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How to Use the Authority Principle to Increase Conversions

Posted by Grant Robertson-Adams | Jun 24, 2021

The 5th of Dr Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion. The Authority principle relies on the simple fact that people listen to, trust and buy from those in positions of authority. But how do you achieve an authoritative position? And most importantly, how do you then leverage that position to increase your conversions?

What is the Authority Principle?

The authority principle is based on the concept that people instinctively pay attention to, follow and yield to those deemed to be in positions of power. There are aspects of what we see and what we hear that put us into a position where we regard someone else (be that a person or a company) as being in the position of authority. Cialdini found that there were three core features that one can use to exercise the authority principle. People tend to believe that others are in a position of authority if they:

  • Use titles - Ever since we were children, we’ve been brought up to respect those with titles, whether those be traditional titles such as Dr. or Prof. or qualifications such as MBA or Ph.D or even work position titles such as CEO, MD or President.

  • Dress accordingly - What we wear implies a huge amount of authority. If we see a person dressed in a police or military uniform, we respect their authority (that’s one of the core reasons they wear it), the same can be said for those in religious clothing such as priests or pastors.

  • Make use of noticeable trappings - There are exterior items that fit in with the position or authority, the police carry a badge, CEOs (traditionally, maybe not with today’s era of CEOs) tend to wear expensive clothing or drive impressive cars. We tend to respect those with these items in their possession.

“What the science is telling us is that it’s important to signal to others what makes you a credible, knowledgeable authority before you make your influence attempt. Of course this can present problems; you can hardly go around telling potential customers how brilliant you are, but you can certainly arrange for someone to do it for you. And surprisingly, the science tells us that it doesn’t seem to matter if the person who introduces you is not only connected to you but also likely to prosper from the introduction themselves.” Dr Robert Cialdini

Essentially, what Cialdini is saying here is that since authority is difficult to fake, you can’t simply say that you’re an authority on something. You have to be introduced as an authority figure and prove your authority through your actions. That said, you can certainly help it using the core areas outlined above.

7 Ways to Activate Authority

In order to benefit from the authority principle and create the aura that goes with it, you’ll need to use a number of tactics.

Aesthetics

It’s all about the look

Well, it’s not entirely all about the look, there are 7 ways to activate authority after all, but the look is a major part of authority. In order to be looked up to as an authority, you need to look like an authority. This means that you dress the part for meetings, you look after the items about your person (drive a well kept vehicle, wear immaculate clothes) and you look after your personal hygiene.

uniforms portray authority, in principle

Source: Flickr, Can Pac Swire

This is, in a great part, down to making a good first impression. As we all know, first impressions count and can only be made once. People will naturally look up to and follow those that are perceived to have confidence and the look goes a long way to showing confidence.

Early Engagement

Strike fast

When you’re looking to build authority a great deal can be gained from cementing that position early on. People will have limited opinions on working with you (unless they’ve been recommended organically) and you have the option to position yourself accordingly. This doesn’t mean stamping your feet and holding your ground however. This can be done in a positive way, whereby you position yourself as the expert in the field and an authority of trust.

Top-down mentality

It starts with you

Trust works like a waterfall, it starts at the top and works its way down. This means that those looking up to you as an authority figure will pass that on to those below them. In marketing, this would be you in the position of authority, educating early subscribers to your product, and then, in turn, educating new adopters.

authority principle waterfall metaphor

Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk

Model your customers actions

People want to see your authority in action, so that means making the effort to be a good example of how you want your customers to act. If you say that you’re going to offer something, or suggest that you can do something then you have to follow through. Do not, under any circumstances, make promises that you can’t keep.

Walking the walk and talking the talk is a core part of authority. You must act the way and portray yourself in the way that people expect you to. They’ll look to your social media for inspiration, and also look within their social circles to see if you’re the right fit for them. This form of social proof means that you must lead as they expect you to.

Make Your Employees Visible

Don’t hide behind your business name

This is your opportunity to show how your company works to those outside of it. No one wants to work with a faceless corporation or an unknown business. People like to do business with people, therefore let them see the people that they’re working with. Your About Us page on your website is a prime example of making this happen, and you could extend this approach with photos in your email signatures, meet the team blogs, social media posts and more.

The reason we want employees within your business to be visible is that your personal authority (as CEO or department head) will be passed onto them. The trust is passed on between the two parties.

Support Career Development

Offer a helping hand

In a similar vein to the above, enabling your employees to grow within the business and develop their abilities promotes authority. From a marketing perspective, this could be customer focused as well, and doesn’t necessarily have to be about their career. If you’re able to provide value and development opportunities through your marketing (think content blogs or useful tools) then your customers will thank you, they’ll also position you as the go to person for that type of information. Or to put it another way, an authority.

offering help builds authority

Model Positive Traits

Be the change you want to see

In a similar way to the Liking Principle from Cialdini, people like to follow those that are positive and likeable people or businesses. Furthermore, they’ll naturally follow those who lead in causes and champion issues that they want to align with. If you’re able to model the positive traits and behavior that people like to see in others, then they’ll revere your actions.

4 Ways You Can Amplify Authority

Credibility

In order to be authoritative, you need to be credible.

Authority is only going to work if you are viewed as a legitimate and credible choice. In marketing we can view credibility in two different ways. There are those who are credible because of their expertise and there are those who are credible because of their celebrated status, or to put it a better way, celebrities.

If you’re able to come across as both an expert and a celebrity, then your authority is going to be viewed as entirely credible. Take for example, you were able to get someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson to recommend your book on planetary science, that’s going to go a long way. As a result, some of their authority is passed on to you.

This form of authority is incredibly persuasive and works in marketing to persuade people that the products are the right one for them. After all, 9 out of 10 dentists recommend this toothpaste. So surely it’s a credible choice right? Even more so if that recommendation comes from a friend through a referral.

Expertise

When we’re looking to make a choice, or be persuaded one way or the other, we look to experts. As a marketer, we want to position ourselves as the expert but an expert that is actually relevant and appropriate to the given situation. Let’s say that you’re looking to share your referral marketing product, you’re better off sharing qualifications and case studies that prove so rather than sharing that you reached PADI Open Water whilst in Thailand.

If you’re in a position where you simply aren’t the expert then you’re better off saying so, and referring the customer to someone who is. Trying to bluff your way to expertise never ends well, you’re almost always going to get caught and, in doing so, you’ll ruin any authority that you once had.

One of the best ways that you can demonstrate authority is through your marketing channels. Make use of your blog to publish thought leadership articles and invite healthy debate with your audience. Publish videos that clearly demonstrate the benefits of your product in applicable ways. Offer tools that will make the user's life more straightforward. Share case studies where you made a difference because of your expertise.

sharing expertise to build authority

Experts in action at the Apple Genius Bar. Source: Flickr Robert Couse-Baker

Trustworthiness

Your expertise and credibility are nothing without trust, nor is your authority. Building trust is a long process so don’t expect customers to immediately trust you overnight. Trust, however, goes a long way in marketing your products. Customers will look to reviews, they’ll look to testimonials and they’ll look to case studies. They’ll want to have the ability to hear from those who were in the same position as they are now, learn what their experience was like and make an informed decision based on their perception of your trustworthiness.

A great way to build trust is by providing users the opportunity to trial your product without any form of obligation. Free trials, freemium software or tester products enables people to get a feel, and begin to build that relationship with your business.

Intellectual Humility

We don’t, in this instance, mean that you need to be humble with your intellect (although that goes a long way to you being a likeable person or brand). Your intellectual humility allows you to remain open and available to other sources of information rather than sticking to your own knowledge. It also means that you're willing to accept that others might have a different point of view to your own.

In marketing, this might mean that when presented with an issue you cannot solve, or you’re asked a question outside of your expertise, you admit this. You might also bow to a higher power or someone who is the expert (potentially even if this is a competitor). Think about The Miracle on 34th Street. The Cole’s Department store’s Santa (who was the legit Santa) would tell people where they could buy products at a cheaper price. This, in turn, made lifetime shoppers out of people who respected the honesty and integrity of the business.

intellectual humility example

Source: Michael Weinstein/20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Key Takeaways

Authority isn’t a principle that comes overnight, but is one which should be worked on from the start of your persuasion marketing campaigns. You’ll need to take your time as there are no worthwhile shortcuts, and a great deal of authority comes with experience. But once you’re in that position, it will work wonders for your business:

  • Ensure that you look like an authority figure and talk like one too
  • Position yourself as an authority as soon as you can (but not to the detriment of being legitimate)
  • Act as those in authority act
  • Be open as a company
  • Ensure that you are a credible and trustworthy expert, who turns to others if they don’t have the answer themselves

Read more about the 7 Principles of Persuasion:

  1. Reciprocity Principle Examples
  2. Commitment & Consistency Principle Examples
  3. Social Proof - How to Use it to Drive Conversions
  4. Liking Principle Examples - Building Rapport with Your Audience
  5. Authority Principle - How to Build Authority and Use It in Marketing (You are here!)
  6. Scarcity Marketing - Limited Time, Stock & One-Time Offers
  7. The Unity Principle - Community Marketing 101

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