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The 6 principles of influence in the videogame industry.

In this blog post, we take a look at the psychology behind marketing by analysing Robert Cialdini's 6 principles of influence.

George Portman, Blogger

January 14, 2016

10 Min Read

Hello everyone! Today I will be giving a basic introduction of the theories of influence as described by Robert Cialdini. Hopefully, this will give some sort of insight into the psychology behind marketing. It's also quite the wall of text, so grab a cup of your preferred beverage and get ready to learn things!

This blog post was originally written by George Portman at Marketing Theory.

First though, a little background. Robert Cialdini first described his theories on influence in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. After doing tons of his own research he arrived at a conclusion that people are influenced by six different factors which he describes in detail in his book. It's a great read and in my opinion, it's written a lot less dry than most marketing books.

Personally, as a student of marketing and former field- and telemarketer I have found that these theories (like many others) are just as suited for selling items to one person as they are to sell them to an entire audience. I will be trying to link these theories to marketing (indie) games in particular with industry examples and some advice on how to recreate the effect yourself.

Now, in his book Cialdini describes what he calls the six principles of influence. These principles can be applied in many different ways, and in the future I might do more articles where I go more in-depth in each of the six principles. For now, I will give an introduction into all six of them. It should be noted that the marketer should try to experiment with combining the various principles to different degrees and create a marketing strategy that employs some or all of the six principles described below.

Before I start, one warning of sorts. These theories are commonly used to influence and persuade people to buy certain products. Similarily, they can be used to influence people to do other things as well. As such, it's very easy to read the six principles as manipulation rather than influencing. While it's ultimately up to the marketer and the developer to decide on what is ethical or not, I will use real-world examples so as to demonstrate what is considered standard practise in the gaming industry.

1. Reciprocity

People tend to return favours. If you give people something, they will give you something in return. When I sold newspaper subscriptions on the street, we would always hand out free newspapers. While this doesn't guarantee a sale, this would mostly guarantee the potential customer to stop and listen to what we had to say. You give your audience something and they will give you something in return. But it works outside of marketing too! For example, the well-known good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this idea.

In traditional marketing free samples are often employed to gain at least some form of interaction with the customer. Some customers might try a sample of a certain brand of apple juice, and at the very least they will probably look at what it costs in the supermarket the next time they do their shopping. In the gaming industry, this is usually done by providing a demo version. It depends on the reputation of the game what kind of reciprocity the demo will provide.

A game like Undertale for example, is a hugely popular game with a large following. Chances are that people have already heard some things about it before playing the demo. At that point the reciprocity of providing a demo version might lead to a sale. If you take a far more unknown game, like say Oh My Godheads, stumbling upon the demo might prompt the player to find more information on the game and, if they are so inclined, tell their friends about it, spreading awareness for the game. Both are ultimately good outcomes of reciprocity.

2. Liking

Liking is very personal. A very common saying is that "no matter how hard you try, you can't please everyone." And while that is certainly true, you can try to make a lot of people like you.  Because Cialdini's research has shown that people are more easily influenced by people they like. As a field marketer I was always super polite, and trying to be buddies with the potential customer. If they like you personally, they're more likely to buy something off of you. Attraction is a big factor in liking as well, and this is the same reason disney villains are always ugly, and the good guys are attractive: it's easier to root for the good guys that way.

In traditional marketing, this principle is often tied to the company's reputation. If the company has a bad reputation of dealing with their customers, they aren't very liked. However, especially indie developers have a huge advantage in this area. If they personally interact with their audience, they can actively make the audience like them. Not just as a company, but because that company now has one or two faces, it makes it much easier to like them.

The best possible example here is Minecraft. It popularised the easrly access model for exactly this reason. Notch, Jeb, Dinnerbone and many others were always very actively engaged with the community and took their suggestions and criticisms to heart. As such, people were much more willing to buy a game that was technically not even finished yet, and turn it into the hit it became.

3. Commitment

This one is a bit more complicated. Commitment, or consistency, is about how people don't like to go back on what they have said or done before. This one especially can get very manipulative, because it's very easy to use something a person has previously said or done against them later. For example, when selling newspaper subscriptions we would ask people certain questions to know if they're interested in out product. We would ask "Do you like to read in-depth background stories to the news?" if people said yes, then our product was for them. But if they, after our pitch, eventually said no to the product, we could try to convince them by saying that "But you said you valued reading in-depth articles, right?" Like I said, it can get extremely manipulative.

That being said, this is also one of the most common principles used in marketing because of it's effectiveness. People who subscribe to an e-mail listing, tend to check out things you send them because after all, they did sign up to your newsletter. They have don't want to disagree with themselves by not checking it out. People who have purchased a game already can be persuaded to buy DLC this way too. After all, if you're part of the community that wants to play as Muslim rulers in Crusader Kings 2, you'll probably buy the DLC Sword of Islam because you said you wanted it.

4. Social proof

This one you probably know about already. People want what other people have. People want to play, what others are playing. When I had someone who was doubting to subscribe to the newspaper I was selling, I could show them that I had sold the same subscription to two other people that day to proof that this is something people are really subscribing to. This is social proof. It can be even stronger though. There has been one experiment where one person looks up to the sky, and other people will also look up to see what they are seeing. It's related tot he concept of conformity, the need to belong to something.

This is basically the reason Youtube has a view counter. Visitors to the site might see a video with half a million views and think "Oh, but I don't want to miss out on that!" People have an urge to be in the loop and belong to something. To go back to Minecraft, the game has a live counter on their page keeping track of how many people have bought the PC/Mac version of the game. If a person sees that 22 million people have bought it, the chances are much higher that they will buy it too. After all, 22 million people can't be wrong, right?

5. Scarcity

When I start listing examples you will probably know exactly what kind of thing this is. In addition to wanting what other people have, people also want what they cannot have. This is why so many AAA brands have limited edition items. And the higher the value of the standard item, the higher the value of this limited edition is. It doesn't mean that the product is actually scarce. For example, there's no hard limit to how many Steam keys you can give out to people. But as long as your audience feels there is some sort of scarcity, they are more likely to buy it then when there isn't any.

As discussed before this is very prominent in many brands who issue limited editions of their standard product. An extremely good example from the US is the McRib from McDonalds. The McRib is always available for a limited time only, but it always seems to make a return. This doesn't stop people from going for a McRib now that they can still get one though.

There is one other strategy that uses perceived scarcity, but it doesn't lie in the scarcity of the product itself, but rather in it's price. Steam's summer and winter sales are excellent examples of this. Why buy a game for full price now, if you can get it for 65% off during the next summer sale? But you have to get it during the summer sale, because otherwise you'll miss out on the great deals! So not only the product, but also the price can be used to create perceived scarcity.

6. Authority

Authority is aprinciple that is based mostly on reputation. If someone shows that they are an authority figure, you are more likely to do what they say. It's the reason police officers have badges and uniforms, and even the name tags that the supermarket personell wears has this effect. They're perceived important enough for a name tag with the company logo on it, so you must have at least some authority in this establishment.

In marketing AAA companies definitely have an advantage here. If Blizzard launches a new trailer they'll want to start off with their company logo. That logo alone conveys some sort of authority about what is going to be shown in the trailer. Similarly, this is why high profile people in the industry and Youtubers have such an influence on sales and popularity of games. If Notch or Gabe Newell or Peter Molyneux talks about your game, people are going to follow their lead.

However, indies have a shot at this too, they just have to borrow someone else's authority. Great examples for this are awards and reviews. If you're quoting a great review in your trailer for example you're basically saying "Hey, you don't have to take my word for it, but my game is great! Look, these professionals agree with me!" The effect is similar for awards, depending on how well known and well regarded the award in question is. An IGN Game of the Year award (or even a nomination) is far more prestigious than an award from Joe Schmuck's gamesareawesome.com, so to speak. Never the less, the message is the same, "Hey these people know what they're talking about, they think my game's awesome!"

So that about wraps it up for an introduction. Hopefully it clears up a few things about the psychology behind marketing and maybe even gives you some ideas on how to employ these principles yourself! In the future I might publish some more information about each principle individually,  but until then I recommend you check out the book yourself!

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