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Are You In or Not?

Making consumers feel that they are on the outside looking in is a common marketing tactic, but recent research indicates it might be very risky.

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Did you sit on the senior quad? How often do you get invited to the hottest events within your industry? Or, more relevant to the current times, how much do your Instagram pics get liked?

All of these circumstances deal with degrees people feel of inclusion or exclusion. It’s a primal feeling—a feeling that is often purposefully induced by marketers. Most brands choose the route of inclusion (e.g, Coke’s infamous “teach the world to sing” campaign) while others go for the more controversial choice of exclusion (e.g., Equinox’s “Commit to something” campaign). The exclusive choice is a favorite of luxury brands and counterculture brands. The objective of this strategy is to reinforce the unique value of the brand by explicitly stating who qualifies and who doesn’t, implicitly relying on the fact that everybody wants to feel special.

Social exclusion is currently a hot topic in the research field, and it’s particularly relevant in the shadow of the 2016 US Presidential election. Many analysts believe that the outcome of that election hinges on latent feelings of exclusion from within the voting population. Two recent studies shed light on how this could be so, and also offer cautionary counsel for those marketers who choose exclusionary strategies in their marketing mix.

The first study, published earlier this year in the The Journal of Social Psychology, documented a troubling interaction between feelings of social exclusion and the power of persuasion. To put it simply, respondents who were subjected to situations that created a feeling of social exclusion were less critical of persuasive messages than their peers in a control group. Let me repeat that. The folks who felt excluded were easier to persuade. To be accurate, they were less critical of persuasive arguments.

I have written before about persuasion knowledge. Each of us rely upon three bodies of knowledge when we are being persuaded to make a decision. We rely on what we know about the topic, what we know about the seller, and what we know about tactics to persuade us. It is the latter that comes into play in the new research, which demonstrated that people who felt socially excluded in the study’s experiments were less likely to activate their persuasion knowledge. In essence, the seller didn’t have to work as hard, which I find rather sad.

However, most of us can relate to the circumstances of the study. You go into a show room and hear a seller tell you that “everyone is buying this one.” Suddenly, and against your better judgment, you find yourself looking harder at the option everyone else chose. Why didn’t you know about it? How much of a loser am I that I am seeing this for the first time? It looks kind of ugly, but what do I know? Everyone else is choosing this one. Maybe I should, too.

Before you lose hope because of this manipulative tactic you should consider another study, published in this month’s Journal of Consumer Research. It did not study the persuasive effects of social exclusion, but it did examine its impact on switching behavior. It found that feelings of social exclusion are highly correlated with a loss of control. In response to this feeling, many consumers subconsciously seek to regain this feeling of control by becoming switchers.

Before you say, “duh, Larry. Yes. They feel excluded and they switch to the brand that induced the feeling of exclusion” let me quote ESPN’s legendary Lee Corso … “not so fast.” The switching behavior documented in the study was often merely tangential to the incident creating the feeling of exclusion. In other words, because respondents felt excluded and the desire to reassert control, their mindset shifted to a blanket openness to switching. They became variety-seekers in general, not just in the target domain. In one of the studies, participants were randomly selected to recall an event in which they felt socially excluded. Then, all of the participants were given the task of selecting ice cream over a series of days. Those who recalled the episode of being left out chose a greater variety of ice cream selections. They also reported a greater feeling of control than the control group.

What’s the moral of this story? Simply this. If you choose a marketing strategy that induces a feeling of exclusion in order to close a sale, you may inadvertently trigger a compensatory mechanism in your consumer to re-establish control and a willingness to switch. So, if you’re a fitness provider and you convince your target customer that they’re missing out because everyone else is a member, you might close that sale today but you also might prime them to be less loyal tomorrow.


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