13 lessons in persuasion: conmen vs. marketing pros

Posted by Matthew Stibbe Picture of Matthew Stibbe on 2 August 2010

Around 3.2 million people in the UK fall for mass marketed scams ever year – around one person in every fifteen. Swindles cost the public £3.5 billion every year.

Here's how to tell when persuasion is coming from a con man or a marketing pro.

Why cons work

The OFT conducted a report to investigate those who had been conned and concluded that:

  • 20 per cent of the UK population could be particularly vulnerable to scams, with previous victims of a scam consistently more likely to show interest in responding again
  • Over-confidence may actually increase the risk of becoming a victim. Having good background knowledge of the subject of a scam offer does not always keep you safe.
  • Victims are not poor-decision makers, for example they may have successful business or professional careers, but tend to be unduly open to persuasion by others and less able to control their emotions.
  • Victims often keep their decision to respond to a scam offer private and avoid speaking about it with family or friends.

What conmen do to trick their victims

Frank Stajano, an associate professor with the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, and Paul Wilson, star of "The Real Hustle", list seven principles that hustlers use to con their victims:

  • The Distraction principle - While you are distracted by what retains your interest, hustlers can do anything to you and you won’t notice.
  • The Social Compliance principle - Society trains people not to question authority. Hustlers exploit this “suspension of suspiciousness” to make you do what they want.
  • The Herd principle - Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks.
  • The Dishonesty principle - Anything illegal you do will be used against you by the fraudster, making it harder for you to seek help once you realize you’ve been had.
  • The Deception principle - Things and people are not what they seem. Hustlers know how to manipulate you to make you believe that they are.
  • The Need and Greed principle - Your needs and desires make you vulnerable. Once hustlers know what you really want, they can easily manipulate you.
  • The Time principle - When you are under time pressure to make an important choice, you use a different decision strategy. Hustlers steer you towards a strategy involving less reasoning.

Influence vs persuasion vs con

Conning and persuading are two very different things. However, having an understanding how to influence someone can help marketers and agencies use the art of persuasion for good.

Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University defines six "weapons of influence":

  • Reciprocity - People tend to return a favour. Give something away for free.
  • Commitment and Consistency - If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honour that commitment. React fast. It’s vital to react quickly to requests.
  • Social Proof - People will do things that they see other people are doing. Typical examples on the web include personal recommendations and endorsements.
  • Authority - People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. Find a flagship client.
  • Liking - People are easily persuaded by other people that they like. Make friends with your clients
  • Scarcity - Perceived scarcity will generate demand. Saying offers are available for a "limited time only" encourages sales.

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