in your marketing, people are more likely to hit that Facebook share button or to link to your giveaway in another way. As discussed above, all those backlinks are great for your SEO.

Social proof in your copywriting

The principles of influence work because your potential customers have to make a million decisions to make a day. The only way customers can make all those decisions is if they have mental shortcuts. The mental shortcuts are used to make safe decisions when there isn’t time to be sure you’re making the best decision.

Your copywriter can make your copywriting more persuasive by using Cialdini’s proven shortcuts to influence your customers in their search for the right product or service.

Of the six principles of influence, social proof is perhaps the most powerful mental shortcut. Think about your own experience selecting products and services…

When you’re deciding where to go for lunch, are you more likely to walk into a crowded restaurant or an empty one? According to Cialdini, you would choose to eat at the crowded restaurant. That’s because doing what others are doing is generally safe. We assume all those other people have made a rational decision, so the more people we see doing something, the more likely we are to do the same. If the restaurant is getting a lot of customers, it’s more likely to serve acceptable food. Businesses featuring glowing reviews on Google are, we think, likely to deliver the promised benefits and features of the products and services they provide.

Social proof is an integral part of writing copy. Incorporating testimonials, case studies or celebrity endorsements are all great ways to boost conversions and drive sales. There are many other ways you can present proof on your website. (39 different types of proof in fact.)

Commitment and consistency — turning leads into loyalty and sales over time

Watch the video below to learn how an old lady, a napkin and $5 managed to keep mobster Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno’’s son Bill from falling into a very bad habit. If you want your leads to convert, you won’t regret it…

One of the six decision-making shortcuts we use is going out of our way to be consistent with our past decisions. Not only is it more convenient to stick to a previously made decision, but doing anything else calls our earlier decision into question. If you bought an Audi last time, why wouldn’t you buy an Audi this time? Are you saying you weren’t right to buy the Audi the first time? People don’t want to think that they had wasted time or money on a bad decision. So they keep taking a particular course of action until your copywriter presents them with a compelling reason to change their mind.

If your copywriter can find out what previous decisions potential customers have made, they can make your call to action appear consistent with those earlier decisions. When presented as consistent with previous decisions, it’s easier for a prospect to take action.

There is another way to use consistency in your copy and that’s with gaining micro-commitments through your advertising. Micro-commitments are things like engaging with your social media posts or signing up for your email marketing. Multiple little commitments to your business made by leads add up to a big connection with your business. Even a single micro-commitment by a lead makes you a more likely choice when a potential customer needs products or services like the ones your business delivers. Consider that when adding calls to action into your copy — not every call to action needs to be a whopper.

The persuasive principle of scarcity, rocket fuel for copy

If there’s anything to learn from the twisted-head baby story in the video above, it’s that leads want to buy things they perceive as scarce. This is in part caused by a fear of missing out, but also because people tend to view limited items as more attractive.

It’s easy to see how scarcity became a mental shortcut for our ancestors. Not much of that thing? Grab it now and worry about whether you actually want it later.

You’ll see this principle of scarcity applied to copywriting all the time. Phrases like “limited time only” or “first come first served” are meant to trigger a sense of urgency and get customers to make a snap purchase.

A more sophisticated way to signal scarcity through your copy is by talking about secrets. For example, a headline like The Top 10 Secret Tips to Boost Lead Conversion conveys to clients that the article contains information not widely available to the public — “secrets”.

Follow the leader: Demonstrating authority in your copywriting

What would you do if you saw two men crossing the road against a red light? Would you follow them? Studies show that it depends. What it depends on might surprise you — see the video for more.

People trust authorities. If you want your audience to take action, convince them that an authority says they should.

If the story in the video wasn’t enough to convince you, there have been studies that proved people are more likely to take advice from someone wearing a lab coat. If you want to make your copywriting more persuasive to your audience, one of the ways is to make sure your advertising is signalling your authority in your area of expertise.

Demonstrating authority can be more than just displaying your certifications and years of experience. Blog posts are a great way to address your readers’ problems directly and inform them that you have the solution to those problems. By doing so, you are assuring your audience that you have the knowledge and expertise they’re looking for. What’s more, it tells your audience that you have their best interests at heart long before they even picked up the phone to call you.

Mastering the psychology of persuasion in copywriting for a website or landing page

In his book, Cialdini shares insights and examples of how people can be more persuasive in their everyday lives. Learning from those examples, you can use the six principles of persuasion to create copy that will influence people and get results. You’ll also understand the psychology behind why people don’t buy from you. You can use that information to improve the copy you already have.

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