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shutterstock_382099912-1.jpgMarketing isn't always about rational decision-making. It’s the nature of the art. We’re not trying to persuade as much as prod people into taking an action – and help people make the choice to go after a particular solution to their problem. Sometimes it’s the art of rhetoric. But most of the time it’s about having the right message at the right time.

In other words, marketing is about knowing how people decide so that we can help them decide in our favor. And we’re lucky to live in an era where access to information is pretty much unfettered. So we’re going to take a look at four psychological studies that can help you better understand how your customers think about buying, selling, and everything in between.

The Reciprocity Principle

Quid pro quo seems to be built into the human brain, and we tend to feel obliged to give something back to people who give something to us. “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” is a powerful principle that can impel people to purchasing acts that they might not otherwise have ever considered.

This played out pretty dramatically in a 2002 study; researchers found that when servers brought their customers a simple after-dinner mint, tips went up 3%.

Wait for it.

Tips went up a solid twenty percent when servers, after giving them a mint, stopped and looked them in the eye before giving them a second mint, telling them it was a special treat just for them.

That is not a small increase. Twenty percent is a pretty profound markup, and literally all it took was the smallest of gifts; the customer wanted to signal their appreciation for their special treatment, and so acted in a way that they simply wouldn’t have otherwise.

This principle is built into the inbound marketing methodology, which takes altruistic content as a central tactic. We generally couch it in the language of trust and thought leadership, but the meaning is the same: you give away something small to try and get something big. This principle, over time, can turn an ebook download into a massive new client.

The Consistency Principle

Everyone wants to think they’re a good person. And that’s a powerful motivator.

In a 2010 Princeton study, researchers put that to the test. They staged a series of calls to ask people to volunteer for the American Cancer Society, netting a disappointing (if unsurprising) 4% positive response. But it turns out, the real trick is in reminding people of the kinds of people they think they are. To that end, they called a second group several days ahead of schedule, asking them in a survey if they thought they were the kind of people who would engage in charity volunteer work.

This time, when they asked for volunteers, positive responses shot up to 31%. Far from a majority, but massively significant.

It’s called “priming,” and it’s something we do all the time in marketing. You set the stage for the kind of action you want them to take by getting them to take the first step, such as implicitly making a statement about the kind of person they are. People who sign up for an online webinar on improving some skill, for example, are inevitably more engaged than people who sign up for a newsletter, because one makes a statement about their commitment to self-improvement – and the other is just corporate picnics.

The Familiarity Principle

Familiarity and favorability go hand in hand. The more you are exposed to someone or something, the more favorably you tend to to view them; as long as there are no strong negative associations, familiarity breeds affection. Studies have shown that people tend to forge closer relationships with neighbors than with people who don’t live in their immediate vicinity, as repeated close contact and interactions help establish and cement favorability towards each other.

This is a basic tenet of digital marketing, especially in terms of helping leads move down the funnel; an initial contact with a lead may have been for an ebook download, at which point a brand begins to establish a regular presence in their inbox, becoming a “familiar face.” That means that, even if emails don’t garner much meaningful engagement, that familiarity will pay off down the line, as they’ll be more likely to engage with your materials, seek you out, or trust you when making purchasing decisions.

Social Influence

Everyone’s a bit of a joiner.

Of course we are. We can’t know everything all the time. We don’t have the time or the mental capacity to make informed decisions about every single thing. That means that, when we’re in a situation where we don’t have any idea what we’re supposed to be doing, we’ll just do what everybody else is doing. It’s how stampedes happen. It's how fads happen. Heck, it’s how we end up electing a lot of our public servants. And it’s also how some products become aggressively popular even when better alternatives are available: people are just joining the crowd because that’s easier (and more efficient) than worrying about making an informed decision.

Alex Laskey of Opower gave a TED Talk about this. When presented with multiple marketing messages to encourage people to decrease their power usage, nothing was more effective than telling everyone that everyone else was already doing it. Social pressure, in other words, is more powerful than reason; nobody wants to stand out or be the one person who isn’t towing the line.

This is the power behind testimonials and other forms of what we call “social proof.” Not only does it validate your positive claims about yourself, it shows people that they won’t be alone in going with you.

Now, these aren’t the only psychological principles that drive marketing, and we’ll explore more next week. But in the meantime, keep an eye out; you never know what little bit of knowledge can help you reach people more effectively than ever.