The basic premise of content marketing is that giving away information that an audience finds useful and relevant will encourage them to respond with trust and give you the opportunity to engage them in dialog.

But why does giving away thought leadership influence people? Social science has some answers. One of the pioneers in this field is Robert Cialdini, who has written extensively on the psychology of persuasion.

According to Cialdini, there are six major factors of influence:

  • Reciprocity: when we receive something we feel obligated to return the favor.
  • Commitment: people who make a small commitment will feel compelled to make a larger one in order to avoid an appearance of inconsistency.
  • Social Proof: we are influenced by the actions of others (e.g., “If they’re doing it, it must be acceptable.”)
  • Liking: we are more likely to be influenced by those we like
  • Authority: we can be influenced by people in positions of authority (e.g., “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV, and I recommend this brand of pain reliever.”)
  • Scarcity: we desire things more when they are seen as being in short supply.

Several of these are at work in content marketing and thought leadership. Specifically:

Authority. Experts, because they know so much, are often called upon to share their knowledge by speaking and writing. To put this in a shorter form: experts speak and write. The converse (if you speak and write you must be an expert) isn’t necessarily true. But we all make an unspoken assumption that it is.

The act of giving away thought leadership by speaking or writing makes one appear to be an expert, which taps into the influence mechanism of authority.

Reciprocity. We are conditioned by our culture to feel a sense of obligation when we receive something. This sense of obligation can impel us to change our behavior to the giver.

The act of giving away thought leadership that the audience finds truly valuable creates in them a (small) sense of obligation. This makes it more likely that they will give something back in return and frequently the response is the gift of trust and an opportunity for dialog.

Social Proof. We are conditioned to believe that if other people are taking a particular action, then this action must be acceptable. The greater the number of people taking this action, the more acceptable the action must be.

When others read, respond to and share thought leadership, we are conditioned to believe that reading, responding to and sharing this thought leadership is acceptable.

Thought leadership works on several levels, including tapping into those influence mechanisms that have been culturally conditioned. Knowing this, here are some ideas for harnessing and reinforcing these mechanisms.

Social proof: If possible, make it clear how very many people are reading/following your thought leadership. The larger the number, the greater the degree of social proof.

Reciprocity: Giving away thought leadership can create a sense of obligation. Don’t spoil that sense of obligation by derailing it before it even begins by asking people to give away personal information (name, title, email address, company, phone, etc) before they receive a supposedly “free” white paper. It would be much better to give the white paper away for free and ask people later if they would like to sign up to receive a free copy of forthcoming white papers each month.

Authority: Creating thought leadership can position the author as an expert. Reinforcing this position can be accomplished through many other tactics, one of which is to list other publications the author has written for.

The relationship between content marketing and the psychology of persuasion is multi-faceted. This relationship goes beyond just the content on the page, and social science points has illuminated some of the reasons why this is so.