"Selling is persuasion; Persuasion is attitude change; Attitudes can be changed."
“Sales” has been bandied around as a dirty word in some aspects of our culture, with the ancient stereotype of the used-car salesman as the prototypical example of negative selling imagery.
Yet selling is life. Selling is what we do when we flirt and date and propose. It’s what we do when we buy a buddy a beer. It’s found in board rooms, politics, and the bedroom. Selling is simply persuasion; and the tools of selling could be simply rephrased as the arts of persuasive communication.
There are two significant types of communication – personal and mediated. Personal communication is what we do across the back fence with our neighbors. It’s going to the movies with the girls. It’s a city council meeting; an Amway multi-level-marketing business; lunch with friends.
Mediated communication is where the sender and receiver are removed in time and space. This includes TV, newspapers, letters, e-mail, advertisements, books, websites, social media sites, brochures, texting, and everything else where the sender and receiver are not in direct personal contact.
Long Article Alert: What follows is not a typical web snippet.
Some communications methods are both personal and mediated – most significantly the telephone. A phone call is real-time, person-to-person, but with a mediated aspect. It is not truly personal, in that we lose the subtleties of body language, physical image, etc. yet we retain tone of voice, ability for inflection (such as sarcasm, etc.), and the like.
There are several significant components of any communication interaction, the main elements being the sender, receiver, message, medium, and interference.
Many, if not most, communications do not have an overtly persuasive (selling) aspect. They simply involve human beings interacting with each other. But the basic elements still apply. There is still a sender and a receiver; there is always a message (the subject of the communication or conversation); a medium (again, personal or mediated); and there is frequently interference on the communications channels.
Persuasive communications differ somewhat in that the sender is attempting to effect change (behavior or attitude) in the receiver. Usually, this is some form of selling – personal, business, or ideological.
Let's look at the five major components of persuasion communications.
1) The Sender
The sender of any communication is the “salesman” in the persuasive interaction. A persuasive communication is more frequently a one-way pipeline, but usually has elements of two-way interaction (especially in personal vs. mediated situations).
The sender is looking to present a point of view, information, or sales message to another individual or group to create a desired behavior change (in favor of the sender – ie: buying a product or voting a particular way).
The sender – which can be an individual, a group, a company – needs to present information, and needs to be viewed as a credible source. Some things which can enhance source (sender) credibility include safety, qualifications, and personal characteristics.
* Safety. Receivers want to feel that the sender is non-threatening, is concerned for their best interests, and represents a similar viewpoint to the receiver. Receivers are more responsive to senders who are close to themselves in social status, income, age, etc. There is some flexibility here, but mostly on the upside. Receivers are more receptive to senders who are a little older, a little wealthier, etc. than to ones who are lower on the socio-economic scale than themselves.
* Qualification. Receivers are more prone to change attitude and behavior if the sender is seen as being qualified to present the message. The grocery clerk talking about mutual funds appears less qualified than a banker. There is an aspect of perceived vs. real qualification here. Stock day traders are an excellent example. Most are truly not qualified in a broad knowledge base in their area (the “business” of the stocks they trade), yet receivers (friends, relatives, people met in a bar) will often think the sender is qualified because he participates in the activity.
* Personal characteristics. This is a vague area to quantify, but generally refers to the sender’s charisma. The classic example is the avuncular spokesperson or sender. Walter Cronkite was the ultimate honest, safe, information sender. America generally believed everything Cronkite said. Similarly, cult leaders from every age have persuaded their followers based greatly on their charisma and personal power. Take away Jim Jones’ or Tony Robbins’ or Depak Chopra’s charismatic personalities and their messages (and “sales” of what they’re selling) would plummet.
Safety and qualification can be effectively used in both interpersonal and mediated communications, while personal characteristics (in their purest sense) are usually only effective in face-to-face (individual or group) interactions. Sports and celebrity endorsements are attempts to apply personal characteristics to mediated communications. Its effectiveness varies greatly.
Another important individual in the persuasive communication dynamic acts as both receiver and sender. This is the old-school-marketer’s “opinion leader.” While sometimes downplayed in today’s egalitarian communications atmosphere, the opinion leader represents someone that other people look up to for advice, informed opinions, and information.
Opinion leaders are often the “early innovators/adopters” in the new-product-introduction cycle. They are sometimes opinion leaders in a broad range of areas, but more frequently in a few specific niches. We all know the neighborhood sports guru who everyone turns to for advice and information on the latest in sports toys, tips for who’s gonna win the series, etc. This is a classic example of the niche opinion leader. Other opinion leaders are perceived as knowledgeable in a broad range of areas. These people are frequently given opinion-leader status because of their status in the community – political leaders, well-known business people, and, in today’s society, entertainers and professional sports players.
If a persuasive message comes from an opinion leader, the end consumer (whether exposed to other messages or not) is more likely to believe the source.
Opinion leaders are also receivers, highly targeted by marketers, especially in the early stages of an advertising or marketing campaign. Advertisers know that positively influencing one opinion leader is much more cost effective than struggling to influence dozens of individual consumers directly.
2) The Receiver
In interpersonal communications, there are generally two dynamics possible – group and individual interaction.
Group persuasion can be effective if the group is kept small, and the physical arrangement of the group is as spatially “even” among the individuals as possible – the ideal is a few people in a small circle.
Generally, individual persuasion is the most effective kind. If it weren’t, the universal salesman would be unnecessary. Few discretionary products or services are sold without some one-on-one persuasive communication from a sender (sales person) to the receiver (buyer). Needless to say, there are a host of specific sales techniques used in one-on-one persuasive situations, but the specifics are far beyond the scope of this article.
In mediated communications, the role of the sender is complicated by many factors (see also “interference,” below). As one small example, let’s look at magazine print advertising of a specific product, although similar points may be factors in any mediated communication – as we previously said: TV, Internet, skywriting, love letters, etc.
The product itself and its presentation are a factor. Is the color of the product attractive? Its packaging? Did the ad agency get a good photo and is it reproduced accurately in the magazine? Is the copy (sales message) clear and informative? Does it connect with the consumer at the appropriate stage in the buying cycle? (For example, a call-to-action ad isn’t very useful during a consumer’s information-gathering stage.) Does the magazine have dozens of similar ads?
Then there are issues relating directly to the sender. Does the company or manufacturer have a good reputation? Were they embroiled in a political or environmental scandal six months ago? Do they have many or few other products in the marketplace already? Does the CEO look good or bad in that recent Time magazine photo? Does the consumer have relatives who’ve worked for the company?
There are many things (including the points previously mentioned) that a sender can do to enhance the communication. Yet there are many others that are out of the sender’s control. What levels the playing field is that all advertising senders are faced with similar challenges.
Also remember, “advertising” as used here can mean political campaigns, public relations, direct mail efforts, documentary videos, and most other aspects of mediated persuasive communications.
There are two significant components to the message. The first and most important are verbal codes. This refers to what is said and how it is said. For example, the use of mildly emotional language heightens attention, yet too much can be perceived as insincere or threatening. Research has also shown that the use of descriptive adjectives can intensify the message.
Verbal codes are important in personal communications, but are also important, necessary, and effective in mediated communications – in the words we write, the language we use, the “tone of voice” of our copy, spelling, grammar, and everything you were taught about words and writing from grade school through Marketing 101 and beyond.
Nonverbal codes are very important in interpersonal communications. For example, if the gestures of a speaker contradict what is being said, persuasion falls off dramatically. Good communicators use voice quality, pattern, and rhythm to make an effective point. Variety of voice and delivery is more persuasive than monotony.
Perhaps surprisingly, nonverbal codes also are applicable to mediated communications. For example, an ad for a soothing medication should not use hot, bright colors. This is where – as a communicator – it is essential to know what is effective in the way of colors, specific words (there are dozens of lists of words that have been shown to most connect with a reader), copy length, typography (type face choices that are easily readable, justification, leading, reverse type, etc.), accompanying artwork (photos vs. illustration), and a host of other specific communication techniques.
Also, mediated communication can show a speaker’s gestures, dress, and other non-verbal codes with reasonable fidelity (depending on the media).
When it comes to delivering the message, there are several types of message structure and organization that have been researched. These structures can be used in either interpersonal or mediated communication (such as ads).
A) The deductive sequence. This leads the receiver toward the desired conclusion. You show the receiver that A plus B equals C.
B) The inductive sequence. This situation presents the positive benefits of the message, and lets the receiver draw his or her own conclusion; which is, hopefully and obviously, the conclusion you want.
C) Problem-solving order. This structure states a problem, then suggests (with the sender’s assistance) a solution.
D) Primacy and recency effects. This principal states that if you make four points in a message, or compare four alternatives, points one and four are the most likely to be remembered; points two and three the most likely to be forgotten.
E) One-sided vs. two-sided arguments. Do you just tell your story, or do you mention your competition? Generally, two-sided arguments are best when your audience is better educated (as when trying to reach opinion leaders); when the audience disagrees with your viewpoint; or when other information (especially if adverse) is already known to the audience.
The last thing we’ll touch on as part of the message are “appeals.” Three commonly used appeals are:
* Fear. A low-level fear appeal is often effective (implying that you need a smoke detector in the rare chance that your house may burn down), yet high-level fear appeals are generally not effective, and often counter-productive (stating that there are arsonists running through your immediate neighborhood). The classic low-level fear appeal is, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
* Emotional. Emotional appeals can be very effective when, like fear, they are kept moderate. Most people respond well to appeals that directly address their emotional sides – family, children, love, etc. The insurance industry uses emotional appeals extensively and effectively.
* Rewards. The simplest example of a reward appeal is cash. Money. Research has shown that the more money you give someone to do something, the more they actually believe your viewpoint. Free trips, rebates, coupons, free products, frequent-flier miles, and hundreds of other incentives are used as reward appeals.
Not only do customers perceive that they are saving money, but they are becoming long-term customers (they’ve been persuaded by the communication) because of the reward. For example, barring mechanical or outside problems, a car buyer is more likely to buy a Ford the second time around if he received a cash rebate on the first Ford he bought.
Marketers in the direct-response field are the masters of incentive or reward marketing. Not simply with “Buy 1 Get 2 Free” offers, but in many other response mechanisms. For example, warranty card return rates are much higher when even a small incentive/reward is included. “Send back this warranty card and have the chance to get your purchase price refunded.”
The medium can also be referred to as the communication channel. In mediated communications (anything other than face-to-face), there can be media such as direct mail, ads, public-speaking handouts, magazine articles, skywriting, video, and hundreds of other media options. Generally, the more different (or multiple) communication channels used, the more likely a receiver is to adopt your point of view, especially if the message is difficult or complicated. You would be more likely to believe this article if, in addition to these words, there were links to academic articles; if you received a copy of similar information in your inbox; and if you saw a YouTube video about this topic. Using a magazine advertising example, the communication is more effective (more likely to cause behavior change) if in addition to an ad there is a tear-off postcard.
Strangely, research has shown that when using multiple channels, the receiver’s interest is higher (leading to more “persuasion”), but there is actually some loss of information retained.
Obviously, the choice of media is far beyond the scope of this article. The options of print, electronic, broadcast, and direct alone – and the options within each area – are staggering. Choosing your media wisely is one of the most important aspects of any communications campaign.
When constructing media messages, remember that those messages can frequently affect opinion leaders (who then, in turn, affect the end consumer) as much as or even more strongly than individual consumers.
Finally, interference should be considered in any message. In an interpersonal communication, interference can mean someone coughing in the back of a conference room (and if you’re the speaker and that happens, perhaps you should restate your point); or it can be a third person coming up to you on the street while you’re talking to a friend. Again, there are hundreds of interference mechanisms affecting persuasive communications. The ultimate goal is to reduce the interference as much as possible.
In mediated communications, interference can be the overbearing color choices of an article illustration next to your ad in a magazine. It can be a homeowner receiving 10 pieces of mail instead of 2 on the day your direct campaign hits. It can be kids shouting for dinner during the Super Bowl commercials. Interference is out there, waiting to dilute the message of your communications. Your goal for persuasive communications should be to always keep clutter and distractions to a minimum.
Persuasive communications (selling) is a vast topic, and much more research has been done than is possible to summarize in a short article. Hopefully, these basic points will help you, your marketing staff, and your company create and deliver more effective persuasive communications messages.