Be More Persuasive
Research is finding new ways to convince customers—and coworkers—that they need to buy what you’re selling
For centuries, people have used their persuasive powers to sway others—from bartering livestock to adopting a new religion to buying a used car. Yet there’s a tightrope to walk in sealing the deal: an aggressive pitch is a turnoff; a gentle one is easy to ignore.
“It’s important to tread carefully,” says Elisabeth “Molly” McCombe (BSBA’87), especially in delicate business situations. McCombe keeps a picture of a bull in a china shop on her office wall as a reminder of that maxim. The managing director and chief marketing officer of Citigroup’s Citi Retail Services—and before that, executive vice president for strategic marketing services at HSBC—she has learned that persuasion is a two-way street, a conversation that involves a good amount of listening.
“Something I’ve learned the hard way is patience,” says McCombe. “Often, the first couple of conversations may just be informational. People have definite opinions, and often, unexpected news will get people’s backs up pretty quickly. But the reality is that it’s often an ongoing conversation.”
Although persuasion might be an ancient art, it has become a science, with researchers unpacking its many forms, from in-person pitches to online marketing. At Questrom, the subject is studied by psychologists, economists, and marketing experts, and their research has led to new findings about which methods are most persuasive, from leveraging customer reviews to increase sales to nudging a would-be customer along the decision-making pathway.
“At its core, business is really all about persuasion, both written and verbal,” says Michelle Ehrenreich, a senior lecturer in marketing. “When you’re communicating in business, you’re generally trying to inspire action, on the small scale—‘take my meeting’—to the large—‘invest in my company.’”
The goal of ads has always been the same: persuading people to buy something they didn’t think they needed. Shuba Srinivasan’s research looks at how advertising in its various forms—television, social media, paid media—works on the consumer. She’s the author of the 2016 study, “Paths to and off Purchase: Quantifying the Impact of Traditional Marketing and Online Consumer Activity,” published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. A professor of marketing and an expert on understanding market response, Srinivasan’s findings help illuminate how companies might use path-to-purchase metrics to increase brand awareness and, ultimately, brand loyalty.
Srinivasan, the Norman and Adele Barron Professor in Management, says there are cognitive, affective (emotional), and behavioral steps on the path to purchase: a know, feel, then do pathway. The general process is similar to how we form feelings about almost anything—whether to buy a book in a bookstore or even to continue a relationship with someone we meet on a blind date. First, you learn about an item (or person), then you develop a feeling or an opinion about it/them, and finally, you decide whether to pursue the object or relationship.
For marketers, tracking this flow can show where a person is in the process: a click on a search result would suggest that a person is in the beginning cognitive (learning) phase, whereas a “like” on social media might suggest the affective (feeling) phase.
Companies that master persuasive marketing know how to move a prospective customer along the learning-feeling-acting path. One retailer that Srinivasan sees making the transition smooth and easy for the customer is the beauty retailer L’Occitane. The company relies on online marketing for the first two steps (cognitive and affective), and in-store marketing for the final behavioral/purchase step.
“Consumers’ online experience builds brand knowledge and preference and eventually drives them to the store,” says Srinivasan. “For retailers that have both physical stores and an online store, we find consumers are still buying products largely in physical retail locations. Hence, a successful path-to-purchase journey would require a seamless integration of their digital marketing efforts—where cognition and affect are influenced—with their offline retail marketing efforts, where behavioral shopping outcomes largely occur.”
While McCombe can’t talk about Citigroup’s particular strategies, she says she frequently sees examples of companies becoming expert at nudging potential customers along the pathway; a great example comes from her personal experience with a well-known luxury retailer. “I hadn’t used their store credit card in ages,” says McCombe, “but then I bought an item online. I noticed their emails became more frequent after that.” This isn’t surprising, but she says the next steps were what really astounded her. “I was at the airport and clicked through to a dress and a pair of shoes, and spent several minutes looking at each. But I didn’t add either to my cart—I just looked. After that, the emails became very interesting.”
First, she says, she started receiving emails with links to buy or find a nearby store—simply reminding her about the dress and the shoes. Next, the price reductions came. Both the dress and the shoes went on sale, and the emails presented new opportunities to act: “Now they offered concierge service, a ‘learn more’ button, an interactive picture, ‘buy now,’ lots of different calls to action,” says McCombe. These first emails, she says, represent the cognitive or informational part of the pitch. Next came the affective or feeling push: “Then, they started sending emails about how they were running out of my sizes, so I should really act now. But they didn’t even know my size. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really slick.’”
Most companies use a number of different email ad campaigns, depending on where the would-be customer is along their path. Using metrics that reveal how long a person spends looking at a particular pair of shoes, or whether they “like” the company on Facebook, the company can determine which type of campaign will be the most effective. As Srinivasan’s work has suggested, persuasive advertising, if it’s doing what it should, can turn browsers into customers, and customers into enthusiasts.
The Persuasive Power of Reviews
Of course, companies aren’t the only ones speaking to the consumer: customers are also speaking to one another, and not just through word of mouth. Now, the public has a much more powerful method to influence peers: online reviews. Research from Questrom has looked at the different ways in which this can influence sales—in both directions.
Georgios Zervas, an assistant professor of marketing and Shahdadpuri Family Research Award recipient, has studied extensively the online review scene. One example of its power is seen in the hotel booking industry, where customer reviews can significantly impact demand and pricing. In his 2016 study “The Welfare Impact of Consumer Reviews: A Case Study of the Hotel Industry,” he and his colleague, Gregory Lewis of Microsoft Research and the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at a decade’s worth of data from hotels in five states, including 3.7 million reviews on Expedia, Hotels.com, and TripAdvisor. After crunching the data, they found that for each additional star a hotel acquired from customer feedback, demand rose by about 25 percent—and the relationship did appear to be causal. Luxury and independent hotels were more sensitive to the phenomenon than more moderately priced chain hotels.
“Initially, you might think that consulting reviews, the customer can make better choices,” says Zervas, “and this is true. However, because other consumers also consult reviews, they too make better choices. As a result, good businesses raise prices. So even though platforms like TripAdvisor and Yelp help consumers make better choices, they also lead to price increases.” While it has pros and cons for the individual, it’s clearly beneficial to a high-ranked business, as it can boost both traffic and revenue.
Daniella Kupor, an assistant professor of marketing, has discovered a nuance to the power of the positive review. In a 2018 study, “When Moderation Fosters Persuasion: The Persuasive Power of Deviatory Reviews,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research, she found that four stars is sometimes more persuasive than five.
“Reviewers often give extremely favorable reviews of products and services when they want to convince others to purchase them, but we wondered if this is always the most effective strategy,” says Kupor. “Despite the intuitive appeal of using extremely positive reviews to persuade others, my coauthor Zak Tormala [a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business] and I suspected that moderately positive reviews might sometimes be more persuasive. In particular, in the frequent cases where the default review on a review platform appears to be extremely positive, we predicted that moderately positive reviews can have a greater persuasive impact.”
In one experiment, they gave participants a choice between receiving a granola bar and a small amount of money. Before making their choice, they were given reviews to read—some were presented with a 10-star review of the bars, which was also the default rating, and others were presented with an 8-star review. “People who viewed an 8-star review—that is, a less favorable review that deviated from the 10-star default—were paradoxically more likely to choose the granola bar over more money,” says Kupor. “In other words, the moderate review proved more persuasive than the extreme review.”
It worked the other way as well: when the default review was not extremely positive, they were more swayed by the most positive reviews. And interestingly, people were conscious of the phenomenon, rating “deviatory” reviews as more useful to them than others.
Why would consumers be swayed by reviews that are counter to the default? It has to do with thoughtfulness, says Kupor—we perceive deviatory reviews as more thoughtful and, therefore, more accurate than ones that are aligned with the default. In earlier studies, she’d found that how thoughtful we perceive a person to be can strongly affect our opinion of their decision-making skills. A deviatory rating can give the impression of being more considered than a nondeviatory one—and so more persuasive.
With this phenomenon, companies have some degree of control: by publicizing reviews that differ from the default. “When a product receives a moderately positive review in the context of an extremely positive default,” says Kupor, “our research suggests firms might enhance that review’s positive impact, for example on sales, by highlighting that the default is extremely positive.” Making sure that the default is obvious would boost the impact of a review that differs; that, in turn, could boost sales.
The Theory of Persuasion
Persuading the public to buy a product is one thing, but it’s also important to know how to get your staff and colleagues on board with an idea. Whether it’s getting them to embrace a new company policy or rolling out a new product, communicating effectively with your audience is key.
In addition to her Questrom appointment, Ehrenreich is the founding partner of Acuity Partners and has been a management consultant and executive coach for 20 years. Through her work, she’s helped thousands of people become more persuasive, effective communicators. At Questrom, she led the development of—and now teaches—Management Communications, which some 700 students take each year. She starts her classes by sharing a fundamental theory of persuasion coined by Aristotle, the rhetorical appeals, and known commonly as the ethos-pathos-logos triangle. It involves convincing the audience of your character and credibility (ethos), and appealing to both their emotions (pathos) and rationality (logos).
Ehrenreich says logos, having to do with facts and figures, is typically the easiest of the legs for students to master. To be a successful leader, she recommends a powerful first step in persuasion: take a clear point of view and support it rather than just presenting information for others to come to their own conclusions. It’s also important to synthesize your logic, since people’s capacity for remembering facts is finite. “Instead of 15 bullet points about why option A is best,” says Ehrenreich, “express support in three to five points. Research suggests that people seem to remember about this many, but they don’t remember 15.”
Unfortunately, she says, while many professionals she’s worked with have been able to nail their in-person pitches, their persuasive skills don’t always translate to the written word.
“Clear writing is huge—expressing things in person is important, but after a meeting, you follow up in writing. Or send written material around beforehand. But take the time to write well because it’s a reflection of your own credibility: when people see emails or PowerPoints that are jumbled or confusing, they think you’re a jumbled and confusing thinker. You want to show in writing that you’re a clear, incisive thinker.”
The ethos leg, says Ehrenreich, is about someone’s character, credibility, and track record of accomplishments. “If Warren Buffett or Bill Gates gave a speech and mumbled and stared at the floor the whole time, we’d still take their advice, because of their incredible track records of success.”
Ethos is an important part of persuasion, but there are other ways to develop it if you’re early on in your career—through listening skills and thinking deftly on your feet. Ehrenreich uses exercises from improvisational acting, such as talking convincingly for a few minutes on a random topic generated by the class. The debriefing process afterward is used to discuss what elements of the speech were convincing and which could use work.
A big part of ethos is understanding one’s audience. “This may sound trite, but it’s so crucial,” she says. “If you haven’t taken the time to do that, usually it’s the reason a meeting went south.” There are two dimensions within this: how much your audience knows about the subject, and how resistant they’re going to be to the information that’s being imparted. “Are they ready to embrace your message or will your message be difficult for people to hear? Those dimensions change how you communicate, in writing and in speaking.”
Ehrenreich recommends taking a listening tour of your audience or potential partners. “Go ask questions, and listen, and you will learn,” she says. “Think about your message ahead of time. Taking time to build relationships and rapport is huge. It’s much better than walking into a room with 10 strangers. If you want them to do something, they have to trust, and know, you.”
That fits with McCombe’s experiences at Citigroup. When it comes to convincing someone that she’s in the right on a thorny subject, such as rolling out a new policy that will affect an entire team, she sticks to doing it in person.
“Try to be direct, but not aggressive,” she says. “You can make a little small-talk, but then say, ‘Hey, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about.’ After you’ve said what you need to say—and this is really important—sit back and listen. Let the person talk.”
She says this helps colleagues feel like they have a voice in the discussion and allows them to process possibly unwelcome news.
“After they’ve processed the situation, the person often comes back with a wonderful idea—then they feel really engaged. Getting people to have a stake in the outcome is huge.” And she’s noticed that persuasion as a discussion rather than an order has become easier over time—largely thanks to millennials. She’s found individuals from this generation to be more socially connected, making it easier to break news or roll out a plan.
“Being present in the moment is key. It’s incredible how distracted people are these days, so connecting to others more deeply is really important. We work on storytelling and really bringing content to life.”
–Michelle Ehrenreich, senior lecturer in marketing
“The younger generation is very good at building personal relationships at the office, and this helps in conversations about business,” says McCombe. “When you get down to brass tacks, you’ve established commonality and have ‘credits in the bank’ already. It doesn’t feel so transactional this way.”
Some of these softer, more “human” skills—the kind of relationship building McCombe admires in her millennial colleagues—fall under the pathos leg of the persuasion triangle: audience engagement, body language, and charisma.
“Being present in the moment is key,” says Ehrenreich. “It’s incredible how distracted people are these days, so connecting to others more deeply is really important. We work on storytelling and really bringing content to life.”
She recommends self-coaching to improve body language, since most people have a hard time giving others tips on it and it’s easy enough to film yourself and watch it back. “It’s not rocket science to see that you’ve been shifting uncontrollably or fidgeting the whole time,” says Ehrenreich. “And this can make a huge difference in how your audience responds to you.”
As McCombe has discovered in her 25 years of marketing in the banking world, the most persuasive people aren’t just thinking about themselves—they’re keeping their audience in mind and always building relationships. “It’s important to get in other people’s shoes,” says McCombe.