I recently reached out to Niels Hoven for any reading material on social psychology that will be helpful from a product management perspective. He pointed me towards Robert Cialdini’s famous book, Influence. It’s a classic in which he outlines six principles that compliance professionals use to people to say ‘Yes’ to their demands.

After reading the book, I went to one of the best-designed websites on the internet, , to check whether the company is using few of those principles and, if yes, how good and unique those are in comparison to what I’ve seen on other websites/apps.

Reciprocity

According to Reciprocity principle, if somebody does a favor to us, we tend to return in kind. Businesses leverage it by giving something to the customer for free — before asking anything from them. For example, free food samples in grocery chains or freemium businesses in SaaS, a free e-book in exchange for sharing personal information.

Airbnb doesn’t directly give any such offers to their customers. However, it uses the reciprocity principle by educating hosts on how to treat the guests well, and guests to follow the house rules. Sharing tips on how to make your house guest-friendly and surprise them (in a good way, of course), and sharing knowledge about things to do in the neighborhood.

This paper on Airbnb by a team of researchers shows the reciprocity principle in action. In summary: Quality of each stay is a function of the joint effort of hosts and guests, both hosts and guests determine effort based on each others’ reciprocity preferences. More reciprocity leads to higher ratings, higher ratings lead to higher demand. Higher demand allows hosts to charge more and thus make more money not only for themselves but for Airbnb too.

Commitment & Consistency

There are many nuances to the Commitment and Consistency Principle. Though at a high-level it implies that once we commit to something, we feel the pressure, both internal and external, to be consistent with that commitment or decision.

One example mentioned in the book and that many of you might have already experienced: businesses running a contest on which they ask customers to do a short write up on why they like a particular product and then give a prize to the winning entry.

It seems like an innocuous contest, however, the psychological impact on whoever participates in the competition is a commitment to keep using the product in future. If you convince yourself that you like a product by writing it yourself, aren’t you going to buy the same product next time? Ingenious!

Airbnb uses this principle subtly in a few places:

Airbnb Superhost: An experienced and highly rated host gets the Superhost tag on meeting specific requirements. See the use of the word ‘committed’ in the definition of a Superhost Mario.

Superhost requirements listed on Airbnb.com

Response Rate and Response Time: Once you have a response rate of 100% and reply within an hour, you’re pressured to maintain that commitment, however difficult it is.

Profile of one of the Superhost on Airbnb.com

Availability Calendar: Of the two calendars mentioned below for two different houses, which one you’ll be more inclined to check out. The one where the schedule was updated today or the one updated 22 days ago?

Availability calendar for one of the properties on Airbnb.com
Availability calendar for one of the properties on Airbnb.com

Social Proof

In case of indecision, we humans beings, look for what other people did in the similar situation. Thus, we tend to view a behavior as acceptable if others have behaved in the same manner.

Reviews section on all the online marketplaces is one such example. You are more inclined to purchase products and services if you see others’ satisfied with their purchases.

Airbnb is no an exception. However, what I like the most about Airbnb is how it uses machine learning to generate insights from user reviews and show those insights at the top of the page.

In the screenshot below, Airbnb shows that 95% of recent guests gave check-in experience a 5-star rating and 100% gave 5-star for location. On seeing “how recent” ratings are, a guest will be more inclined to book.

Old ratings might not be that useful in the case for Airbnb as experience can change over time and Airbnb has no control over that. It’s unlike buying a standard product on Amazon where I know what to expect, and returning a product is also not that big of a problem. Whereas in the case of Airbnb, you don’t have many options left once you arrive at the host’s house.

Also, showing that a “property has been viewed 500+ times in the past week and is on people’s minds” or telling a property is “most wish-listed in the country” are few more examples where Airbnb uses social proof principle elegantly.

Home Highlights section showing insights from guest reviews
An Airbnb host property highlighted as most wish-listed in South Africa

Liking

The essence of the Liking principle is: we tend to say ‘Yes’ to requests of someone we like.

Several pieces of research and examples cited in the book discuss in detail, how likeability can be engendered through similarity, compliments, cooperation, positive association, and other means.

In case of Airbnb, 1) High-resolution, breathtaking pictures of houses in exotic locations 2) Guidebooks by Hosts 3) hobbies/interests of hosts and guests 4) incentive for people to refer their friends are some of the areas where can we see Liking principle in action.

Snapshot of a host’s info from Airbnb
Airbnb’s Referral Program

Authority

As per Authority principle, humans tend to comply with people if they perceive them to be of high-authority — in knowledge, information, power; A powerful heuristic that humans use to come to decisions quickly. There are many ways businesses use this principle to influence customers: quoting experts, mentioning awards, star partner organizations.

In the case of Airbnb, even though it has grown to become a $30 billion company, but to accelerate the next stage of growth, it has to gain market share from hotel chains. However, the necessary, but not sufficient condition for Airbnb to achieve so, is to provide a reliable experience in comfort and quality that hotel chains can offer.

That’s where Airbnb Plus comes in, which it launched recently. It’s a selection of homes verified by Airbnb in different cities across the world that meet the expectations in quality and comfort set by Airbnb. Its selection and verification process provides the authority a person needs and will be more inclined to book aware of the expectations set by Airbnb for hosts and guests.

Airbnb Plus

Scarcity

Sixth and the last one, as the name suggests, implies that we assign more value to things that, we believe, are scarce: in time, quantity, quality etc. The judgment heuristic behind this principle is that things that are difficult to get are better than the ones we can get easily.

Airbnb has leveraged it in many places: search results, time-bound discounts, showing rarity in both location and booking availability as you can see in the screenshots below.

How Airbnb shows Scarcity in Search results
How Airbnb shows Scarcity on Property Page
How Airbnb shows Scarcity on Property Page

I’ve covered all the six principles mentioned in the book, but that’s just the start. The book is laden with numerous examples, research findings, and many facets of each principle and is worth reading if you’re interested in the intersection of social psychology and business. Do give it a read if you want to internalize both the good and bad sides of these principles.

If you found this article useful, please share it so others can also benefit. Also, if you know of any websites/apps using these principles in a unique/interesting way, please leave those in comments. Thanks!

PS: Thanks Alfonso for reading the draft and suggesting the edits.





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