Winning Content Persuades, Not Manipulates

By Colleen Jones

Published: April 12, 2008

“Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”—Aristotle, Rhetoric

“Elements of persuasion are important to creating winning content.”

When you think of persuasion, what comes to mind? Tricks such as the name repetition and personality mirroring touted by Dunder Mifflin sales representatives? Devious emotional pleas like those Bart Simpson wields on his dad? The constantly shifting rhetoric of unctuous politicians? Deceptively “free” software that actually is spyware?

Such funny and frightening examples are not really persuasion at all. They are forms of manipulation, and they give persuasion a bad name. As I discussed in my previous column, elements of persuasion are important to creating winning content. To help safeguard content from becoming manipulation, we need to understand its distinction from persuasion. As a step toward that understanding, this article

  • provides basic definitions of persuasion and manipulation
  • explores the key differences between them
  • describes some consequences for UX content

Persuasion and Manipulation—Loosely Defined

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines persuade as “to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action.” Most academic definitions I have encountered are fairly similar. As this definition states, the means of persuasion are “argument, entreaty, or expostulation,” which implies the persuader is not using other techniques such as force to “move” the user. It hints at a fairly equal relationship between the persuader and the user.

The same dictionary defines manipulate as “to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage” or “to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one's purpose.” This definition implies the motives of the manipulator are selfish, the techniques may be dishonest, and the manipulator may have some degree of control or power over the user.

A Note About Persuasive Technology

When dealing with content, we usually are dealing with some form of argument, so the typical definition of persuasion largely applies. However, it is important to acknowledge B.J. Fogg’s significant expansion of the definition for the digital age. In Persuasive Technology, Fogg defines persuasion more broadly as “the attempt to change attitudes or behaviors or both.” Notice this definition does not specify the technique for the attempt, so technology rather than argument can be the means. Consequently, according to this broader definition, the concept of persuasion loses some of its egalitarian implications, Therefore, Fogg outlines ethics for persuasive technology to compensate.

Digging into the Differences

These definitions highlight some key differences between persuasion and manipulation. Let’s examine them more closely.

Motivation

“A persuasive situation is win-win, while a manipulative situation is potentially win-lose.”

Dave Lakhani, author of Persuasion: The Art of Getting What You Want and the blog How to Persuade, identifies intent as the primary distinction between persuasion and manipulation. He explains in a recent blog post entitled “The Semantics of Persuasion” that manipulation is “inwardly focused on what you can get another person to do for you regardless of the outcome for them.” Persuasion involves concern for your own interests and the user’s interests. In other words, a persuasive situation is win-win, while a manipulative situation is potentially win-lose. For example, if your company has a useful product or service to sell, by persuading a user to buy it, your company makes money and the user benefits from the product or service. Convincing users to buy products and services that a company knows don’t work or don’t live up to their promises enters the realm of manipulation. Other examples of manipulation include convincing users to do something at their own peril—such as taking on a payment they can’t afford or a long service contract they can’t break. If whatever a company convinces users to do benefits only the company, not the users, the company is probably manipulating users.

User Choice

While intent is certainly a key difference between persuasion and manipulation, it’s not the only difference. Another distinction is user choice. Though Lakhani does not explicitly mention choice in his blog post, “The Semantics of Persuasion,” he does note that in a persuasive situation, people have “…raised their hand and asked to be moved from one place (confusion, ambiguity) to another (new homeowner, member of your church).” For example, when users visit a Web site to research a product, they are asking to be moved to a new product. When users opt in to your email newsletter, they also are asking to be moved. In a manipulative situation, users have not necessarily asked and don’t particularly want to be moved. For instance, in the Tagged.com example Joe Lamantia described in his recent ethics article on UXmatters, the company invaded users’ personal information. Tagged.com unscrupulously sent invitations to users’ contacts without consent from the users or their contacts.

User Control

“In a persuasive situation, a user has all of the information he or she needs to provide the appropriate response to an attempt to persuade.”

Related to choice, I see user control as a dissimilarity between persuasion and manipulation. In a persuasive situation, a user can accept more or less of the persuasion, as desired. For instance, a user shopping for a product can choose to view the basic information or to delve into more details such as comparisons to other products or customer testimonials. At any time, the user can stop exploring the details. In a more manipulative situation, the user does not have as much control. Disruptive popup windows or layer ads the user doesn’t choose to view border on manipulation. Also, any technique that tries to trap the user into viewing or listening to certain content—such as disabling the Back button or automatically playing a video—can be manipulation.

Additionally, in a persuasive situation, a user has all of the information he or she needs to provide the appropriate response to an attempt to persuade. As shown in Figure 1, the Club Pogo signup form provides all the information a user needs to decide whether to become a member—benefits, price, terms, links to more details, and so on. However, in a more manipulative situation, a Web site might withhold, hide, or misrepresent essential information, so the user is not truly in control. Not informing users that their credit cards will be charged when a free trial expires would be an example of manipulation. Simply put, a persuasive situation lets users make an informed decision. A manipulative one does not.

Figure 1—Club Pogo signup form

Club Pogo signup form

Avoid Manipulation: Focus on Relationships

“Persuasion and manipulation are very different, but the line between them in a real-world situation can be fuzzy. Whenever that line seems fuzzy, I think about people.”

Persuasion and manipulation are very different, but the line between them in a real-world situation can be fuzzy. Whenever that line seems fuzzy, I think about people. Our Web-based interactions are replacing many human interactions, so our winning content needs to speak like our star salesperson, customer service representative, technical support expert, and so on. Our content needs to persuade in the same spirit as our company’s best people influence and build relationships with customers. Focusing on the relationships between your company and the people who are your customers offers some principles for staying on the persuasion side of that line.

Be Sincere

Perhaps my favorite book about persuasion is not an academic treatise or a psychological handbook. It’s How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. A little dated, sure, but its continued popularity suggests it does something right. The underlying theme is sincerity. Carnegie stresses, in every section, the importance of genuine and honest character in successfully influencing people. Here is an example:

“A show of interest, as with every other principle of human relations, must be sincere. It must pay off not only for the person showing the interest, but for the person receiving the attention. It is a two-way street—both parties benefit.”—Dale Carnegie

Sincerity naturally flows from the persuasive motivation to create a win-win situation. We cannot contrive sincerity, but we can let a sincere quality imbue our content in ways such as:

  • Maintaining a consistent message and tone. We need to strike the right tone—one that is true to our brand and resonates with our users—then preserve that tone as appropriate to all of our content.
  • Being believable and accountable. We need to stick to claims, promises, and guarantees that our company can fulfill.
  • Showing enthusiasm. Some of the most influential people, in sales or other contexts, possess a genuine enthusiasm. We can convey enthusiasm in the tone of our content, the quality of our content, and possibly the amount of content on a topic.

Show Respect

“Healthy companies respect their users and customers.”

Healthy people respect their friends. Healthy companies respect their users and customers in ways such as respecting their privacy. I think another sign of respect is staying relevant. If we truly have our users interests in mind, we give them content that is relevant to their interests where and when they want it rather than forcing unrelated content on them where and when we want to. Moreover, if users have entrusted us with their personal data, we take care in using that data to enhance the relevance of our content.

Tell the Truth

People generally expect a company or organization to put its best foot forward—but without hiding the other foot. Users expect us to emphasize what will appeal to them, but still inform them about things that might not appeal to them—such as terms, disclaimers, or risks. Perhaps the temptation to conceal or misrepresent the truth might seem greater when we do not have to look someone in the eye while doing it. So I think about having to look someone in the eye and explain myself.

Think Long-Term Relationship, Not Short-Term Gain

Earlier in this column, I discussed how a manipulative situation is win-lose. The company wins and the user loses. When considering a long-term relationship, manipulation is actually lose-lose. Engaging in manipulation may bring a company a temporary boost in conversions or a brief increase in profits, but it makes repeat business unlikely and a loyal customer following impossible. Manipulative content is losing content.

Summary

“To help safeguard your content against manipulation, think about your relationship with the people who use your products.”

Persuasion, not manipulation, makes for winning content. While UX professionals do not intend to manipulate, they occasionally face pressures from employers or clients to toe the line. To understand when content may be crossing the line from persuasion to manipulation, we need to understand the difference. In summary, three areas of distinction include motivation, user choice, and user control. To help safeguard your content against manipulation, think about your relationship with the people who use your products. Be sincere, show respect, tell the truth, and focus on creating a long-term relationship with them. The payoff is trustworthy content that wins customers over now and for a long time to come.

4 Comments

Cool! So much of this relates to how UX people can better sell themselves and help further communicate the UX value to organizations.

It’s great to be reminded that the correct motivation is to facilitate a win-win situation for company and the users. That’s pretty clear, and I guess few people would disagree.

However, what is persuasive to one person can be manipulative to another. Or, put another way, manipulation is in the eye of the beholder, too.

Is there really an objective line you can point to—on one side persuasive and on the other manipulative—and then can every Web site be objectively placed on one side or the other? Obviously not—people put the line in different places. What’s manipulative to me may be totally honest and fair persuasion to you.

And assuming no site designer has 100% pure motivations, devoid of any hint of wishing for selfish gain, then can any site really be fully ethical?

What I’m getting at is that we need to look deeper into how persuasion happens, especially how it’s a child of two parents—the site is Mom, the mind of the user is Dad, their interaction breeds the experience—whether persuasive or manipulative.

So though I totally agree with the article’s recommendations to keep to solid ethics, I think we need to go further in our discussion.

Great post, Colleen. As a psychologist and usability practitioner, I’m constantly struggling with that border between persuasion and manipulation. To a point, I think persuasion is a natural extension of usability. Our first goal is to help end-users accomplish their own goals—and not set an agenda for them—but if we can’t exactly meet their needs, we often offer alternatives—similar products and so on. This is essentially persuasion, but it’s also often helpful and good usability. It’s when we try to derail the users path with our own agenda that we start to cross the line.

Thanks, Dan!

Alexander, I am glad you find this topic worthy of deeper discussion, and I look forward to more discussion of the topic. It is exactly because the line between manipulation and persuasion is not clearcut that we need guidelines to help us decipher the line, and guidelines are what I put forth in this column. Great point about the user’s interpretation—that is partly why content needs to be tested more effectively. To your point about whether a site can be truly ethical, you are equating being 100% pure with being ethical, and that is not what I am implying. The definition of persuasion is win-win—the persuader or designer wins and the user wins.

Thanks, Dr. Pete—Great point about being helpful as a way of being persuasive!

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