6 principles of influence in content marketing

Ask any Internet marketing expert what makes a digital marketing campaign more likely to be successful, and you’re liable to hear a common refrain: valuable content. Content is king. Create relevant content for people that they want.

While all these answers are true, they’re incomplete. They don’t provide you with a more comprehensive view of content marketing from the perspective of getting your audience to do what you want them to do, which is the very definition of influence and the measure of your influence over your audience.

In 1999, Dr. Robert Cialdini postulated 6 principles of influence and persuasion that can be leveraged to make influence and persuasion techniques more effective. Let’s take a look at these and how they might be able to improve the influence of your content marketing. The 6 principles are:

  • Reciprocity. People tend to return a favor and honor social debts.
  • Consistency. People will tend to honor a commitment and be consistent with previous behaviors.
  • Social proof. People tend to follow the herd.
  • Authority. People tend to obey authority figures.
  • Likeness. People tend to be influenced by those they are like and those they like.
  • Scarcity. People tend to act faster under the perception of scarcity.


How would each of these principles be used in content marketing?

Reciprocity. Offer your audience something of value. This may be content, or it may be a material good or service. Whatever it is, Cialdini’s version of reciprocity does not necessarily enforce a quid pro quo. Give, and then ask after you’ve gained influence with them. Of all the techniques, digital marketers tend to make use of this the most, because it’s the simplest to understand and execute on.

Consistency. People tend to behave consistently, aligned with previous behaviors. Cialdini cites the example of going around the neighborhood with a petition for a cause and then going around again a week later soliciting donations for the cause. Donors nearly doubled with the use of the petition because people wished to be consistent with their previous signature of the petition. Think about how you can use behavioral consistencies – subscribing to an email, following someone on a social network, taking a poll or survey, etc. – to create a behavior and then use a followup marketing campaign to elicit the response you seek.

Social proof. Properly executed, social media can radically change your content marketing. Every time someone shares, comments, engages, or likes your content, they’re implicitly endorsing it, creating social proof that your content marketing has value. Encourage and incentivize your audience to share as much as possible.

Authority. Presumably people consume your content because you have some degree of knowledge and authority, enough credibility for people to want to read what you have to say. Provide people with the tools they need to become authorities in their own social circles and your content marketing will be unstoppable. For example, Peter Shankman’s Help a Reporter allowed PR and marketing professionals to have free access to journalism inquiries that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Not only was Shankman an authority on PR, but he empowered each of his subscribers to become authorities in their respective companies, creating press and earned media opportunities seemingly out of thin air.

Likeness. How well do you know your audience? For good or ill, we are easily persuaded by people who are like us, or are people we like. Narrowly, social media certainly provides plenty of ways to identify people just like you, such as Facebook’s Graph API. More broadly, think about the imagery and language in your content marketing and whether it’s aligned to your audience. If your marketing data indicates that your audience is largely Hispanic, having content and imagery focused on Swedish personas will simply not resonate.

Scarcity. Whatever you have to offer, there’s a way to make it scarce. It could be a time limited special offer, or a limited quantity. It could be your time and knowledge in a consulting capacity about a subject matter you have expertise in. Find a way to bring some scarcity to what you have to offer.

Is Dr. Cialdini’s checklist the definitive answer to making your content marketing more powerful? No. Is it part of the answer? Absolutely. Try it out with your own content marketing, integrate his principles into what you’re doing, and see if you can create some similar results.

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How to create a big marketing idea

In yesterday’s post, you and I looked at how to tell if a big marketing idea made any sense by deconstructing it into actionable items. Today, let’s do the reverse and look at making a big marketing idea. Logically, if we judge an idea’s worth by the manual it comes with, in terms of operationalization, then in order to make an idea worthwhile, we should start with what we already know how to do.


Look at your marketing toolkit. Look at all of the tools in it, all of the frameworks you know, all of the ideas you trust and believe in. What do you know? What can you do? Of the tools, tactics, and frameworks you have in your toolkit, what do each of them have as inputs and outputs?

Once you know what tools you have in your arsenal and what they can do, you can start to gather them together. Look for common inputs and common outputs. For example, social media has content as an input and website visitors as an output. Does anything else share those inputs or outputs? SEO certainly does – SEO takes content as an input and website visitors as an output. Thus, creating a strategy where there’s significant overlap between social media and SEO is a logical conclusion to reach.

You can take any process and put the ideas together to form a bigger idea. For example, I write blog posts on a regular basis. If a blog post does especially well, I flag it to be part of something bigger, maybe turn it into a webinar. If that webinar does well, then I take the webinar and turn it into an eBook. If the eBook does well, I turn it into a public speaking presentation. Suddenly a series of individual tactics is sewn together into a coherent strategy, something that can be turned into a “Big Idea” – in this case, something I call “content upcycling“. Now it’s a bigger idea.

The great advantage of creating bigger strategies and ideas like this out of tactics and operations is that by default, it “comes with the manual” because you already know how to execute on every step of the strategy. You automatically know it’s valid because you’ve sewn it together from existing valid, working parts. If you want it to be a “secret sauce”, you don’t have to disclose every portion of it, but you can share enough of the details so that other people can get at least some of the results you achieve from your particular recipe.

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How to assess a big marketing idea


See if this sounds familiar: marketing thought leader X publishes a new paper with a grand Big Idea, complete with fancy infographic and a chart or framework that is both dazzlingly complex and slightly intimidating. Whether you like said thought leader or not, you wonder whether their Big Idea is actually worth pursuing, or whether it’s just a bunch of hot air, and pursuing it would be a waste of time and resources.

I’ve been in that situation plenty of times over the years. I’ve seen lots of Big Ideas, lots of fancy frameworks, lots of infographics whose design budget probably eclipsed some peoples’ annual income. To figure out what’s the real deal and what’s BS, I borrowed an idea from the martial arts.

In the martial arts tradition I practice, we have lots of Big Ideas called kata. Loosely translated from Japanese, the word means form or routine, in the sense of something you practice. Each one is a Big Idea, how to win in a certain way under a specific set of adverse circumstances.

My teacher, Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center, taught us that to learn and master a kata, you have to break it apart and study each of the pieces. How does a wrist lock in the middle of Batsu Gi kata work outside of those particular circumstances? Can you make it work versus a punch? A knife? You operationalize each piece of the kata until you know how it works; when you put it back together, you truly understand it.

This methodology, which has served me well for over two decades, is one you can use for evaluating any thought leader’s Big Idea. If you read about some new framework or concept, see if you can break it apart into operational pieces. See if you can transform the Big Idea into little things that you can implement. If you can, then you know the Big Idea has wheels – it’s something that can be tested, evaluated in components, and used to make change in your business at both tactical and strategic levels.

If you try to take apart a Big Idea and find that there’s little or nothing you can operationally implement, then you know the Big Idea is either a complete mismatch for your organization, or it might be full of hot air entirely. Try it with any of the Big Ideas of the day and see if you can turn them into Little Things To Do!

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