Helping your customers connect is good for business

Helping your potential customers to connect with other people can pay dividends in many ways. You can help them to make the decision to buy your products by providing an environment conducive to persuasion.

Research shows that people are most likely to make a decision if they are allowed to make it freely (in the context of a supportive community, not high-pressure sales techniques), write down the actions they are going to take (e.g., in a forum posting) and, most importantly, make those actions public to others. People who share their interests with others they like, and who are offered encouraging comments and validation, are more likely to go through with something, whether it’s a purchase or a change in lifestyle.

Reciprocity also has a part to play. Research shows that people often feel compelled to give back to others the types of behaviour that are displayed to them. Businesses that understand this principle may offer free samples of new products or special introductory incentives: if you have a community that is already interested in your products or services, then people are much more likely to reciprocate by buying your new product or joining that gym.

Apparently, many people are more motivated by knowing what they will lose than by what they will gain. You can leverage this instinct by providing the right information and encouraging community members to share it. Telling people what they stand to lose is often more persuasive than the same message framed as a gain. Information of this kind is perfect for articles on your website or blog postings.

In a University of California research study, the number of home owners who signed up to energy efficiency activities was increased by 350% by the researchers telling customers how much money they stood to lose if they didn’t sign up, rather than how much they could gain if they did. People’s natural inclination is to avoid loss; which is why “limited time offers” or sales that “must end Saturday” are successful strategies.

When people are faced with a variety of choices, one of the ways to decide is to be guided by the advice of an expert. People know from experience that it makes more sense to pay attention to recognized knowledgeable sources of information (dentists endorse toothpaste; membership of professional organisations and professional qualifications increase your authority). Use your community to introduce experts and gurus giving genuinely useful advice around your product range.

The principle of consensus, or social proof is using other people’s behaviour as a guide to our own. If someone finds a conversation about how great a recipe was or a diet that seems to work, they are much more likely to try it themselves. A forum linked to your product range is the perfect place for this to happen. In one study, researchers were able to increase recycling rates by over 30% simply by telling people that their neighbours were recycling too. Despite the fact that most of us refuse to believe that what other people do has any influence on us, it is nevertheless true that that others’ behaviours have a powerful influence over our own.

These are universal principles of persuasion which are as powerful drivers in the online space as in “real life”: human beings still make connections with one another online, with the right kind of encouragement. It still makes sense to believe an expert, to follow the crowd, to repay favours and to value things in short supply. Understanding how these principles apply online can help create the kind of relationships between people that make your website much more than a marketing or sales space.

(With acknowledgements to Steve Martin, co-author of Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, Profile Books.)