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Influence is Your Superpower. Headshot of Zoe Chance and image of yellow book cover.

The Pursuit of Influence

SOM Marketing lecturer Zoe Chance describes the basic tools that all marketers can harness to get people to say “yes,” from influencing internal stakeholders to making it easier for consumers to act on their intentions.

For years, Zoe Chance, a senior lecturer at Yale SOM, has been researching and discussing influence. She studied the subject for her doctorate, examined its subtle flows during her time as a brand manager for Barbie, and finally synthesized what she learned into the curriculum for a popular SOM course, “Mastering Influence and Persuasion.” This led to the publication of her recent book Influence Is Your Superpower.

During this time, she has regularly encountered one key misperception. “A lot of people come to my workshops and classes with the goal of learning how to change people’s minds,” she says. But this is rarely going to happen, especially when the issue under consideration is one that both parties care about deeply. “We often end up banging our head against the wall, and when we focus on this kind of influence we’re leaving low-hanging fruit rotting on the ground.”

In a recent Learning from Leaders conversation with Jiwoong Shin, Professor of Marketing at SOM, Chance discussed some of the foundational findings of her work and how marketers should think about influence as a way of getting people — both customers and colleagues — to say yes and then act on their intentions. After all, behavior can be altered without changing minds.

Chance emphasized that effective and influential marketing is not about manipulating the consumer to do something he or she doesn’t want to do, but about helping people do the things they already want to do; it’s about mutual and lasting benefit.

Nurturing charisma, which people frequently ask Chance about, is one way to make it more likely that people will say yes when you make a request of them. Though there are many ways to cultivate a charismatic personality — some people are funny, others quietly engaged, others still distinctly inclusive — a steady attentiveness forms the common thread between charismatic individuals.

“The idea of charisma ultimately boils down to this: how much attention do I feel this person is paying to me?” Chance says. This measure works hand-in-hand with traits like empathy and the ability to remain open-minded. “Spoiler alert: being influential requires being influenceable.” With this in mind, Chance recommended enrolling in improv classes as a powerful tool for teaching people to listen deeply and let go of self-consciousness (the “anti-charisma, says Chance).

Influence, though, is about more than simply getting people to say yes; it requires getting them to act on what they say — that is, bridging what Chance refers to as the “action-intention gap.” She described a national campaign undertaken by the United States Department of Agriculture that spent $50 million per year in an attempt to increase the number of fruits and vegetables people ate on a daily basis. Over five years, rates of awareness of the issue quadrupled; the number of people who were actually eating the recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables, however, stayed flat.

“Knowing about the importance of eating more healthy food and having that intention didn’t, in the end, matter,” Chance says. “It was the obstacles blocking behavior that needed to be focused on.”

One of the most straightforward ways to bridge this gap is by making the action you desire as easy as possible for people to take. In the marketing world, this is measured by the customer effort score, and it is more predictive than any other measure of customer loyalty. Chance cited one survey of nearly 100,000 people which found that a low effort score translated into a 95% probability of repurchase regardless of how much a consumer liked the given product or service.

“The important thing is not necessarily that we all use this metric,” Chance says. “The most important thing is to hear the message: if you want to influence people in any context, make the behavior you’re seeking as easy as possible.”

The most important thing is to hear the message: if you want to influence people in any context, make the behavior you’re seeking as easy as possible.

She demonstrated the point with a longstanding collaboration between YCCI and Google, one of many partnerships that YCCI has developed with industry leaders. Though the scope of the project with Google has expanded over the years, the partnership began by looking at ways to encourage Google employees, who have access to free snacks all day long and often gain weight their first year, to avoid eating when they don’t want to. One very effective solution that was found — obvious in hindsight — was putting greater distance between drink stations and snack stations, so that water refills didn’t encourage a handful of M&Ms. This change alone cut snacking by 50%. “We were trying to help people make mindlessly healthier choices,” Chance says.

In the end, Chance noted that “influence is a science — not rocket science — and we are built to do it: it’s how human beings have evolved, how we survived as babies, how we survived as a species and thrived across the planet.” Decades of research and practice have helped her establish a deep expertise in the tools and strategies that support the quiet work of persuasion. “And now I hope to help other people understand the psychology of influence so that they can be more effective and more connected.”