Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time

Editor’s Note: Nir Eyal blogs about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at He is the author of the forthcoming book “Hooked: How to Drive Engagement by Creating User Habits.” Follow Nir on Twitter.

“Successful entrepreneurs recommend reading this article about the persuasion techniques companies use to drive engagement.”

Scratch that, how’s this? “Tons of people are tweeting this article. Find out why.”

OK, here’s one more. “This article will only be on the TechCrunch front page for a few hours before fading into the information abyss.”

Perhaps your preference for one of the opening lines above is a matter of taste, but for companies leveraging the explosion of personalized data, it’s very big business.

Marketers are increasingly personalizing their products and services to meet their customers’ changing needs. But customization used in conjunction with powerful persuasion techniques is arming marketers with new weaponry to boost customer engagement and drive profits.

The tools of influence, such as authority (seen in the opening line), social proof (second line), and scarcity (third line), have been used to persuade consumers since Edward Bernays launched the public relations industry during the first World War. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, applied his uncle’s theories of the human subconscious to drive consumer behavior. Back then, marketers, including tobacco companies and the CIA, hired Bernays to shape public opinion and influence the masses.

Bernays, and the PR and advertising industries he spawned, sold consumers goods and ideas by tapping deep into the human psyche. For example, Bernays engineered demand for cigarettes among women by associating smoking with the desire for independence and freedom from male domination.

More recently, Robert Cialdini’s research and subsequent book, Influence, popularized the use of “the psychology of persuasion.” But the business of influence has always been limited by its inability to customize for the individual. Messaging was one-size-fits-all, and it was delivered through mass-media channels, first in print, then over the airwaves.

A/B Testing Is So Yesterday

That’s all changed now. Today, companies are able to test messaging in real-time, trying dozens of variants to discover which ones create the desired behavior most efficiently. But so-called “A/B testing,” which is designed to find the best solution for the average user, is rapidly being replaced by far more sophisticated methods designed to optimize on an individual, per-user basis.

Mass customization, of the kind used by Amazon to predict which products to offer based on past behaviors, is increasingly supplemented with “personalized persuasion,” whereby the psychological technique used to appeal to the customers is tailored to increase the intended action. Companies not only customize their experiences to give customers what they want, but they also keep tabs on users to present their messages exactly how the user wants it.

Adaptive Marketing

A recently published study in Personal and Ubiquitous Computing demonstrated how matching the right persuasion technique with the right customer outperforms traditional methods. The study tracked the results of an email campaign run by an unnamed company selling a product similar to the Fitbit or Nike Fuel band.

Users wore their devices throughout the day to track movement and calories burned. They then uploaded their data by connecting the device to their computers. Doing so gave the wearers insight into their fitness levels and prompted them to take steps to improve their health.

However, shortly after customers started using their devices, the company noticed something was going very wrong. Users stopped connecting them. With no data uploaded, customers weren’t getting the results they wanted and that meant no advocates to spread the word about the benefits of the product.

To try and solve the problem, the company crafted four emails urging customers to connect and upload their data. They sent a standard email message to a control group and also sent alternate versions that simply substituted a short paragraph utilizing one of three persuasion techniques, similar to those applied in the opening lines of this essay. From there, they tracked how users responded.

Interestingly, when a randomly selected group of users of the service was asked which message they thought would be most effective in persuading people to action, they picked the email below, which employs the authority persuasion technique.

Dear <name>,

How are you doing? We hope all is well. It is 3 days since the last time you connected your Activity Monitor.

Experienced coaches recommend frequent uploads of your activity data. This will help you to gain more insight and be more active!

We would like to remind you to connect it to your PC soon and stay in touch.


<the company>

Although most respondents predicted this email would be the most effective, it performed much worse than expected. So much for the wisdom of the crowds.

In fact, the test concluded that the best performing messages were those tailored to the user’s preferred persuasion method. For example, if the customer performed the intended behavior (i.e. plugging in the device) after receiving a message using a scarcity persuasion technique – “connect now before it’s too late!” they would receive future messages using that same technique.

This form of personalized persuasion outperformed other test groups. After the system learned the customers’ preferences, the messages tailored to users beat the response rate of the standard email by nearly 20 percent. Improvements like these add up to huge returns when applied to marketers sending millions of messages.

Too Much of A Good Thing?

But the field of personalized persuasion is in its infancy and marketers and researchers are still learning the limitations and rules of the practice. For example, a study appearing next month in the International Journal of Internet Marketing and Advertising reveals some non-obvious truths about the application of the tools of persuasion. Namely, that when it comes to the tools of influence, more may not always be better.

The study’s simple experiment compared click-through rates on Google text ads attempting to influence people to take a mock survey. The study tested the use of multiple persuasion techniques per ad, such as social proof, authority, and scarcity, versus an ad with only one of the techniques used.

For example, while one ad might say, “There are only 18 hours left to participate in this study.” Another said, “Only 18 hours left, & Professor Ford recommends it. 100s took it.” Averaged over multiple trials with similar ads, the study concluded that the click-through rate of the single-method ads were double that of those using multiple persuasion techniques.

Talk To Me

Though the test was basic, the implication that companies may be subjecting users to persuasion overload is an important consideration for marketers. It appears that adding too many persuasive arguments may arouse suspicion and increase the likelihood the ad will be scrutinized. Potential customers may also find this approach to be too mentally taxing, whereas using just one clear persuasion method may be more easily understood.

Finally, according to Maurits Kaptein, one of the authors of the fitness device study and founder of Science Rockstars, a company specializing in persuasion personalization, “Marketers are realizing that people are more than numbers. We are all different and have certain aversions to particular techniques more than others. By throwing everything at a customer, companies may be increasing the odds that any one user sees something they don’t like.”

By singling out one persuasion strategy per person, companies are addressing customers in the way that best suits the user. In the age of increasing personalized data and a greater understanding of the tools of persuasion, companies will no longer need to communicate with customers as an amalgam of an “average user” that doesn’t actually exist. Instead, by marrying psychology and customer data, smart companies will give customers more of what they want: someone who speaks their language.

Photo credit: ogimogi

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