The Persuasive Power of Face to Face

First published April 30, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Think of the most persuasive person you know. The salesperson you can’t say no to, your mother (guilt always works), your spouse or your six-year-old child.  Now, imagine if you had never met the person in person and they were trying to persuade you over the phone, or by email. Would they be as persuasive? No. Persuasion just don’t work as well if you’re not face to face

Hardwired for Face to Face

Robert Cialdini wrote an entire book on the “Psychology of Persuasion.” He explains the hot buttons that get pushed, moving us toward doing something we might not otherwise have done. But if you look through all the persuasion buttons, one thing is true: they all work much better when you’re face to face.

Let’s take just one: reciprocity. Reciprocity, you scratching my back and me scratching yours, is a gut instinct for us. In fact, many of our treasured social institutions, including economic markets and the justice system, are based on our emotional connection to the concepts of reciprocity and fairness. Every single major faith has its own variation of the Golden Rule, which is reciprocity enshrined. But reciprocity is far more potent if the social conditions are set up in person. Political scientist Robert Putnam calls this “thick trust” as opposed to the “thin trust” represented by anonymous rules, law and mores. Study after study shows that even a simple act of giving makes the recipient feel indebted. Something as basic as asking how someone’s day is going makes one feel indebted and more likely to give something back. It’s one of the most powerful persuasion buttons you can push.

Another inherent human trait is empathy. We have an amazing ability to pick up on the emotions of others. We have a special type of neuron, called mirror neurons, that seem to be the seat of empathy. Mirror neurons explain why emotions can be contagious, why monkeys that see tend to be monkeys that do — and why, when you’re talking with someone, you find yourself subconsciously mimicking their actions or even their accent. Mirror neurons aren’t found in every animal. So far, they’ve been discovered in just a few primates, including us humans. Mirror neurons may be why the more you like someone, the more empathetic you are, leaving you more open to persuasion

What This Means for Selling Online

Somewhere along the line, face-to-face contact seemed to be considered superfluous in our new online world. We moved to virtual sales, commerce transacted at a distance, electronically, with nary a handshake, a wink, a smile or an eye roll to be seen. In theory, it should work, but in practice, it leaves a lot to be desired. We were not designed to communicate electronically. We can and do adapt to it, but like any instrument designed for a specific purpose, things just work better when we do what we were made to do. And we were made to connect with others in person.

We’re in the middle of an extensive research project exploring B2B buying and decision-making, and this lack of human contact in online sales strategies proved to be a huge obstacle to success. B2B buying is all about building trust and eliminating risk. It’s pretty difficult to build trust with someone you’ve never met. That’s not to say that electronic communication isn’t effective, but the social foundations have to be built in person. Research has shown that on Facebook, the vast majority of close “friends” that people keep are all people they know and have met face to face. You can find ideological common ground with someone over the Net, but the bonding happens when you can look in their eye and read their body language.

Face to Face in Florida

This is particularly timely with the Search Insider Summit coming up next week. I’ve found in my 13 years in this industry that my enduring friendships are always forged face to face. I knew of David Berkowitz or Aaron Goldman prior to meeting them, even admired their points of view, but I didn’t create a relationship with them until we spent some time together at a Summit. Many of the industry relationships that remain important to me were first forged at an event. Many of the most positive comments we consistently hear from the Summits are about the opportunities provided to bond and network.

Last week, I said one of the most important things we as search marketers could do was to focus on what happens after the click and improve the onsite experience. This week, I add to that. Also remember that trust is built face to face. Look at online as a way to extend and leverage those face to face encounters, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking a cold mouse is a substitute for a warm handshake.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s