The Surprising Conversion Power of Priming and Conformity

Image of busy traffic

Imagine it’s late Wednesday afternoon.

The sun is setting. You are pulling on some sweats after a long day at work when you hear a knock at the front door. Your child — who doesn’t open it — yells up to you that there is a strange man on the porch.

And he’s got something in his hands.

You slip on some socks (because you are self-conscious about your toes), and jog down the steps. You open the door and see me standing on your porch. I’m smiling. In my arms is a clipboard.

“Hi, I’m with Gallup Research. Can I ask you a quick question?”

“Sure,” you say.

“Close to eighty percent of your neighbors plan on voting tomorrow. Do you?”

Hmm. You totally forgot tomorrow was Election Day. You’ll need to ask off work, but your boss will understand. Still, the voting booth is way out of your way, and you are certain there will be a line … but you don’t want to look like an unpatriotic oaf.

“Um, yeah, I plan on voting.”

I note this down on my clipboard, wave, and rush off to the next house.

Without you even knowing it, I influenced your behavior in two critical ways. Did you see what they were?

Let me show you …

What is the “mere-measurement effect”?

When it comes to the world of content marketing, you can influence the behavior of your readers, subscribers, and customers … and you can do it without them even noticing.

For example, in the story above, because I asked you the day before voting whether you are going to vote — and you said “yes” — you are more likely to vote than if I had not shown up.

This is called the “mere-measurement effect,” and it refers to the phenomenon where people are asked what they intend to do in a certain situation … and because of their public profession of what they intend to do, they become more likely to act in accordance with that answer.

Now, people and institutions who take surveys aren’t trying to influence behavior … instead, they just want to catalogue behavior. Yet, social scientists are the ones who began to take note of the mere-measurement effect … and seeing its similarity to consistency and commitment.

What is priming?

Now when consistency and commitment are used to influence behavior, it is called priming.

You’ll find this in just about any context. Voting increases as much as 25% and the purchase of new cars (when people are asked if they intend to buy a new car in six months) increases by as much as 35%.

Why does priming work so well?

People who make commitments don’t want to be viewed as unreliable or inconsistent. They’ll consider the cost of looking like a flake higher than the cost of inconvenience. We are a people prone to saving face.

Here’s how priming works online

Let’s say I’m about to launch a new email newsletter. Here’s how I would prime my audience:

  • A month or two out I would publish a post that says, “Hey, I’m thinking about creating a new email newsletter on a new goat-milk diet. Who’s interested?” Naturally, if I get enough interest, I’ll go for it. But I’ve also primed the audience.
  • Two weeks before launch: “Hey, just as a reminder, we are going to launch that goat-milk email newsletter two weeks from now. Let me know if you plan on signing up.”
  • And then finally, on the day before the launch: “I’m curious. Who intends to sign up for the new email newsletter? Let me know in the comments.”.

To some people this smacks of manipulation. Well, it can be.

Here’s why priming is not manipulation

If you truly believe that people’s lives will be changed by your goat-milk diet, then you can help them make the right decisions with priming.

For instance, people have used priming to help people make healthy decisions involving exercising, quitting smoking, protesting ignorant behavior, saving their marriage, or eating right.

Furthermore, you can accentuate priming by asking people when and how they plan to respond:

  • Do you plan on exercising this week? Which days and what will you do?
  • Do you plan on joining the demonstration this week? Which days and what are you going to do (bring a sign, bullhorn, or nothing — you’re going nude)?
  • Do you plan on working on your marriage this week? What are you going to do and when (stop work early and spend time with my spouse every other day)?

Priming works because it’s a matter of giving people simple (and seemingly irrelevant) clues in areas of their lives in which they need help. And the more desperate they are for that help, the easier they are to prime.

How conformity influences behavior

The other thing that was going on in the opening illustration was conformity. I did this by mentioning the percentage of your neighbors who were voting. As long as that number is accurate, and high, it suggests to you where popular opinion stands.

It also suggests what you should do, too.

See, our tendency is to fall in line. We tend to do what others do. So when you heard that the majority of your neighbors are voting, you will likely vote, too. It’s a sublime example of social proof.

Priming and conformity working together

Now let’s combine priming and conformity in the email newsletter example.

After one of your informal polls, use that data on the day before the launch.

Hey, I’m curious. Seven out of ten of my readers plan on signing up for the new membership class. Do you intend to sign up, too? If so, when? Let me know in the comments.

Finally, let’s turn the tables.

If you ever feel like you are being unethically primed, simply say you changed your mind.

Yes, I did plan on buying a car in six months. But my circumstances have changed and I’ve changed my mind.

You have every right to change your mind, so don’t ever allow someone to guilt-trip you into thinking you are a flake if you do.

Have you ever observed priming and conformity actually influence behavior? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Reader Comments (32)

  1. says

    So would the questions at the end of these blog posts be considered priming since they influence readers to comment? Great post, btw.

    PS: As an Authority user, it would be nice to automatically be logged into the blog to post comments. I assume these related-sites aren’t sharing the same user profiles.

      • says

        Yes, I understand that. Which is good for guest commenters. But for those of us who read the blog all the time and are already logged into Authority or My Copyblogger, I think more people would be encouraged to comment on blog posts if it didn’t require all the extra info (which Copyblogger already has).

        Think of it like Facebook Comments. If you’re already logged into Facebook, you can comment on any website that uses Facebook comments simply by posting. Commenting on Copyblogger is already super easy for guests, but a single user profile would make it a little more convenient for people already in the Copyblogger ecosystem.

        Attaching a nice avatar (like you guys have) would be cool, too!

  2. says

    I had an old sales job where we referred to this as “planting the seed.” We looked at it more on a micro level — priming early in a sales pitch, akin to a waiter mentioning dessert specials while taking an order — but this macro, longer-term view you’ve described here works great too. There is nothing wrong with letting people know what their options are. Too often we cost ourselves conversions simply by not remembering to prime and plant the seed.

  3. says

    Priming works well in the life/critical illness insurance business. I’ve seen sales rep ask some pretty blunt questions like…

    Would you be financially stable if your husband died tomorrow? What if he didn’t die but couldn’t make a living because of his critical illness?

    By planting the seed you get them thinking.

  4. says

    One of the subtle ways blogs and other online sites use priming is to show the number of subscribers on their main page. While this is technically a little different than priming, it still serves to ask the question, “x number of people have subscribed, are you planning to?” Or, “Look at all these people who have subscribed. Should you?” That question can take on many forms but I feel like it is a form of priming.
    Thanks for the great article. I wonder how I can apply this as a fiction author.

    • says

      No, subscriber counts still falls into the social proof/conformity category … however, it would interesting to see if you could boost subscribes by asking “Over 2,200 people have subscribed to my blog. Have you?”

  5. says

    Ha, this is brilliant Demian, and now that you mention it, I see it all around me… no wonder the car dealership where I bought my last car keeps phoning me to ask if I’m planning on buying a new car soon… LOL

    Great examples, and I can certainly see how this would work… on me… 😉


  6. says

    I love the concept behind the “mere measurement effect.” A lot of times a simple reminder is necessary for well-meaning people who want to take action, but forget to. I tend to be one of those people more often than not (though it’s not something I’m crazy proud of). In hindsight, I’ve been primed into taking action many, many times. Great piece.

    • says

      I absolutely agree, Justin. A quick email asking someone how their testing of your product is going or a phone call reviewing the past year with a subscriber can prod them to make a purchase they otherwise would have forgotten about. It is absolutely crucial to not pressure them, obviously, but -like you- have found that I tend to forget things I really wanted to do because life gets in the way.

  7. says

    Another great post! What can you tell us about critical mass? I’m a Christian who blogs as an ally to LGBTQ. I see support growing, and it seems that the more walls of condemnation break down, the faster they break down. Any thoughts? Thanks!

  8. says

    Thanks for contributing this wonderful post: it was a pleasure to read it.

    There is a fine line between manipulation and encouragement, which you have spelled out in your thought-provoking article.

    A waiter sharing information can be confused with a waiter making a sales pitch to win over customers and make more money for the restaurant and for himself or herself in terms of tips.

    In political science they have a theory too, that there is a difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. How you perceive that individual depends on which side of the fence you are on. It can be subjective and relative and yet we strive to value objectivity. Have a good one.

  9. says

    I must be the only person who would have answered this question differently:

    “Hi, I’m with Gallup Research. Can I ask you a quick question?”

    “No,” you say as you shut the door and lock it.

    It’s fascinating to me that priming and social proof actually work because they have the opposite effect on me. I do understand that most people are susceptible to them I just can’t relate.

  10. says

    The first part of the blog reminds me of the Jimmy Kimmel segments where someone goes out and ask people their opinion on event that hasn’t happened yet. There are quite a few that actually give an opinion. I can guess that quite a few of them do it in order to conform.

    Priming and conforming are indeed a powerful combination.

  11. says

    Hi Demian,

    This is such a great post. Thank you very much for sharing this. I have learned something new today. Thanks to your post! Mere-measurement is very interesting and I like the concept behind the mere measurement effect.


  12. says

    This was interesting information – thank you.
    I have to say, though, that my reply to the last two people who knocked on my door was, “I don’t want to talk to you.” One was taking a political poll and the other wanted to give me a religious flyer and asked if I thought corruption in the world would ever end.

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