The Authority Principle of Influence: Respect It




Persado’s mission is to help companies inspire their audiences to act, and the platform does this by organizing, quantifying, and manifesting emotional triggers into language and images.

But influence and persuasion is a vast field, and there’s always something more you can learn.

In our series on how tech can help your brand’s reach and influence, we’re exploring the Six Principles outlined in Robert Cialdini’s seminal text, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

We’ve already talked about how to use The Reciprocity Principle, The Likability Principle, The Commitment & Consistency Principle, and Social Proof Principle in digital marketing.  This week, we’ll take a look at the Authority Principle.


Studies show that people are more likely to comply with a request when it comes from an expert. Studies also show that when people are told that studies show something, they’re more likely to believe it.

“If an expert says it, then it must be true.” This is the basis of the Principle of Authority.

Here’s a story on authority from Copyblogger:

A television reporter dresses up in a security guard’s uniform and sets up in front of a Las Vegas bank. He sticks a sign on the ATM embellished with a big gold badge and the following message: “OUT OF ORDER — GIVE DEPOSITS TO GUARD ON DUTY.”

Bank customers start showing up. Each time, the fake guard smiles and asks if the customer wants to make a deposit or withdrawal.

This whole scenario is ridiculous, right? No bank would conduct business this way.

And yet, customer after customer handed over cash, checks, Social Security numbers, credit cards, account numbers, PIN codes… you name it.

Out of 10 people, only one hesitated, but even he complied seconds later.

When the reporter revealed the deception and asked the flabbergasted victims why they handed him money and private information, they all gave pretty much the same answer: “Because of the uniform. Because of the sign.” In other words, they complied because he was perceived as authoritative and therefore, trustworthy.


We evaluate authority superficially, based on three criteria:

  1. Titles: such as Dr., Professor, Ph.D., President, or Chairman
  2. Clothing: such as hospital whites, army greens, priestly black, police blues, or even a gray business suit
  3. Trappings: anything that usually goes along with particular positions, such as guns and badges for security personnel, prestigious letterhead for executives, expensive cars or watches for successful entrepreneurs, etc.


Dr. Robert Cialdini is himself a perfect example here. Before reading his book, all you need to do is look at his bio to get a taste of his expertise:

Dr. Cialdini received his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina and postdoctoral training from Columbia University…. Currently, Dr Cialdini is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University.

Dr. Cialdini is CEO and President of INFLUENCE AT WORK; focusing on ethical influence training, corporate keynote programs, and the CMCT (Cialdini Method Certified Trainer) program.

Notice that the combo of Authority Titles and the halo effect of Social Proof make for one impressive-sounding dude.

There is also, of course, the Dr. Oz Effect, which is anecdotal but I’m sure there are numbers somewhere.

I have a good friend who used to work at an organic grocery story in Brooklyn. Every morning before he left for work, he’d sit around with a cup of coffee as his roommate watched Dr. Oz, from whom he’d invariably learn about some hot new superfood.

Then, at work, without fail, he’d get questions all day about that exact superfood or supplement touted by Dr. Oz that morning.


Even without a doctorate, marketing professionals can use Authority Titles in their branding. Just look at Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Apple Geniuses, AirBnb Experience Hosts, or Shopify Experts.

The latter is an especially potent form of customer service because each “Expert” is a niche specialist in some aspect of Shopify store-building, from developing or designing to photography and marketing.


As in the abovementioned trick involving the journalist dressed as a policeman, it’s obvious that clothes are a potent part of eliciting authority.

The corollary to that in digital marketing is to give your web presence the appearance of authority. According to this study, it take 50 milliseconds (0.05 seconds) for someone to make a positive or negative assessment of a given website. That’s twice as fast as it takes to form an opinion on another person.


Luckily for us, there’s another expert on persuasion, Professor BJ Fogg at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, to tell us what makes a credible website. There, the Lab lists 10 criteria, many of which are seemingly obvious and yet easy to overlook.

And when sending emails, consider the best person to sign it. If it’s a major business announcement or a  year-end message of gratitude, the CEO’s signature carries the most authority. If it’s an update to your technology, someone from your engineering department would be the best choice. This also ties into the Principle of Liking because you’re putting faces to the team with personal messages.


Trappings carry a connotation of status and position. They’re the accessories of authority and can be anything from expensive cars and jewelry to a badge or stethoscope.

Now don’t go and do something like this guy:

Authority is the most difficult and effective of the Six Principles of Influence, but it’s also the most common means of scamming web users (like the guy above is trying to do, with probably some unfortunate success).

Luckily for us, we now know these principles and can better guard against them when they’re disingenuously employed. Right?

The “trappings of authority” on the web should really come in the form of Social Proof.

How many and of what quality are your testimonials and reviews? Do you have some fantastic branded case studies? How many Twitter followers do you have? How many (legit) publications mention your brand and/or your products? Who are your biggest investors?

Let’s not forget prizes and other honors — the badges and epaulettes of the business world —  like how Casper or Thinx don’t hesitate to brag about being one of TIME Magazine’s 2015 Best Inventions. No one would forget to mention a JD Power Award!


And you’d be crazy not to mention being a Gartner Cool Vendor (like Persado), a Great Place to Work (Persado), or Number 16 on the Inc. 500. (Wonder who that was. Oh, yes. That was us.)

If you choose to ignore me and go faking authority, you should be aware that the backlash you’ll suffer with a sub-awesome product or service will be far greater because you will have betrayed a greater trust. People will have higher expectations of you, and when you let them down, they’ll burn down your house.

Join us next week! We have only one of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence left in stock, the Scarcity Principle!