It’s Not About Mind Control

Lisa walked into the offices the other day and told us about this new poster her chiropractor had on his office wall. If you know chiropractors, you know they value educating their clients. So this poster wanted patients to consider the meaning of several words that folks use to describe what a chiropractor does: crack, manipulate and adjust.

Naturally chiropractors don’t like you using the first two – which put a bad spin on things and aren’t exactly correct. Who wants to have his spine cracked? And subjecting yourself to manipulation sounds like you’re going to get scammed. Chiropractors hope you think of what they do as adjusting – bringing things into accord and alignment, achieving a proper relationship, making things fit.

That got me thinking about what we do when we undertake creating persuasion architecture systems. Lots of folks might consider that we practice form of manipulation. And this is where a little perspective mixed with precision in our word choices helps.

B J Fogg defines “persuasive technology as any interactive system designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviors.”1 I know what he means, and probably do you too. But there are those who might bristle and feel a bit Big-Brotherish about this statement. Let’s take this definition to it’s most ridiculous extreme: “You mean, a Web site can change me into a neo-Nazi and make me want to shave my head?”

Is this stuff about making folks think things they wouldn’t otherwise think or do things they wouldn’t otherwise do? Hardly! The truth of the matter is, you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. You may offer an intellectual or emotional argument that helps clarify an issue. You may get your visitors imagining how wonderfully they will benefit from your products or services. You may provide brilliant justifications why you are the company with whom they should do business. You may convince them to upgrade from 256 Mb RAM to 512 Mb RAM. But you’re not really going to change their minds.

The goal of a commercial Web site is to get a person to take an action – to buy something, to opt-in to a mail list, subscribe to a newsletter, register and so on. To take this action, the person has to be persuaded there is value in taking the action.

You remember that we’ve talked about the four types of traffic a Web site gets? There are those who landed in the wrong place – you can write them off. Then there are those who have some degree of “propensity to buy”: one knows exactly what she wants; one knows sort of what she wants; and one isn’t overtly in a buying mood, but might buy if she came across the right thing.

The thing is, these three groups of visitors wind up on your Web site because they chose to come – we’re in a participatory, voluntary environment, right? They come to you because you have something that interests them. And it is the job of your Web site to help them identify what they want, supply them the information they need in order to make a decision, and then motivate them to take action.

Persuasion is not manipulation – at least, it isn’t if you’re telling the truth. Persuasion is about providing “the full story” that helps your visitors take action,2 it’s about keeping things simple, facilitating decisions, providing motivation and inspiring desire. You might persuade someone to make up her mind, but you aren’t fundamentally going to get her to change it.


1 Persuasive Technology, BJ Fogg, 2003.

2 “Why Are Customers So Indecisive? Sean D’Souza. PsychoTactics: Unlocking the Mystery of the Business Brain.  

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