People are a lot more alert to the intentions of marketers than they used to be 50 years ago. Consumers have learnt to recognise the persuasive attempts of marketing developing what we call persuasion knowledge.

Persuasion & Persuasion Knowledge

To understand persuasion knowledge, we must first discuss persuasion.

In marketing, persuasion theory suggests attitude measurement predicts consumer behaviour.

Shopping in a retail store

Persuasion is the act of trying to modify a person’s attitude and beliefs toward a certain topic. Persuasion is the process of convincing someone to do or believe something. For a marketer or salesperson, they want to persuade you to purchase something. They want to convince you that you need or want it.

A person’s Persuasion Knowledge is how they “cope” with persuasion attempts, and “beliefs about the tactics that advertisers and marketers use to try to persuade them” (Boush, Friestad & Rose, 1994)

“…Because attitudes exert a strong influence on behaviour, attitude research offers a potentially useful device for explaining and predicting consumer behaviour.” (Udell,1965)

Salesperson talking to a prospect

Persuasion defined

Scholars have researched Persuasion extensively over the years since in psychology since the 1950s. Persuasion theory is adapted from the behavioural sciences, in a time when it measured the persuasiveness of propaganda — political or advertising. It was a much simpler time back in the 1960s, where government experimentation and mass-marketing were commonplace. Messages subtly tried to change the attitudes of receivers of the communication. Attitude the most commonly explored metric in persuasion research.

This was under a belief that learning is a process of where knowledge is acquired, and behaviours changed through stimuli and response. A person’s behaviours learned through their environment. Assumptions of persuasion theory are that everyone has a unique level of ability, readiness and motivations to deal with each persuasive message we encounter. Which is many.

Reinforcement is one tactic used by marketers, under the assumption that the more we see often we see a message, the more credible it becomes. Credibility is a key moderator of persuasion.

The Persuasion Process

There are four factors important in facilitating the persuasion process. First, the communicator’s credibility and reputation. Are you reliable and credible. Next is the order of statements and there are two approaches here, primacy or recency. Whether you state your position right at the beginning, or if it is the last thing you do.

Third, completeness of statements, meaning being able to cover the topic holistically, for and against, and have a complete argument. If you can weigh the pros and cons, you can be more persuasive. Finally, announcement of intentions. If you are going to persuade your audience, they need to be interested in the first place. Be specific with your message and intentions.

Several factors need to be in your favour to persuade an audience. The audience needs to be receptive and interested in your message in the first place, it needs to support the same ideas and opinions as to their own. People have a filter and quickly tune out, so receivers need to be open to a conversation and to receive a message.

Marketers always try to rationalise a behaviour, so created a formula to explain the process. Values, Beliefs and Motivations influence a person’s attitude, and this attitude then influences their behaviour. Value + Beliefs + Motives = Attitudes → Behaviour.

Marketing communicates a message to try and change an attitude. They do this in two ways. First, to try to change a belief. Second, to try and mature a belief through modifying that person’s values and/or motives. The second route is much more difficult as values and motives are part of who is a person is and is not easily changed. It is far easier to add a new value or motive.

Car sales — can be a very persuasive encounter…

Persuasion tactics

There are several tactics that marketers/brands can use to try and influence and persuade their audience. Five persuasion tactics are:

Creating Uncertainty: If a communicator has an audience strongly opposed to their view, creating questions around that topic in the audiences’ mind is a powerful tool. This tactic is used when the audience is strong in their stance.

Reducing Resistance: if the resistance in the audience is moderate, it is possible to influence their view from negative to neutral. You do not expect them to side with you but to accept your view.

Change Attitude: When the audience is neutral, there is a good opportunity to persuade their attitude to your favour.

Amplify Attitude: Where the audience is already favourable, a message reinforcing your point of view is beneficial here to stay strong.

Gain Behaviour: When your audience is strongly on your side, the goal is to act. Like for a salesperson, making the sale.

“In its most basic form, persuasion involves changing a person’s mental state, usually as precursors to behavioural change.” (O’Keefe, 2008)

Persuasion knowledge — a defence against marketing

Marketing is everywhere in our environments containing persuasive messages. We are living in a media-saturated world. “One of a consumer’s primary tasks is to interpret and cope with marketers’ sales presentations and advertising” (Friestad & Wright, 1994). A theory of persuasion would not be complete without understanding how a person’s recognition of persuasion alters what occurs.

Consumers activate the persuasion knowledge to cope with persuasion attempts, to lessen the effects of its influence. Persuasion knowledge encompasses a person’s experiences and beliefs about the goals and tactics marketers use to persuade them. This includes the extent to which they find these techniques effective and appropriate, but also personal beliefs about how to cope with these tactics. Consumers choose a response tactic and we should not assume that people use persuasion knowledge only to resist an attempt.

The understanding of persuasion and advertising starts developing at childhood with the ability to distinguish commercial content. Persuasion knowledge develops throughout their life span, learnt through different scenarios such as social interactions and conversations with friends and family, and day-to-day general observations. Because of this, persuasion knowledge will differ among individuals.

Consumers are also far more likely to develop negative perceptions towards a person trying overly hard to persuade them into something that they do not want to do. In sales situations, negative perceptions of the sales agent also lessened the agent’s ability to persuade and increased the chance of the target’s resistance to the persuasion attempt. While some of these consumers may still make the purchase recommended by the salesperson, there are still long-term consequences of these negative perceptions such as negative word of mouth and a lower chance of repeat purchase.

“When a persuasive agent uses a credible tactic, persuasion knowledge access can lead consumers to evaluate the agent and its offering more (rather than less) favourably.” (Boerman, Willemsen & Van Der Aa, 2017)

Persuasive content online

Credibility, expertise and trustworthiness are key to being able to persuade an audience online. Social media allows brands to reach their target audience in an obtrusive way than traditional media.

Many consumers who engage in an entertainment experience do not expect to find promotional motives within that context. This means people are less likely to recognize something like product placement in a movie as advertising. Similarly, on social media, some people may not recognise a fitness influencer posting photos of a product they “use” as having persuasive intent. Sponsored content in the form of endorsements can seem more natural and some people have difficulty recognising the commercial intent.

The use of celebrity to endorse products on social media is “influencer marketing”, where content suggests that a celebrity is an authentic customer of the product or service. Interestingly, studies found when sponsored content is disclosed and noticed, the positive effect of celebrity endorsement disappears, as consumers recognise the advertising intent and trust reduces. A sponsored advertisement does not have the same effect as it is not perceived as being deceptive.

Different forms of marketing have a different effect on persuasion knowledge activation. For example, People are far more likely to have a positive response towards sponsored content than banner adverts. People are more receptive to messages that are not being deceptive with advertising intent. When an advertiser uses what consumers consider a credible tactic, an individual’s persuasion knowledge can lead to a positive evaluation rather than a negative one. Audiences perceive advertisements to have more value if ad scepticism levels are low. Trust is an important mediating factor for persuasion.

Read more: 27 Persuasion Techniques For Every Sales Professional