Designing “Socially Influential” Experiences

Jan 19, 2008 11:31pm
Posted by: Frank Capek

Years ago, P&G ran a promotional campaign in which customers could win prizes for writing the best essay about why they loved one of P&G's products.  In response to this promotion, tens of thousands of customers voluntarily submitted short essays for the chance of winning.  This brilliantly influential campaign leveraged one of the same techniques used by the North Korean military to influence prisoners of war during the Korean conflict.  Prisoners were given the opportunity to describe, in writing, increasingly anti-American positions as a means of receiving better treatment. It turns out that people have a strong naturally tendency to believe and behave in ways that are consistent with positions they've taken in writing or in any other public setting.  The more these positions are taken voluntarily, the stronger the effect.   For P&G, having customers volunteer to take a public position on why they loved one of the products was profoundly influential; obviously the most glowing essays had the greatest chance of winning.

(Note:  Want to try this out; ask a few colleagues or other people that are important to your career if they'd be willing to post a positive recommendation of you on Linked In).


Virtually every experience we have takes place in a social environment that exerts a powerful influence on the way we think and the way we behave.  In this post, I'll describe a couple of the social forces that shape how people think, feel, and act.  I will also illustrate some ways that organizations can create experiences that positively influence their customers and/or employees and that remove the barriers to profitable, effective behavior.  These experiences can be described as socially influential.

First let me rewind a bit... about a hundred thousand years into the past.  For 90% of human history, people lived as hunter-gathers in small nomadic groups.  In this environment, where food and other resources were in short supply, an individual's survival and the survival of their offspring was highly dependent on collaborating effectively with others while establishing and reinforcing their position within their social group.  Virtually all exchanges took place within the context of close, ongoing relationships.

Over this extended period, natural selection reinforced a set of hardwired "mental programs" that contributed to our success in this hunter-gather environment.  These mental programs naturally and, in many ways, subconsciously lead us to: associate with people or groups that strengthen our identity; behave in a way that is consistent with that identity; worry about what others think of us; engage in reciprocal "I'll scratch your back, you'll scratch mine" exchanges; keep tabs on our relative levels of indebtedness with others; react in empathetic, altruistic and, in some cases, self-sacrificing ways; become envious or angry at inequities; vigorously attempt to level or punish perceived injustices; as well as, be wary of and prejudiced against strangers from outside our group.

It's only been over the last 10,000 years, that small nomadic bands have given way to larger tribes, states, and nations.   Much of todays even more complex social environment, integrating global trade, governments, legal systems, corporations, schools, online communities, etc..., have only developed very recently.  As a result, many of our subconscious "mental programs" don't quite fit the modern social environment... so completely different than the environment within which these programs evolved.  This leads to a wide range of behaviors that are seemingly irrational in our modern age, such as:

  • We still have a strong tendency to define the "in-groups" we're part of while circling the wagons and behaving antagonistically towards members of our perceived "out-groups."
  • We tend to pay substantially more for popular brands while rationally realizing there may little or no difference in quality.
  • We acquire massive amounts of stuff and then need larger and larger homes to keep all our stuff in.
  • We become angry when we learn that people who don't appear to be more capable than us are making more money.
  • Make incur personal costs to punish "cheaters" we don't know and may never see again. This can include getting angry at another driver who cut you off in traffic and attempting to "get back at" that driver by tailgating or other aggressive driving. It can also include becoming irate at shoppers who skip in front of you in line.
  • We have a tendency to be drawn towards hearing stories about the demise of successful people we don't know.


Identity and Belonging. In any social environment, people tend to behave in a way that is consistent with their identity.  Outstanding customer experiences reinforce brand values that the customer can identify with or create opportunities to display that identity to others.  The most powerful customer experiences don't focus on what the customer feels about the company; the most powerful customer experiences are focused on what the customer feels about themselves.  How do you want your customers to feel about themselves when they do business with you?   Some companies have this down:  REI (Recreational Equipment Inc) is delivers a strong identification experience; for customers that are or aspire to be hikers, climbers, campers, and outdoorsmen.  Other strong identification experiences include:  Body for Life, USAA, Apple, Nike, etc...

The groups that customers belong to, or aspire to, shape their identity.  For many customer segments, it is important to give your customer something to belong to.  This has nothing to do with blatantly self-serving loyalty programs.  Many of the strongest and most successful experiences have found ways of providing something that the customer feels good about joining.  USAA and American Express (Card Membership) are two examples.


Consistency. A powerful part of managing our social self involves consciously and subconsciously maintaining the consistency of our beliefs and our behavior.  Most people subconsciously try to justify and act consistently with their earlier commitments and behavior.  This is a powerful tool for influencing customers.  When any individual announces through their behavior, verbally, or in writing that they are taking a position on any belief, they will tend to strongly defend that belief regardless of its accuracy even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  After many significant purchases, customers will feel compelled to act consistently in subsequent purchases or in explaining these purchases to others.

Customers will naturally feel a stronger emotional connection with experiences that reflect choices they've made themselves.  People tend to accept inner responsibility for behaviors or commitments when they think they've chosen to perform them in the absence of strong outside pressure or economic incentives.  Outstanding experiences reinforce the choices that customers have made... thank you for choosing us...

Reciprocity. Most people feel obligated to repay the genuine favors, gifts and invitations they have received.  This is particularly true when these favors are not part of an obviously institutionalized marketing or service campaign.  An authentically offered thank you call; genuine customer recognition (not programmatic); rewarding the best customers with little extras; etc...  Spontaneity and authenticity is key.  It can't feel like it's a programmatic thing.  While structured loyalty or rewards programs tend to drive rational repeat purchase behavior but not necessarily higher levels of satisfaction.  People habituate to rewards quickly when the rewards are relatively predictable.  However, people respond much more positively to rewards when those rewards come across as gifts that are novel, unexpected, and authentic.

Robert Cialdini, in his classic marketing book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion", reinforces the value of giving before you ask to receive.  In general, people are more compliant with requests from those who have given them something... anything, even the gesture of a gift. For example, the American Disabled Veterans organization, mailed out a donations request to its list with an 18% success rate; and, when they split tested this with a "personalized" address sticker campaign--they nearly doubled their success rate to 35%.

Customers often also feel obligated to accept things that are offered to them as long as they feel that these do not create obvious indebtedness.  But when customers do accept gifts that are authentically and individually offered, there is often a subtle, yet unshakable, feeling of indebtedness that encourages customers to return the favor.

Cialdini also describes reciprocal concessions.  Customers often feel obligated to make concessions to someone who has made concessions to us.  Asking the customer to make a very substantial commitment and then "conceding" to accept a shorter term, smaller scale or lower commitment can take advantage of this effect.  Suppose I call you up and ask if you're willing to donate a weekend of your time to a charitable cause and then, when you say you can't spare the time, request you make a $50 donation.  The response rate for this request is substantially higher than if I just call and ask for the $50 donation.  The request for a large commitment creates stress.  My suggestion that you make the donation in stead lets you off the hook.

Social Justice. Customers will be frustrated if they feel that others are receiving better service, preferential treatment, or lower pricing.  This happens all the time when stores, banks or toll plaza's open new lanes.  This also shows up as customers who demand that they wait in two or more lanes simultaneously.  Service and pricing in the airline industry tends to undermine the customer experience in this area.  (See: Cognitive Ergonomics: How Customers' React to Violations of Justice)

Social Proof. Most customers will tend to look at what other people do or think is appropriate and act accordingly.  Show your customers and prospects that others are agreeing to and using the products and services you offer.  We tend to find socially acceptable reasons to justify our actions and motivation.  It is important to provide customers with the story they will tell others about their choices and experience.

Conformity. Most people tend to agree to proposals, products, or services that will be perceived as acceptable by the majority of other people or a majority of an individual's peer group.  One of the most powerful elements of an influential customer experience includes ways of showing the customer that "everyone's doing it."  This ranges from including "Top 10 lists" on websites to promoting the market leadership position of a product or service.

One of the other ways of demonstrating the popularity of a product or service is to promote its scarcity.  In general, we tend to see opportunities as more valuable to us when their availability may be limited.  The feeling of limited availability has always been used as motivator in the sales experience.

Authority. Many people find it difficult to defy the wishes of someone in authority telling them what to do.  Titles, stature, clothes and trappings that may signify authority of an influencer in the purchase decision frequently condition this.  Messages are more influential when their source is perceived to be expert and trustworthy.  Influence is increased if the message apparently opposes the source's self-interest or if the source does not seem to be trying to influence.

Liking. We generally prefer to comply with requests from or associated with someone we know and like.  This is frequently influenced by physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments, familiarity, contacts and cooperation.


This has been a quick summary of the social influence levers that can be pulled in an experience design.  I'm looking forward to exploring these in a more comprehensive way in future posts.  Cheers.

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