How to get your users to take action with compliance gaining

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Cars are scarce in my group of friends.

Most of us are in our late 20’s, living in Downtown Vancouver, where there’s plenty of public transit, parking is difficult, and expenses are high. Owning a car doesn’t really make sense.

Until one of us needs help moving, of course.

My friend owns a 1997 GMC Sierra 1500; needless to say, he gets hit up constantly for truck-related favors.

compliance-gaining_truck
This truck is a hot commodity during moving season.

He hears a lot of:

“Hey man, can you help me move on Saturday? I’ll buy you beer!”
“Dude! Can you help me move on Saturday? I hate to ask, but you’re my only option.”
“Hey, can you help me move on Saturday? No pressure, of course, if you can’t do it…”

The initial request (“Can you help me move?”) is almost always accompanied by something else: a bargain (“I’ll buy you beer”), a reason (“you’re my only option”), an out (“No pressure”).

For our friends, it seems instinctual to cushion the request somehow, to urge him to say “Yes” and dissuade him from saying “No”.

Think about all of the times you’ve asked a friend for a favor. Do you ever simply ask for the favor, or do you find yourself negotiating in some way? I, for one, try to frame my requests in ways that make them almost impossible to refuse.

As marketers, we do the same thing. After all, most of what we do revolves around trying to get our users to take an action. In the social science community, these ‘negotiations’ are referred to as compliance gaining techniques.

Four compliance gaining techniques you should test

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In this post, I’m going to examine the concept of compliance gaining through a marketing lens.The question is: How can you leverage compliance gaining techniques in your marketing to get your users to say “Yes” rather than saying “No”?

What is a compliance gaining technique?

In laymen’s terms, compliance gaining interactions occur whenever a message source tries to get a person to do something they might not otherwise do.

When your mom gently advises you to wear your helmet or when a friend asks you to set him up, the message source (mom, friend) are trying to get you to do something.

To clarify, compliance gaining is often confused with persuasion, but they are different. While persuasion is often concerned with changing a person’s attitudes or beliefs, compliance gaining seeks to change behavior.

There are numerous (read almost 900) strategies you could categorize as compliance gaining, from “bargaining”, to “complimenting”, to “persistence”, but here are some of the more pervasive compliance gaining techniques you may have heard of as a marketer:

Types of compliance gaining techniques

Foot-in-the-door:

compliance gaining_foot-in-the-door
Foot-in-the-door: start with a small request and build to a larger request.

You ask your user for something small first that they will most likely say yes to, then ask for something larger (the actual action you want them to take) at a later time. Researchers have several theories as to why this is effective, one of them being your user’s desire to remain consistent with what they previously said.

Example: If your web page features a form, you can break the form into multiple steps. Start by asking for easy-to-give information; save bigger asks for later steps when there is more to abandon. Once your user starts saying “yes”, they are more likely to continue to do so.

Door-in-the-face:

You ask your user for something big that they will most likely say “No” to, followed by a smaller, more reasonable request (the actual action you want them to take). Guilt and self-presentation help explain why this is effective: Your user has already said “No” once, and won’t want to say “No” twice.

Example: On a non-profit website, you might start off by asking your user to sponsor a child for $20/month. This is a fairly large request. Your user may feel badly for saying “No” to this initial request, making them more receptive to your next request for a smaller, one-time $20 donation. This is your intended request.

Disrupt-then-reframe:

You ask your user for something in a confusing or strange way the first time around. You immediately follow-up by re-framing your request or giving your user a reason to say “Yes”.

Example: Some brands use a catchy, clever headline that isn’t clear at first, that they reframe with informative copy just below the main headline.

Macbook-persuasion
A disruptive headline from Apple.
Apple-persuasion-copy
The subsequent copy reframes the offering with appealing adjectives.

In this example from Apple, the headline reads “Light. Years ahead.” The dots disrupt our thinking framework and the copy below helps reframe with adjectives such as “lighter”, “better”, “thinner”. We are less likely to resist the reframe because our brain is busy with the initial disruption and the adjectives help to convince us.

Note: Be careful about making your content too disruptive. You could lose visitors due to a reduced information scent.

Dump and Chase:

You ask for something and your user says “No”. You respond by asking “Why not?”, repeating your request in a slightly different way. Urgency and guilt are at play here: You’ve created a sense of obligation by asking “Why not” and the repetition of your request can make it seem more important, more urgent.

Example: Your user may decide they are not ready to buy from you. That’s where mailing lists come into play. If they sign up for your mailing list, you are able to repeat your offer (via email) in various ways until that user’s concerns have been met and they finally do buy.

There are many more compliance gaining techniques. But my favorite of the moment is referred to as But You Are Free or BYAF.

But You Are Free to refuse…

But You Are Free refers to a situation where I ask you for a favor followed by a gentle reminder that you are free to refuse my request.

Wording can vary, but the key to this technique is to acknowledge the target’s freedom to say “no”.

In 2000, French researchers Guéguen and Pascal published a study that demonstrated the BYAF technique for the first time. In the study, experimenters asked passersby if they could have some change for the bus, followed by the statement “But you are free to accept or to refuse”. The Control group of passersby was simply asked for change for the bus, sans compliance gaining technique.

compliance gaining_but-you-are-free
“Will you give me change for the bus? You are free to accept or refuse.”

Their findings showed that passersby who heard the follow-up phrase were more likely to comply with experimenters’ request and gave twice as much change as those in the Control.

This experiment was based on psychological reactance theory. Introduced by Jack Brehm in the 1950’s, the theory states that “individuals have certain freedoms with regard to their behavior. If these behavioral freedoms are reduced or threatened with reduction, the individual will be motivationally aroused to regain them.”

Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight.

– Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Guéguen and Pascal proposed that the phrase, “but you are free to accept or refuse”, weakens the target’s perception that their freedom to say “no” is being threatened by the initial request. Instead of being motivated to refuse, in order to protect their own freedoms, the target is reminded that their freedoms are still in tact, allowing them to say “yes”.

Recently, I asked a coworker for a favor via Slack, followed by the phrase “No pressure, of course.” Even though I really needed this favor, I added the phrase “No pressure” to my request—it was automatic. It was the BYAF compliance gaining technique. (My coworker said yes.)

Now, before you go adding a “You are free to accept or refuse” sub-head to all of your calls-to-action, let’s go a little deeper…

BYAF in a marketing context

In 2013, Christopher Carpenter published a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of the BYAF compliance gaining technique in Communication Studies. He wanted to know, given the research that has been published on this technique, whether or not BYAF is effective in a sales situation (among other questions).

Carpenter cited past researchers who theorized that “people are more suspicious of self-interested requests and cognitively process such requests more thoughtfully,” which would render the BYAF technique less effective when a request is being made in a sales context.

However, when Carpenter completed his meta-analysis, he found that the effect of BYAF on a target was equal for both prosocial requests (compliance benefits some worthy cause rather than the requester) and self-interested requests (compliance benefits the requestor) e.g. a sales request.

The BYAF technique has the virtue of being adaptable to potentially any context. That the effect size was consistent for both prosocial and self-interested requests in a variety of contexts…is reflective of a technique that has widespread value. All that is required for the BYAF technique is that the key phrase is added to the request.

– Christopher Carpenter

So, is BYAF a compliance gaining technique you can use when you’re talking to your prospects? Quite possibly. You should test that!

A BYAF spin-off test

Have you heard the term “Locus of Control”?

In personality psychology, individuals with an internal locus of control believe that their behavior and actions are guided by their decisions and efforts, while individuals with an external locus of control believe their behaviors and actions are guided by external forces.

People with an internal locus of control are more proactive and self-motivated, while those with an external locus of control are often more passive.

compliance gaining-locus-of-control
Internal vs. External Locus of Control

One theory as to why BYAF works is that the requester is giving control back to the target by adding the phrase “but you are free to _____” to a request.

For one WiderFunnel client, DMV.org, our Strategy team wanted to test giving control back to the prospect, just like the BYAF technique does. Rather than emphasizing a prospect’s freedom to refuse, however, the team wanted to emphasize the prospect’s freedom to choose.

DMV.org is a privately owned publisher of helpful information about the DMV. The company earns revenue through performance-based advertising on their thousands of content pages. For example, on a license renewal information page, a banner within the content offers visitors an opportunity to check car insurance rates.

When we tested the BYAF spin-off, we were testing on the second step of DMV.org’s funnel, where visitors select a provider.

We tested a single sub-headline isolation on this page, adding the phrase “The one you choose is up to you!” This phrase was meant to remind visitors that they are in control, they are free to choose exactly what they want to choose. Our Strategists were targeting the same mental sweet spot that the BYAF technique targets.

compliance-gaining_choose
“The one you choose is up to you!”

The addition of this phrase led to a conversion rate lift of 28.9% for DMV.org.

Testing compliance gaining in your marketing

Persuasion principles and compliance gaining techniques are extremely helpful to consider when you’re planning your digital experiments. Of course, persuasion principles are just one source of information you should look to when planning a test.

Related: For more sources of information, check out Chris Goward’s post outlining WiderFunnel’s Infinity Optimization Process. Pay particular attention to the section on “The Explore Phase”.

It is always helpful to de-construct the persuasion principle or psychological trigger itself to try to get at the heart of what is actually motivating someone to act. In the case of BYAF and “the one you choose is up to you”, the motivating factor might be the simple fact of reminding a visitor that they are in control of their decision.

What might your users respond to?

What are your favorite compliance gaining techniques to test? Have you seen success with the BYAF technique in your testing? Tell us about it in the comments!

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