What I Learned About Marketing Psychology At the Mall

Every Thursday night is “date night” at my house, which means that the nanny stays an extra hour so my wife and I can go out to dinner without the kids. This week we ended up at a chain restaurant at the local mall. After dinner, we strolled through the mall.  As I’ve recently been re-reading one of my all-time favorite marketing books –Robert Cialdini’s "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion"– I quickly noticed that virtually every “trick” of influence in Cialdini’s book was being used by stores in the mall. And of course, I also realized that all of these techniques could easily carry over to SEM landing pages and ad text.

Kiehl’s – Obedience to Authority. Kiehl’s (a cosmetics chain) has all of its employees wear white lab coats. Of course, Kiehl’s customers know that the employees are not scientists (indeed, it’s likely that these employees could just as easily be wearing colorful flair at Applebee’s, as I suspect the pay and qualifications are comparable). And yet, studies show that a person who dresses or acts like an authority figure can exert influence over others. Stanley Milgram most famously proved this in his amazing book "Obedience to Authority," in which normal people were convinced to administer lethal dosages of electricity to other people simply because someone in a white lab coat told them they had to (the dosages weren’t actually lethal, but the subjects in the experiment did not know this). Imagine how much more Kiehl’s sells because of those white lab coats. Imagine what adding elements of “authority” to your landing page could do for your business?



See’s Candy – The $2.50 Free Sample. Upon walking into See’s Candy, everyone knows that you are going to be offered a free sample of some chocolate goody. As soon as you accept the sample, the employee behind the counter asks “Now, what would you like to buy today?” What’s happening here is what Cialdini calls “reciprocity.”  When someone gives you a gift, you have an almost biological need to reciprocate. How many times has someone come up to your car and given you a free (and poor quality) window wash that you didn’t need or want, but that you nonetheless paid $2 for? Have you ever sent a donation to a charity that sent you a packet of beautiful address labels in the mail? These are all examples of reciprocity at work – give someone something for free and they will be compelled to pay you back. What could you offer for free online to get people to make a purchase later?

Coach – The Exclusive Bag Everyone Has. At many Coach stores, you’ll see a red velvet rope and a “bouncer” holding off the hordes of people waiting to gain entrance. I’m sure if you asked one of these bouncers why they couldn’t let an extra 15 people in the store, they’d tell you it was because the store was overcrowded. The real reason, of course, is to create a sense of scarcity and exclusivity; once a customer gets inside, he or she will inevitably value the merchandise that much more. This trick has been done on the Internet already – think Gmail’s launch with exclusive invitations, or private sale sites like One Kings Lane putting potential members on a waiting list for 72 hours.

There are several more examples from my short mall visit that I could discuss (why does Coldwater Creek have fake limestone on the entrance to their store? Why does the Lego store display amazing Lego creations that most kids could never build?) that I can’t cover in this column. The point is this: to be successful in a mall, you have to know your sales and marketing psychology. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – as well as the easiest way to arrive at a smart conclusion – online marketers would be dumb not to apply well-honed offline techniques throughout their landing pages, ad text, shopping carts, and every other possible interaction with a customer.

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