Marketing thought leaders are prolific, and it can be hard to keep up with the most recent developments in marketing. That’s why, each month, we bring you an in-depth marketing book summary. This month’s summary is Pre-Suasion, by Robert Cialdini.

Influencing Customers Before the Point of Sale

Robert Cialdini, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, and is a widely renowned expert in the psychology of persuasion. His first book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion sold over 3 million copies, has been named to numerous top book lists, and is regarded as required reading for salespeople and marketers alike.

In 2016, more than 30 years later, he published his second solo book: Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.

In Pre-Suasion, Cialdini looks at the moments before the sale. Where Influence provides a detailed account of the factors that make a message persuasive, Pre-Suasion answers a different question: what prepares people to be persuaded?

The core premise of Pre-Suasion is that persuasion can occur before the moment of a decision. And that understanding psychology allows you to make use of that time.

In this marketing book summary, we provide a detailed look at the big ideas behind Pre-Suasion.

Executive Overview: The Abbreviated Summary
There are privileged moments—before the decision-making process has even started—that can make people more receptive to particular ideas. A variety of psychological factors are at work during these moments.

At the core of pre-suasion is attention. People believe what they pay attention to is important—whether or not it is actually important.

Directing attention strategically can therefore be persuasive. There are three factors that, psychologically, draw attention:

The Threatening: Humans need to be able to quickly assess threats, so threatening, violent, or negative imagery can draw attention quickly.
The Sexual: Sexual imagery attracts attention, but isn’t necessarily persuasive unless the message that follows it is related to attractiveness or companionship.
The Changing: Whether you are walking into a new room or looking at an ad’s jump cut, change commands attention.

Once you have directed attention where you want it, there are three factors that can help you hold it:

The Self-Relevant: If a message is relevant to you, you are more likely to pay attention.
The Unfinished: If you leave a task unfinished or a message is interrupted, you tend to dwell on it for longer.
The Mysterious: What’s going to happen next? Missing information makes you curious and holds attention.

Once you have attention, incorporate the original factors of persuasion into your message. They are:

Reciprocation: Humans tend to reciprocate gifts or kindness. This is especially true when those gifts are meaningful, unexpected, and customized.
Liking: We are more likely to be persuaded by those we like. We tend to like people similar to us, as well as those who give us compliments.
Social Proof: What are other people doing? Knowing that others are taking an action makes that action seem both more valid and more feasible.
Authority: We tend to trust those in positions of authority, especially if they appear trustworthy and possess expertise.
Scarcity: We want things that are hard to get. Making your message seem exclusive or difficult to receive can increase desire.
Consistency: We tend to be consistent with our previous actions. We are more likely to give in to a large request after giving in to a much smaller related request.

Cialdini adds a seventh factor of persuasion, building on the six he presented in Influence. The seventh factor is unity, and is the idea of having a shared identity with a person or concept. Things that create unity are:

Kinship: We feel unity with people in our immediate families. In larger social groups it may also be possible to activate familial ideas through messaging.
Home: Related to kinship, we are more likely to feel unity with those we grew up with as children, even if they are not family.
Locality: If you ever run into people from your hometown, there is an instant connection. Localities can activate unity.
Region: Are you from the same state as someone else? The same country? Especially when you are far away from those places, shared region can provide a source of unity.
Shared Action: Working toward a common goal can increase both unity and liking.
Co-creation: Creating something collaboratively appears to increase unity beyond simple shared action.
Long-term Reciprocity: Long-term reciprocity and building of a relationship can increase unity with individuals.

In understanding the psychology of pre-suasion, it may be tempting to use pre-suasive techniques with abandon. Cialdini argues that behaving ethically is both morally and financially important. Financially, unethical persuasion negatively affects companies in three ways:

Poor Employee Performance: Employees working in dishonest companies are always aware of that fact. The added moral stress has been shown to decrease performance.
Employee Turnover: Turnover is easy to track and demonstrably linked to ratings of organizational honesty. Recruiting becomes a major expense for unethical companies.
Employee Fraud and Malfeasance: When the morally upstanding employees leave, the remaining employees hold lower moral standards. This leads to greater internal dishonesty, from basic theft of office supplies all the way to outright fraud.

The Full Book Summary
Privileged Moments
Cialdini introduces the idea of “privileged moments” immediately in Chapter 1. In these moments, people are particularly likely to be persuaded because of their environment or specific internal thoughts, factors that take effect before any argument is actually presented.

Cialdini calls these mental and environmental factors “pre-suasive openers.”

Pre-suasive openers span a variety of tactics, from leading questions to provocative images to simple jump cuts. In fact, each of the six principles of persuasion outlined in Cialdini’s first book, Influence, can be used pre-suasively.

The example used here centers on the psychological concept of anchoring.

When people are given a number that is large or small, they judge any other numbers they hear afterward relative to the first number—the anchor.

In Cialdini’s example, an independent contractor is meeting with a client to present a proposed budget. By opening with a joke about having a $1,000,000 budget, the contractor anchors the listener to that number. His actual budget, far below a million dollars, will seem much more reasonable by comparison.

The Importance of Attention
In Chapters 2 and 3, Cialdini turns to a particular source of pre- and persuasion: attention.

Cialdini draws upon a wealth of psychological research to advance the idea that what people pay attention to is the key to persuasion.

As he says “what’s focal is important.”

When we are paying attention to something, our internal logic and psychology tell us that thing must be the most important factor in the given situation. Because we are paying attention to it, we assume that we should be paying attention to it.

A pre-suasive opener that directs attention to the most compelling features or benefits of a product is therefore extremely powerful. Significantly, such an opener can direct attention regardless of whether the aspects being highlighted are actually important.

Examples of directed attention appear in the media, in marketing, and in other domains. Cialdini argues that media coverage of the Second Gulf War was instrumental in shaping public opinion.

In Iraq, journalists were embedded within individual units of soldiers. This allowed up-close, on-the-ground coverage of real soldiers and their day-to-day lives, and many stories of patriotism arose from media coverage during the war in Iraq.

As a byproduct of this focus, coverage of the strategic goals in Iraq was minimal, instead directing attention—and importance—toward individual heroism.

Based on principles of attention and this analysis, Cialdini argues that the power of the media is not necessarily to persuade people through logic and arguments. Rather, the media has the ability to direct attention and change public opinion by focusing attention on some issues more than others.

Another example of focusing attention comes from market research. As experienced market researchers know, the formulation of a question can drastically change the overall response to it. Cialdini argues that leading questions are leading precisely because they direct attention.

If you ask a respondent whether or not they are an adventurous person, they are likely to reply that they are. In addition to “adventurousness” being seen as a positive trait, asking about it makes people think about a time when they actually were adventurous. Because that memory is the most accessible, and they are paying the most attention to it, their self-perception momentarily changes.

That momentary change is one of Cialdini’s “privileged moments.” If you ask someone whether or not they are adventurous, they will likely say yes. But they are also more likely to then be willing to try a new product, service, or experience. A similar effect is found for other leading questions; asking someone if they think they are helpful makes them more likely to help.

Paying attention to particular qualities and memories makes people assign importance to them, and can momentarily influence behavior. Cialdini calls this directed trip down memory lane a “psychological chute.”

As a corollary to strategically directing attention, marketers trying to use pre-suasion should do their best to avoid distraction. The more stimulating the environment, the harder it is to focus attention; in one study, background noise and an increase in the number of posters reduced students’ academic performance because of scattered attention.

Marketers may not always be able to control when their audience sees their message, but some factors can be modified. Busy websites and pages can be simplified to direct attention to what matters most.

How to Capture Attention
If attention is important, an obvious question follows: how can marketers draw attention? Psychologically, Cialdini presents three factors that are capable of drawing an audience’s attention. They are:

The Sexual
The Threatening
The Changing

The Sexual
It should come as no great surprise that sexual imagery and language are capable of drawing attention to specific sections of a marketing message.

Why is there no abundance of sexual imagery in the life sciences? Because, as Cialdini stated in an interview with Heleo, sex sells, but “sex doesn’t sell sandwiches.”

Sexual imagery is most effective when the product or service being offered is somehow related to attractiveness, romance, or appearance. When the goal of the audience is not romantic, including sexual imagery does nothing to influence behavior.

The pre-suasive use of sexual or romantic imagery can also make people more receptive to messages related to standing out from the pack. Cialdini’s rationale is that, in romantic endeavors, standing out is a desirable trait, one that pre-suasive romantic messaging draws attention to.

The broader lesson for marketing is that advertisements and messaging must speak to the goals of the consumer. In B2B life sciences, sex or romance are unlikely to be goals of the primary investigator or lab director.

The Threatening
A wealth of research shows that people pay more attention to threatening things than helpful ones.

This makes evolutionary sense; a bear can take you out of the gene pool much more quickly than anything can help spread your genes.

Fear-inducing marketing can be effective at drawing attention to specific messages, but Cialdini makes the point that fear on its own is not necessarily conducive to persuasion. The most effective “threatening” messages begin by inducing fear, but then immediately reduce fear by outlining a series of steps to solve the problem presented.

Unlike romantic messaging, fear-based messages draw attention to community. Marketing based on the number of people using a product is therefore especially effective following fear-based messaging.

In the life sciences, drawing attention to inefficient lab practices or drug approval delays and their resulting impact on available time and expenses may be a feasible way to incorporate fear into marketing messages.

Change
The final attractor of attention is change.

Have you ever walked into a room and suddenly forgot what you were supposed to be doing there? When you walk into a new environment, your brain automatically scans it to look for threats and other notable features. With your attention suddenly wrenched away, you forget your original purpose in the room.

Change as an attractor of attention has the most value for video. Cialdini contends that, for video marketing, cuts have as much importance as shots.

When a cut occurs, the brain automatically pays additional attention to the message following the change. It therefore makes sense to put the most important, or most persuasive, parts of a video following cuts.

As a caveat, including too many cuts in a video pulls attention around and annoys viewers. If cuts are not a reliable indicator of attention, viewers ignore it and have more difficulty following the overall narrative.

Can change-based marketing be used in other settings? The use of lightboxes to increase opt-ins on a website is one possible example, as the moving pop-up pulls attention quite abruptly.

In designing print or banner advertisements, consider the general look and feel of the publication they are to appear in. A contrasting style may cause viewers to pause and pay attention when they would otherwise have kept flipping pages.

Holding Attention
Once a marketer has drawn attention to the most important or persuasive parts of a message, it’s important to hold attention there. In Chapter 6, Cialdini focuses on three elements of a message, so-called magnetizers, that can keep attention focused. They are:

The Self-relevant
The Unfinished
The Mysterious

The Self-Relevant
Unsurprisingly, people care about themselves. When things get personal, we pay special attention and are highly motivated to make good decisions.

This principle explains the Cocktail Party Effect, the ability to pick our names or other key phrases out of an otherwise noisy room.

Experienced copywriters know that “you” is a powerfully persuasive word, and the science Cialdini presents supports that idea.

But the self-relevant isn’t only useful for copy. In meetings or presentations, there’s one person in the room that is absorbing the least information: the next presenter.

According to the “next-in-line effect,” the next presenter is so focused on what they are about to say that they have trouble retaining new information. If you want to persuade someone in a meeting, make sure your presentation is after theirs.

The Unfinished
If you are interrupted in the middle of an important decision, chances are it will weigh on you until you can come back to finish the job.

Discovered by studying the memory of waiters, the Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to remember unfinished tasks. Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters often have remarkable memories for food orders—but also that this memory disappeared once the food had been delivered.

In one advertising study, participants were shown finished and unfinished ads. In every circumstance (immediately, two days, and two weeks later), memory for the details of unfinished ads was significantly better than that of finished ads.

The Mysterious
Teasers and cliffhangers are obviously compelling, and the research supports the ability of the unknown and mysterious to hold our attention.

Cialdini posits that mysteries can be used in everything from more effective teaching, to compelling ads and engaging articles. He also gives an example of one mysterious storytelling structure:

Pose the Mystery
Deepen the Mystery
Home in on the Proper Explanation by Considering (and Offering Evidence Against) Alternative Explanations
Provide a Clue to the Proper Explanation
Resolve the Mystery
Draw the Implication for the Phenomenon Under Study

Thinking Is Linking
Ideas and thoughts do not exist in a vacuum. Psychologically, thinking of a concept creates associations in our mind to related concepts (even if we are not intending to create them).

Cialdini cites the example of SSM Health, a nonprofit system of hospitals and providers, that banned all forms of violent language from their communications.

At SSM, employees are not allowed to “attack” problems; they must solve them. There are no “bullet” points in presentations; there are information points. Cialdini himself expresses skepticism, but admires the idea of associating commonly used language with a company culture (in this case, high-performance healthcare).

Another example of linking seemingly unrelated concepts is the use of metaphor in persuasion. Metaphors are powerful because they can present tangible representations of intangible ideas.

Cialdini’s own example is compelling, so it is reproduced (slightly reformatted) here:

*“Suppose, for instance, that you are a political consultant who has been hired by a candidate for mayor of a nearby city to help her win an election in which a recent surge in crime is an important issue. In addition, suppose that this candidate and her party are known for their tough stance on crime that favors policies designed to capture and incarcerate lawbreakers…

…Your advice could be swift and confident: in any public pronouncements on the topic, she should portray the crime surge as a wild beast rampaging through the city that must be stopped. Why? Because to bring a wild beast under control, it’s necessary to catch and cage it.”*

Capturing a beast is a compelling analogy that supports the desired persuasive message. In this way, metaphors can be used to increase the persuasiveness of an idea.

“Thinking is linking” applies not only to words that we are presented with: our environments (and what parts of them we attend to) can have major implications for our behavior and effectiveness.

In the simplest example, some 70–80 percent of medical students experience a condition in which they experience the symptoms of the diseases they are studying. They focus so heavily on their studies that they begin to perceive the symptoms.

Factors of Persuasion
This chapter presents the key ideas of Cialdini’s first book Influence. The six key ideas are as follows:

Reciprocation: We (humans) tend to reciprocate gifts or kindness. This is especially true when those gifts are meaningful, unexpected, and customized.
Liking: We are more likely to be persuaded by those we like. We tend to like people similar to us, as well as those who give us compliments.
Social Proof: What are other people doing? Knowing that others are taking an action makes that action seem both more valid and more feasible.
Authority: We tend to trust those in positions of authority, especially if they appear trustworthy and possess expertise
Scarcity: We want things that are hard to get. Making the object of your message seem exclusive or difficult to receive can increase desire.
Consistency: We tend to be consistent with our previous actions. We are more likely to give into a large request after giving in to a much smaller related request.

Cialdini also clarifies that these principles are best used at different stages of the persuasion process (known in marketing as the buyer’s journey).

In the initial stages, the main goal of persuasion is to build a positive reputation and association. Reciprocity and liking are therefore especially relevant.

In the later stages, reducing uncertainty surrounding your offer through social proof and authority is key.

Finally, scarcity and consistency can help motivate action, the goal of the third stage.

The Seventh Factor: Unity
Cialdini adds a new factor in Pre-Suasion. Unity is the idea that we are persuaded by people who are not only similar to us, but who have some kind of shared identity.

Several situations can affect feelings of unity:

Kinship: We feel unity with people in our immediate families. In larger social groups it may also be possible to activate familial ideas through messaging.
Home: Related to kinship, we are more likely to feel unity with those we grew up with as children, even if they are not family.
Locality: If you ever run into people from your hometown, there is an instant connection. Localities can activate unity.
Region: Are you from the same state as someone else? The same country? Especially when you are far away from those places, shared region can provide a source of unity.
Shared Action: Working toward a common goal can increase both unity and liking.
Co-creation: Creating something collaboratively appears to increase unity beyond simple shared action.
Long-term Reciprocity: Long-term reciprocity and building of a relationship can increase unity with individuals.

Ethics of Pre-Suasion
As always in persuasion, there are questions of ethics. With understanding of human psychology and persuasion “hacks,” it may be tempting to use these techniques unethically.

In addition to urging organizations to remain ethical for purely moral reasons, Cialdini argues that dishonesty actually hurts the bottom line in three core ways:

Poor Employee Performance: Employees working in dishonest companies are always aware of that fact. The added moral stress has been shown to decrease performance.
Employee Turnover: Turnover is easy to track and demonstrably linked to ratings of organizational honesty. Recruiting becomes a major expense for unethical companies.
Employee Fraud and Malfeasance: When the morally upstanding employees leave, the remaining employees hold lower moral standards. This leads to greater internal dishonesty, from basic theft of office supplies all the way to outright fraud.

And, of course, the losses and damage to the brand resulting from the discovery of dishonesty may be too much for a company to recover from.

Overall, Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion offers compelling research demonstrating that understanding psychology can help marketers (ethically) make their messaging more compelling—and make audience members more receptive in the first place.