Persuading people is never easy, but it can be a game-changing skill in the nonprofit world. You might think that persuasion is a trait you’re born with or just pure luck — and you aren’t alone — but Dr. Robert Cialdini disagrees. He sees it as a science and says it’s something everybody can get better at. You just have to know how.
Dr. Cialdini has taught psychology for more than 30 years and is viewed a leading mind in the psychology field, especially on the topic of persuasion. In his 1984 bestseller, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he sums up his findings in six principles: reciprocation, social proof, commitment and consistency, liking, authority and scarcity.
All of the principles are great, but we want to focus on the notion of Social Proof. Dr. Cialdini explains that it’s the influence someone’s peers have on them. When people aren’t sure about a particular choice or decision, they look to see what other people are doing to guide their own actions, and typically do so without even realizing it.
To test his thoughts, he worked with hotels in Arizona to find out what kind of messaging would best encourage guests to reuse towels. What he discovered was that signs that said a majority of guests reuse their towels were more successful than signs that appealed to environmental issues or those promising the laundry savings would be donated.
Authority adds to this idea. This, like social proof, draws from the idea that people look to others when making decisions. Not only do they look to peers, but they also respect the opinion of those they consider smart and successful. Studies have shown that just looking successful or in charge, even if it’s just an act, helps increase influence.
Researching social influence inspired us to apply his knowledge to our own corner of the universe as nonprofiteers. How can any of this help us? Let me explain.
Incorporating testimonials is probably the easiest way to use the idea of social influence to your advantage. Ask some people invested in your cause – whether they’re donors, benefactors, volunteers, or even employees – to write a few glowing words about your organization. Start including them in some of your marketing materials and social media. If people that aren’t involved see these, it will likely compel them to get in the mix.
You can also try to solicit some words from a local community leader. People who are held in high regard can do wonders for your organization. Anybody from business owners to politicians can increase your influence.
If you have volunteers who are active with your nonprofit and believe in your cause, they can be another voice for your organization. They’ll talk to their tribes about your organization, and, when they do, those people are more likely to be interested in getting involved.
Social influence is all about tapping into people’s tendency to gravitate towards behavior that other people approve of. Get creative and plan some group volunteering events because volunteering all by your lonesome can be intimidating. Being in a group is always better. Experiment with recruiting families as opposed to individuals to ensure your volunteers are comfortable volunteering with your organization.
Just like any skill, persuasion takes practice. Thanks to people like Dr. Cialdini, we have the tools needed to improve those skills. Take his knowledge and use it to your advantage to do more good.
Originally published 8.26.17—Updated 11.28.17
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