No matter what business you’re in, ultimately what we’re trying to do is motivate people to do some behaviour that they weren’t doing before we came along.

So how can we ethically influence patients to take steps that we want them to take? Well I am going to share with you some basic principles on what causes people to be influenced and give you some ideas on how this can be applied in the context of acquiring and keeping patients.

I’m going to talk about Cialdini’s principles of influence. Robert Cialdini is a professor of social psychology at Arizona State University and he wrote a very interesting book called ‘Influence – the psychology of persuasion’. In the book he talks about society wide conditioned patterns of behaviour and beliefs that have become so deeply engrained in us from an early age that if you apply leverage to those principles you can get a response in-kind to you as a result.

Be forewarned though: This knowledge shouldn’t be used to push products and treatments or set unfair prices. When these tools are used unethically as weapons of influence, any short-term gains will almost invariably be followed by long-term losses.

Principle Number 1 – Reciprocation

We are all conditioned as children that if someone gives you something, you’re naturally inclined to give something back. Cialdini actually tested this by sending Xmas cards to random strangers and was astonished at the amount he received back. Why? Because it’s an unwritten rule – you don’t want to risk offending people!

So we’re conditioned that it’s not a good thing to be indebted to somebody! Even if we don’t like a person, if they do something for us that is a kind act without expecting anything in return, we will naturally feel drawn to do something back.

In another example, social scientist Randy Garner published a 2005 experiment that tested whether sticky notes could persuade people to respond to a marketing survey. He sent one-third of the surveys with a hand-written sticky note requesting completion, one-third with a blank sticky note, and one-third without a sticky note.


Hand-written note: 69% response rate

Blank sticky note: 43% response rate

No sticky note: 34% response rate

The principle of reciprocation was born out in the fact that not only did those who received the hand-written note have twice as much compliance, the quality of the answers they gave was also significantly better.

The reciprocation principle explains why gestures can be so effective in marketing. People who receive a free, unexpected gift are more likely to take the time to find out more about who you are and what you do. Such gifts do not have to be expensive or even material; simply give your patients some useful tips or indeed any self-help information that could be extremely valuable to them.

And for existing patients, free offers that are made exclusively to them are very effective in reminding them that you genuinely care. A patient who feels truly valued will always feel compelled to return.

In part two of this series, I explain how reminding patients of their commitments ensures they exhibit the behaviours you want them to take…