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By Trevor Campbell on 23/02/17 | How we behave


Ever wondered why dentists are often used to recommend toothpaste? Or why doctors in the US advertise a wide range of pills and potions? It’s because of the powerful effect of authority – and it’s one that almost any business can use.

The concept of authority in behaviour stems from a form of social learning (or social proof) – where we look to others to see how we should behave.

It explains the rise of ‘influencers’ and is related to what psychologists call the ‘halo effect’ – where our overall impression of a person or a company influences our thoughts about their character. So, by association, we may also rate a company or product highly if we value or like the person linked to them.

This is especially the case when we are unsure about a situation or need to take a mental shortcut. We look to those who are perceived authority figures – or experts in their field – for guidance. And we all trust experts, right?

While the capital of so-called experts has taken a battering (pollsters didn’t predict Brexit or Trump, economists were foxed by the 2008 financial crisis), there are many cases where the perceived wisdom of experts can help you.

 - If you are sending out a financial report, make sure it comes from the CIO or a fund manager rather than someone in marketing or sales. (Even a quote from a Buffett, O’Neill or Woodford figure may raise your credibility by association.)

 - If you have a car dealership ask a well-known rally driver (assuming that an F1 driver might cost mega-bucks) or motoring journalist to head up a campaign, write a blog for you or even pose for pictures in your forecourt.

 - If you work for a tech firm, a well-known engineer, inventor or tech company owner who praises what you offer boosts the integrity of your product.

 - If you sell organic foods, you could leverage the kudos of a well-known chef or food blogger.

 - If you’re a first-time science author a blurb from Hawking or Dawkins works wonders (personally, I discovered Don DeLillo after a nod from Martin Amis).

  The situations where you could benefit from an authority nudge are almost endless. Whatever field you are in, try and weave in an endorsement from someone who is either an expert in that field or who benefits from using what you offer.

Mo Farah may not know about all the ins and outs of mycoprotein (used in Quorn products) – but he is certainly an authority when it comes to being fit and healthy.

Even the illusion of authority works. US actor Robert Young (who played a doctor called Marcus Welby) advocated the health benefits of a brand of caffeine-free coffee. The ads ran for years even though readers clearly knew he wasn’t a real doctor.

The fake approach is not recommended. If you're using an authority figure, make sure they have the badge to go with the walk.

                         "Authority without wisdom is like a heavy ax without an edge." - Anne Bradstreet

By Trevor Campbell on 09/02/17 | How we behave

Social proof is the idea that people respond to how others behave. Because we believe the actions of groups in particular are generally correct, it’s one of the most powerful ways to convince someone to favour you. No matter what your business is, social proof should always be in your communication mix.

First off, it’s not you chattering about how good is your service or product – social proof adds crucial third-party credibility to what you offer. If enough people use a service, or recommend it (especially friends), it must be worth exploring.

Social proof (what psychologists also call ‘informational social influence’) is another mental shortcut to help us navigate our days without having to think too much. If there is a queue around the block for burritos, doesn’t that make you peckish for one? Or if a book in a genre you like has 4.5 stars on Amazon, don’t you want to curl up with it?

Practical ways you can use social proof

(Aside from asking friends to line up outside your new pulled-chicken-and-sourdough pop-up…)

Testimonials and case studies – never underestimate the power of others enthusing about your product or service. Direct marketing specialists have been using this tactic for years. With good reason – it works.

Awards – whether from an industry body or voted by the public, awards are a great rubber stamp of assurance to put on your website or marketing materials. Even if some of them can be bought :-)

Voices and faces of authority – whether a dentist advocates a toothpaste, or a super-investor endorses a commodity fund, a nod from an expert is hard to beat. They don’t even have to be real authorities for this to work (eg, someone wearing a doctor’s coat is immediately more trustworthy).

Trade association or quality kudos – just the logo of a respected trade body, or a quality mark, associates you with a trusted organisation.

Celebrity power – if you can afford it (and because it combines with the psychological force of likeability) it’s easy to see why celebrities are used to plug everything from satellite TV to coffee to cruise ships.

There are downsides: social proof explains the rise of cults and sects, may act as a catalyst in riots and can contribute to herd behaviour when shares are sold off without logic. So you should always question the actions of others if you don’t want to fall victim to some of its more mindless interference.

But social proof in some form is essential if you want to put out a message with an independent vote of approval. Just ask your friends.

By Trevor Campbell on 26/01/17 | How we behave

"Give it away, give it away, give it away, give it away now.” So sang the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their rather cheekily titled Blood Sugar Sex Magik record in 1991.* But can giving things away persuade others to feel more responsive to you and your business?

It’s a long held maxim that giving – and not necessarily receiving – makes you feel good. But the cogs underpinning human behaviour (in this case, reciprocation) are so powerful that the very act of giving compels others to return the favour. 

This tendency can help your business, as long as you play by the rules.

Many scientific and academic studies have shown that reciprocation has effects far beyond the associated warm glow of giving. For example (and thanks to Prof Robert Cialdini):

When the desperately poor and famine-ravaged Ethiopia sent relief aid to Mexico in 1985 after a series of earthquakes, many were mystified why such a needy country would do so. But after a little digging, a journalist uncovered that in 1935 Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia when it needed help. This sense of obligation was so profound, that many years later, even when it couldn’t afford it, Ethiopia felt compelled to somehow return the goodwill.

So this overpowering feeling of indebtedness can also be put to use if you (always fairly) want to take advantage of this behavioural trait.

  • If you have valuable clients a meaningful gift (eg, an event invite or VIP access to a show) could help to retain them.
  • If you want to attract new customers a free sample or trial vastly improves your consideration.
  • If you want to increase credibility with investors, a well-researched note or whitepaper about which emerging markets to avoid could be very useful to them.
  • If you’re a washing equipment vendor giving away handy cleaning tips you’ve learned from your clients could be much appreciated.

And so on.

The golden rule with reciprocation, if you want it to work in your favour, is that whatever you offer must have some value. Whether this helps to save people money, gives them useful information or rewards them for their custom.

And there must be no strings.

        *Apologies for channeling "Alan Partridge”, but sometimes on a dreary winter day we can all do with a little cheer.


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