When Liking Someone Influences Choice

Last week my vacuum broke. I was chatting with a friend about it and she suggested getting the same brand she has. I immediately felt a pull to purchase that brand even though I knew that I should research its reliability, price, and features before making a decision. I was responding to the influence of liking. When we like someone, we typically let her opinions and recommendations sway our decisions more than if we are neutral about or don’t like someone.

Several things contribute to liking someone including how attractive he is and whether she compliments us. Although your immediate reaction may be that there’s no way we are THAT superficial, study after study has shown that we form immediate responses based on things as trivial as this. This isn’t to say that deeper thinking can’t counteract or balance these responses, just that these responses are there, hardwired into our brains.

For nonprofits, using liking can be a great way to capture someone’s attention so that they are ready to listen to your more reasoned arguments. While finding a friend to promote your organization or issue is ideal, there are more efficient ways to use liking to your organization’s benefit. Finding a spokesperson who demonstrates one or more of the following qualities will go a long ways:[i]

  1. Physical attractiveness – If someone is attractive, we want to listen to her. Attractiveness also creates a halo effect, influencing our feelings about other traits about that person.
  2. Similarity – If someone is similar in his opinions, personality traits, dress, background, or life-style, it helps us to form a bond with that person.
  3. Compliments – When someone compliments us, we respond by developing positive feelings toward that person.
  4. Repeat exposure – Seeing someone repeatedly causes us to like her, unless that person is encountered under unpleasant conditions.
  5. Cooperation – Someone who can develop a sense of common goals can bridge rifts and strengthen liking because we feel he is on the same team with us.
  6. Association – When we can associate an organization’s issues, ideas, or spokesperson with a popular cultural focus, a celebrity, attractive people, benefits, and popular concepts such as freedom or peace, we are more likely to have positive feelings toward that idea or person.

For commercial advertisers, a likable spokesperson is often all they need since they are trying to create a spur of the moment decision. Nonprofits, on the other hand, typically are trying to create long-term attitude or behavior change. Liking can serve as the introduction to an idea that will then facilitate a more in-depth relationship to the organization or issue.

This is how the vacuum purchase worked for me. I used my friend’s suggestion as the starting point for research. I didn’t end up buying her recommended brand, but I now know a lot more about vacuums and am happy with my new purchase.

[i] Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised (New York: Harper Business, 2007).

Image source: http://www.appliancesonlineblog.com.au/vacuums-floor-care/vacuuming-your-baby-other-oddities-5-vintage-vacuum-ads/

Engaging the Power of Collective Action

This week marks the 29th anniversary of the arrival of the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament in Washington D.C. after a nine month trek on foot across the United States. Participating in the peace march with a thousand other committed souls was a defining era of my life, in part because of the sense of collective action I built with others.

There is something about joining in collective action that is incredibly inspiring, uniting a group of passionate people who are actively working to create a better world. The relationships we built survive to this day; we continue to inspire each other with the myriad ways we are interacting with our world to create positive change.

The peace march was undoubtedly a unique situation, but a sense of collective action is something that is of benefit to any organization. Collective action is defined as a collection of individuals acting as a cohesive unit (in person or virtually) in which they have adopted a shared definition of a problem.[i] Working together and sharing meaning creates a sense of belonging and loyalty to the organization, the cause, and to each other.

Nonprofits can think of their communications with members and the public as one of the building blocks for collective action. Social movement scholars recognize that there are three components to any persuasive message calling for collective action: a diagnosis of the problem, a proposed solution (prognosis), and a call to action. Using an example promoting gun safety legislation from the League of Women Voters of Oregon:

  1. Diagnosis: What is the problem? Who is responsible? “There are critical loopholes in current background check legislation.”
  2. Prognosis: What is the solution? “Legislators need to know these are common sense health and safety measures, not infringements of Second Amendment rights.”
  3. Call to action conveying collective value and urgency: “This is too important for Oregon not to move forward. Help make your vote count.”

The diagnosis, prognosis, and call to action all help to create a shared understanding of the issue and a sense of collective power and urgency. Next time you are writing any type of communication intended to change attitudes or behaviors, think about including all three components in order to build a sense of collective action, whether planning a cross-country march or simply circulating a petition.

Image used with permission © 1986 DanCoogan.com, 602.220.9192, All Rights Reserved

[i] Bert Klandermans, “Framing Collective Action,” in Media and Revolt: Strategies and Performances from the 1960s to the Present, ed. Kathrin Fahlenbrach, Erling Sivertsen, and Rolf Werenskjold (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2014), 41–58.

Rational Brain; Emotional Brain

Lately I have been noticing two distinct sides of my brain. My default operation is to respond to things intellectually, analyzing pros and cons, looking for logic and reason. However, I have a deep-seated need to express and respond to emotions as well. I nourish this side by reading good books, watching movies, and sharing feelings with my loved ones.

It turns out that, according to psychological research, everyone has these two sides, and they manifest themselves into two basic ways of responding to information: emotional and rational. Our brains, of course, are not literally split in this manner but it is a useful metaphor for envisioning the way we process information and make choices. From the perspective of those wishing to change attitudes or behaviors, whether it is to buy a new razor or protest the development of fossil fuels, they can choose to frame their messages to appeal to the rational or emotional side of us.

Rational appeals are those that are logically oriented, using facts and numbers, as opposed to emotional appeals, which are oriented toward eliciting positive or negative feelings. Take, for example, a Harry’s Razor ad: “Every man deserves a quality shave at a fair price.” This is a mostly logical argument about monetary value. On the other hand, Gillette appeals purely to emotions with this ad: “Notice how much she wants to kiss you since you switched razors? You’re welcome.”

At a nonprofit where I used to work, discussions would ensue about whether something that relied on emotional appeals was somehow cheating; trying to influence people to support or oppose an issue without engaging their rational side seemed like encouraging them to use poor decision-making skills. Others would defend the emotional plea, pointing out that those appeals are often the only way to get someone to start paying attention. Which side is right?

The science is interesting, and still developing in this area. What we know right now is that rational appeals are more effective with certain people or in certain contexts than emotional appeals, and the reverse is true as well. It just depends on the person’s natural orientation, how they have been primed by recent experiences, and the importance of the decision. We also know that both our rational and emotional sides work in concert to help us make fast and accurate decisions most of the time.

Advertising studies in particular have found that emotional appeals overall have a larger influence on persuasion. It’s possible that the results skew toward emotional appeals in advertising because purchasing a product is often less serious than other kinds of decisions we make. Thinking again about razors, we know that all razors are going to do the job we need them to do. So the reason to pick one over another, after accounting for small differences in price and features, will likely simply come down to how the product makes us feel. Even bigger purchases like cars or houses have a lot to do with our feelings about the product and what it says about us. Does this apply to nonprofits?

Some nonprofit marketers suggest we can take the advertising results and apply them directly to nonprofit work, and others reject this idea. I think it depends on a number of factors:

  1. In a pool of similar organizations where the differentiations are minor, emotional appeals can help someone identify which group she will find the best cultural fit.[i]
  2. When addressing an audience with little knowledge about an issue, emotional appeals can help that audience initiate thought about the issue.[ii]
  3. When addressing an audience that is already knowledgeable and concerned, rational appeals will provide longer-term attitude or behavior change than emotional appeals.[iii]
  4. On the other hand, if the audience starts off opposed to your message, rational appeals often cement attitudes even further in the direction opposite what you intend.[iv] [There is some data that says this is counteracted when accompanied by an image. See my earlier post on influencing naysayers (http://wp.me/p6CWME-7).]

Ultimately, it may be a combination of the two that works best. The emotional appeal at the beginning gets people’s attention and piques their interest. Following with a rational appeal solidifies that interest and helps commit any changes taking place in attitude or behavior to last longer than the next few minutes. However, it’s always important to evaluate who your audience is and what your purpose is before deciding. What has worked for you?

[i] Rita Clifton, ed., Brands and Branding, 2nd ed. (New York: Bloomberg Press, 2009).

[ii] Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, “The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 19 (1986): 123–62.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Martin Fishbein et al., “Avoiding the Boomerang: Testing the Relative Effectiveness of Antidrug Public Service Announcements before a National Campaign,” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 2 (February 1, 2002): 238–45, doi:10.2105/AJPH.92.2.238.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tory Byrne

Inspiring Action on Climate

One issue that drives me to action is climate change. For those on board with the matter, it seems a no-brainer that we should be doing everything we can to reduce the levels of carbon in our atmosphere. But this kind of action is clearly not happening, even among those who understand that climate change is one of the most serious issues of our time. For nonprofits working on climate issues, this can be more than frustrating.

Climate change (a.k.a. global warming) has been firmly established as a global problem with far-ranging and severe consequences such as widespread drought, floods, extreme weather, species extinction, sea level rise, breakdown of civil infrastructure, and more. The fact of anthropogenic climate change is not in doubt; a study examining almost 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts over 20 years found that over 97% of studies that took a position agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.[i]

However, the issue has received lukewarm support from those able to have an effect on the problem, such as the general public and governments. A Gallup poll conducted in spring 2014 showed that only 33% of Americans surveyed view climate change as a cause of serious concern, placing climate change at the bottom of a list of environmental concerns.

Given the seriousness of the matter and the fluctuation in belief in the issue, researchers have been motivated to explore why people have not taken more actions to curb climate change on their own. Here are some examples of what they have found.

Barriers to participation include:

  1. Skepticism due to lack of trust in scientific and government institutions[ii]
  2. Fatalism due to a sense that the problem has moved beyond human control[iii]
  3. A concerted effort by an elite few to undermine scientific consensus[iv]
  4. A perception that it’s a distant abstraction, with effects such as sea level rise too far in the future to worry about[v]

So what works? Personal relevance and retrievability bias. Let me explain.

Personal relevance. As we all have likely experienced, we become more influenced by issues when those concerns seem personally relevant. Individuals find it easier to assess large problems when they can relate them to their own experiences. This has panned out in research on climate change communication. Americans with direct experience of the effects of global warming have increased perceptions of risk, worry, and motivation.[vi] The weather people experience, particularly hot weather even when not scientifically attributable to climate change, has been shown to directly impact their belief in climate change.[vii]

Retrievability bias. Recent experiences in people’s minds tend to overshadow other judgments.[viii] People assume that the more instances of something they can retrieve from memory, the more frequently that thing will occur. Recentness, familiarity, and salience all influence how easily an instance can be retrieved.

Extreme weather may just present the perfect inroad to helping people understand that climate change is real and happening now. While it is inaccurate to directly equate weather with climate, we can use these opportunities to point out that the occurrence of these events is climbing due to climate change. (For a fun illustration on the difference between weather and climate, see Climate Adam’s recent video: https://youtu.be/vpz-qDK9wd0.)

Extreme weather like Hurricane Patricia, the wildfires and drought in the west, and a particularly potent El Nino are opportunities for people to connect to how climate change is impacting them or someone they know right now with obvious consequences.

As one group of experts says, “Place-based climate change education strategies—which highlight the local impacts of climate change in a manner that can be experienced by people with their senses—hold considerable potential to help large numbers of Americans come to understand the issue in a manner more consistent with the state-of-the-science.”[ix]

A lot of research is currently being conducted to determine the best ways to influence action on climate change. Until we know more, using extreme weather to help people understand the personal impact of climate change is a great place to start.

Image source: freeimages.com/TJ Smith

[i] Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., … Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8(2), 024024. http://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024

[ii] Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290–302. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0023566

[iii] Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3–4), 445–459. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2007.01.004

[iv] Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming (Reprint edition). New York: Bloomsbury Press.

[v] Myers, T. A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Akerlof, K., & Leiserowitz, A. A. (2013). The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 343–347. http://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1754

[vi] Myers.

[vii] Zaval, L., Keenan, E. A., Johnson, E. J., & Weber, E. U. (2014). How warm days increase belief in global warming. Nature Climate Change, 4(2), 143–147. http://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2093

[viii] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

[ix] Myers, p. 345.

VW, Ethics, and Persuasion

The VW scandal has me thinking. As someone who purchased an implicated car just 10 days before the news broke, I feel manipulated, angry, and a big loss of trust. At the same time, I feel resigned that big business, driven by the hallowed dollar, would resort to this type of sneaky persuasion. However, if a nonprofit had carried out a comparable action, I would be feeling far more than begrudging resignation. We expect more social responsibility from nonprofits, yet nonprofits also use a range of persuasive techniques.

Those of us in the business of changing minds, at least in the nonprofit world, tend to shy away from saying that we are using persuasion. Somehow, it seems a dirty word even though typically we are persuading for the purpose of creating a better future for an individual, a neighborhood, a society, or the planet. Out and out admitting we are using persuasion seems dangerous, like we are flirting with the forces of evil to accomplish good.

Yet, persuasion is exactly what we need to use to accomplish many of our goals. Persuasive processes provide useful cues and shortcuts for supporters when making decisions about how to respond to our messages. And recognizing that we are, in fact, employing persuasive techniques could help us maintain awareness that we need to keep ethics in the forefront.

So when does persuasion go bad? Methods of persuasion range on a continuum from providing information to coercing compliance through propaganda. Gass offers a balanced definition of persuasion as: “the activity of creating, reinforcing, modifying or extinguishing beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, and/or behaviors within a given communication context,”[1] and I would add, per Soules,[2] that this activity can take place either consciously or unconsciously on the part of the sender or receiver.

Propaganda, often considered a more pernicious form of persuasion, is defined by Ellul as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, … through psychological manipulations…”[3] Propaganda involves power: it is consciously employed by those in power in order to gain or maintain compliance of those who are not in the dominant class, or employed by those who aim to become the dominant class, such as in revolution. Fortunately (or some might say unfortunately), nonprofits are rarely operating at this level.

While it is likely that few, if any nonprofits are participating at the intense level of manipulation that VW is, public benefit organizations are still using persuasion. Some have crossed the line of good ethics. We have all seen the stories. Some have done so knowingly while others find themselves caught unawares.

How do you stay clearly on the correct side of the ethical persuasion line? Here are some fairly simple guidelines:

  1. Provide accurate and truthful information, even if it doesn’t shed the best light on you or your organization. Have to share some mishandling of funds? Be honest about what happened, then state how you are rectifying the situation and what you will do to prevent future problems.
  2. Provide a fairly even exchange in benefits between the organization and its supporters. Asking for volunteer time or money? Make sure volunteers and donors feel rewarded in the ways you have promised they would.
  3. Keep compassion, cooperation, and common good at the core of your message. More likely than not, if a message divides or feeds on stereotypes, it could do more harm than good.
  4. Check your gut. If you were on the receiving end of the communication, how would you really feel about it? If your internal guide has mislead you in the past or you’re just not sure, find a trusted colleague with whom you can discuss the situation, especially if he has a neutral viewpoint (e.g. outside of the organization).

Ultimately, ethics depends on perceptions of truth, meaning that the line between ethical and unethical persuasion is not always clear. What may appear ethical to one person may not be ethical to another. However, the more you stay definitively on the correct side of the ethical line, the more trust you build with the public and supporters. If you do venture into a gray area, having a reserve of trust means they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

While I am enraged at the greediness and manipulation of a car company, I hope to never see an equivalent transgression made by a nonprofit working for the public good. We have a lot more to lose than customers or money. Our work depends on public trust, and violation of that trust by one organization can reflect on us all.

[1] Robert H. Gass. (2007). Persuasion, social influence, and compliance gaining (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, pp. 33–34.

[2] Soules, M. (2015). Media, persuasion and propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[3] Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.). New York: Vintage, p. 61.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tom Campbell and Ton Koldewijn, with edits by the author

The Persuasive Potential of Interactivity

3 AM. Sucked in again playing with the internet. Why are we so drawn into this medium? Some say the interactive nature of web sites makes us stay engaged, even mimicking one-on-one human interaction in some cases. Others say interactivity just distracts viewers from thinking.

A recent study adds ammunition to the argument that interaction can increase the effects of a message, particularly persuasive effects.[i] This is good information for nonprofits with an aim to create social change through attitude and behavior change – an extremely challenging goal.

In the study, researchers had college students view a web site with anti-smoking messages. Some conditions included interactive features such as slider bars that morphed images and/or navigational controls that allowed users to create their own path through the information on the page. Adding these features made the students feel more absorbed and encouraged positive feelings toward the web site and its messages. The ultimate result for the study participants? Greater exposure to messages that smoking is unattractive and bad for your health.

There are caveats, of course. The slider encouraged fairly superficial thoughts about the messages, which may mean that the reactions to the web site might be short-lived. The navigational controls elicited deeper thinking, but only seemed to have an attitudinal effect on those who didn’t consider smoking to be a highly important subject.

Nonetheless, these findings suggest several important strategies for the way nonprofit organizations can use the internet:

  • Add interactive features to your web site, such as infographic zoom, image 3-D rotation, location sensitive maps, mouse-overs, and more
  • Allow users to open additional content while staying on the same page (e.g. text boxes that expand and collapse) instead of navigating to separate pages or stacking information into long pages
  • Produce online documents like annual reports in a program such as Acrobat that allows interactive features
  • Provide links to your interactive web features in social media posts
  • Ask questions in your social media posts to start conversations
  • Create a space for conversations on your web site
  • Alert supporters to interactive features in newsletters and emails

I hope the next time I find myself still awake at 3 AM to the glow of my laptop or phone, it will be because I can’t seem to leave the site of a nonprofit that is trying to change the world.

[i] Oh, J., & Sundar, S. S. (2015). How does interactivity persuade? An experimental test of interactivity on cognitive absorption, elaboration, and attitudes. Journal of Communication, 65(2), 213–236. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12147

Image source: freeimages.com/len-k-a

Branding Your Nonprofit – Good or Bad?

What’s with the branding controversy? Branding has been around since the first rancher stamped his cow with an identifier to distinguish ownership at market. With the proliferation of mass-produced products during the industrial revolution, the practice of branding provided product differentiation. Over the last 100 years, brands have evolved to become symbolic representations of companies or organizations.

Nonprofits of the past seldom concerned themselves with branding because differentiation was clear: a nonprofit represented a unique issue or a unique group. Clearly, this is no longer the case and some form of branding is useful for differentiation.

But there is a bigger reason branding is important. Humans have a natural affinity for symbolic experiences. Just look at the power of storytelling. Nonprofits use storytelling every day to create meaning and emotion in their supporters in order to garner powerful backing for specific programs or projects. The same can be true for an organization as a whole. If an organization can tell a big-picture meaning-laden story about itself through its brand, it is in a position to create powerful change as a whole.

Defining your brand provides at least three considerable benefits:

  • Branding helps clarify the main story of your organization. Getting clear on this story will help hone priorities, messages, and audiences.
  • Branding means focusing on relationships. The practice of branding forces organizations to think of the long-term impact of their actions and messages by considering the relationships they need to build and maintain with supporters in order to remain strong. [1]
  • Branding creates community. The people who respond to a specific brand have characteristics in common. Because of those commonalities, members and supporters of a well-branded organization feel part of a community, virtual or live, and reap the benefits that communities provide: support, encouragement, teamwork, synergy…

But what about the down side of branding? The 1999 publication of Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, helped to summarize and popularize many concerns of the anti-branding circle. Brand critics state that the emphasis on brand image and the subsequent move away from products and production has led corporations to take advantage of people and environments in less developed parts of the world, often in direct contradiction to the image they are trying to sell. Critics also charge that corporations have claimed almost everything public and privatized it, as well as undermined our democracy by reinforcing the self-centered, individualistic nature of our society.[2]

It is true that people in less developed countries are frequently bearing the brunt of our consumer needs. I could cite hundreds of examples linking environmental degradation and human exploitation to many different industries. Issues with privatization of public space and undermining of democracy are equally prevalent.

Do public benefit nonprofits want to be part of something that has caused so much harm?

I argue that much of the concerns around image branding should be taken seriously. However, I contend it is our system of capitalism, not branding, that encourages corporations to act in this manner.

Branding can actually help resolve some of these issues: nonprofit organizations can use branding to strengthen their own relationships, clarify their stories, and create community. If nonprofit, non-commercial institutions use branding powerfully, they can help to rebuild institutions that emphasize community instead of individuality and caring instead of spending. Organizations can help to provide the knowledge people need to make informed purchases and help others gain the financial ability to make choices, countering some of capitalism’s downsides.

Branding will continue to be an area of contention. In the meantime, supporters of branding can use the impact and effectiveness of good branding practices to bring the world closer together instead of driving it apart.

How have you used branding in your organization? What benefits or challenges have you discovered?

[1] Who’s wearing the trousers? (2001, September 6). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/770992

[2] Goodman, B., & Dretzin, R. (2004). The Persuaders. Boston, MA: WGBH Boston. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/

Image source: freeimages.com/Petr Kovar