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Principles of Influence Part 4: Authority as a Builder of Trust

Note: This is the fourth in a series of six blog posts being featured in the coming weeks and months based on principles found in Dr. Robert Cialdini’s seminal psychology book entitled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It is essential reading for any marketer.

According to Dr. Cialdini, the principle of authority reveals that “people will follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts.” In direct marketing this authority can take the form of a professional endorser, a celebrity spokesperson, or even a credible testimonial. It begs the question: why, as humans, are we so susceptible to following the lead of others? According to an article in Psychology Today written by Mark van Vugt, Ph.D., “followership is the default setting in our brain and it begins when we are still in our nappies.”  The author goes on to explain that as a matter of survival instinct, babies will start mimicking the facial expressions of their mother within minutes of birth and then, in the ensuing months, follow their mother’s gaze, checking back to see that they are looking at the same thing. From approximately 14 months on, the baby is able to direct the mother’s gaze to their own, so that their activities mirror one another. In the animal kingdom, this sort of behavior is exhibited by goslings who dutifully follow their mother as the whole gaggle waddles in a line across the lawn; call it safety in numbers.

Within the context of consumer purchase decision making behavior, this need to survive, though not a matter of life and death, manifests itself as an innate need to “live with our decisions.” Authority is reassuring because it presupposes that someone with greater knowledge or experience than we possess is validating a product and its claims. Authority also provides a shortcut in a world awash with a glut of information and messages. Hence if Oprah Winfrey says that a book is good, it must be worth reading because her previous recommendations have consistently fueled book club selections and rocketed titles and authors to the top of the bestseller lists. Put another way, the buzz she has created has been validated by society repeatedly. Such authority acts as both an insurance policy to help mitigate buyer’s remorse, and a sturdy defense to justify purchases to others (say, a spouse) and within one’s own mind’s eye.

In direct marketing, perhaps the most common form of authority is the professional endorser or endorsement whereby the individual or group supporting the messaging has direct, relevant expertise that is germane to what is being advertised. That could be doctor in a white coat supporting the anti-aging claims of a growth hormone product or an assertion such as “9 out of 10 dentists prefer…” But authority can also take the form of a celebrity such as Marie Osmond, who leverages her own goodwill and credibility with the public to endorse a diet product such as Nutrisystem. How powerful is such authority in the form of a star endorsement? Over the past five years, its stock has gone from as low as $15.37 to a high of $55.90 per share (it currently trades in the $40s).

In an age of social proof, individual endorsements, reviews, and testimonials are also acting as a kind of authority.  According to a 2018 survey conducted by AdeptMind, nearly 47% of all product research begins on Amazon, which eclipses Google’s 35%. Therefore, presence on Amazon in and of itself acts as a form of authority, just as an appearance on a home shopping channel such as QVC or placement on an end-cap at Costco accomplishes a similar feat. The conclusion consumers make, which is another form of shortcut, is that if a product is in any of these places, it has been vetted and has a higher probability of being “good.” In addition, average star ratings and favorable notices lend authority to advertiser’s claims.

In the end, authority is really about trust; i.e., who do you trust? There is a reason people follow the leader: nobody wants to be played for a fool. Authority is a form of justification in a world that is often unjust. Therefore, marketers need to harness its power ethically and authentically. Their reward? Just desserts.

Rick Petry
Rick Petry

Author: Rick Petry is the CMO/EVP Client Services of DirectAvenue and a seasoned direct marketing professional and thought leader with experience spanning three decades. He has had a hand in campaigns generating over $1 billion in sales and is conversant in all facets of performance-based marketing including off-line and on-line media planning and buying, research, analytics, creative, production, and back-end management, Rick is the author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, and is a past Chairman of the Board of the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) and a recipient of ERA’s Volunteer of the Year award, as well as the Direct Response Marketing Alliance’ Member of the Year award as voted by his peers.