5 Things Psychology Can Teach Marketing About Persuasion

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From Martin Roll, Global Leader in Branding Strategy. MartinRoll.com

Persuasion plays a role in everyone’s life, and for some people like marketers or politicians, it plays an even bigger part. Understanding how your audience operates is essential for successful marketing and brand strategies (and all communication for that matter). Psychology has been attempting to explain the underlying mechanisms of persuasion for decades.

The following important factors, categorized into communicator characteristics and message characteristics, may concern anyone on both ends of a persuasive message.

Communicator characteristics

Psychologists have pointed out two major communicator characteristics that affect whether or not an audience will be effectively persuaded: credibility & attractiveness.

Credibility: Credibility is the amount of knowledge the communicator is assumed to have (it does not have to be real/existent) and the extent to which the audience believes the communicator intends to deceive them.

For example, if we know a politician is required to produce positive economic outcomes in order to maintain his position, we are more likely to believe that he/she has the intent to deceive, when he/she presents annual economic outcomes.

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Likewise, we have all seen advertisements with “dentists” recommending branded toothpaste – but considering the above points, the credibility that comes with being a professional dentist may be somewhat diminished because the audience is aware of the hidden agenda behind an advertisement.

Attractiveness: As marketers are aware, the communicator’s attractiveness is highly important. Therefore, should all marketers simply rely on beautiful celebrity endorsers and Photoshop? Psychology teaches us that attractiveness is more than just physical appearance. Psychologists refer to two other factors:

Perceived similarity: How similar the communicator is perceived to be to the audience, including attitudes, values, background etc. For example, a financially struggling single mother may find it hard to relate to a diaper commercial in which the communicator is a financially successful, stress-free male.

Familiarity: Whether the audience has heard of the communicator. Due to her massive popularity, the best-selling author J.K. Rowling is more likely to persuade consumers to buy an expensive notebook, compared to a completely unknown writer.

Hence, attractiveness is not solely about physical appearance. Many other factors are at play.

When picking an effective communicator based on the above mentioned two factors, it is also important to consider how similar the needs of the communicator are to those of the audience, within a marketing context. Although important, the characteristics of the communicator have been shown to be of less importance when the audience already cares about the topic.

Consider the message characteristics

It is also important to consider the message characteristics, and define which communication strategy to adapt in order to become successful. There are two factors that impact the effectiveness of communication: One- versus two sided messages, and the sleeper effect.

One- versus two-sided messages

Have you ever considered whether a marketing message should be presented as a one or two-sided argument? To determine this, knowing the audiences’ initial opinions can be helpful.

Studies have shown that audiences who are initially opposed to a message are much more likely to be persuaded if the message is two-sided. An advertisement of this type can start by acknowledging one view but then highlight why another is better. The advertisement can also first state the shortcomings of a product, but later explain why it is still worth a purchase.

 

For example, a new protein supplement brand may want to capture the attention of potential consumers who are opposed to the product category altogether, as they believe it is only for “bodybuilder” types. The brand may begin their advertisement by having a petite woman state that she used to believe protein powder was for extreme athletes, and that she had no need or want for such a product – and subsequently continue by explaining how she was convinced otherwise by this product.

However, this protein brand should not count on using the above example if it is trying to maintain existing customers. Studies have shown, that if the audience initially agrees with the message presented, it is more likely that they will end up disagreeing, if the message presented is two-sided!

The sleeper effect

It is well known that a persuasive message will usually lose impact over time. However, psychologists describe a phenomenon termed the “sleeper effect” during which a persuasive message from a low-credibility source can increase in persuasiveness over time. The sleeper effect states that as the message is eventually detached from the source, the message can actually gain more credibility as time passes.

For example, you may hear an actor in a movie state that the Milky Way is the second largest galaxy known to man. At the time of watching it, you know you can easily dismiss it as merely being a line in a movie. However, months later, you may find yourself expressing this very statement to a friend and genuinely believing it to be true, despite not being able to recall where you heard it from. This explains, why people can stubbornly hold on to “facts” despite not even remembering where they actually heard the information.

How attitudes change

The attitudes humans have acquired over time can either be:

Affect based: Based on emotions or feelings towards something
Cognition based: Based on cognitive beliefs and judgments
This is an important psychological cue that can help marketers when it comes to generating content as the type of persuasion needed to convince consumers is partly determined by the type of attitude associated.

If an attitude is based on feelings, people are more likely to be persuaded if the method is affective in nature. However, when an attitude is cognition based, the affective method does not affect the likelihood of persuasion.

For example, a charity organization wanting to encourage an audience with affect-based attitudes to make donations may want to steer away from relying solely on facts and figures, but instead speak to people’s emotions.

Conclusion: Understand the psychology of consumers

As the marketplace continues to grow and expand, it is all the more important for marketers to understand what drives consumers. Psychology may be a science, but as the above key factors show, it is a discipline that offers great insight into how consumers’ minds work, even in ways they are unaware of.

The understanding of consumer psychology can indeed significantly help marketers understand how to influence consumers, skillfully and ethically, so they can build and sustain strong brands and competitive market positions.

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