How To Be More Persuasive – Psychology 101 for Link Builders

Over the past few years I have spent an increasing amount of time learning about different psychology theories to enhance the results of my work.

As a link builder it is your role to deliver your content to the communities who are most likely to consume and link to it. To gain an upper hand and get the attention of people who are being pitched to dozens, if not hundreds of times per day, it will often come down to how well you understand your link prospects motivations and mindset.

In this post I hope to give you an overview of a number of theories I have used in the past couple of years in helping me to convert my outreach efforts into links.

Speak their Language

A very powerful way of establishing rapport with someone else is to adopt the language style of their preferred representational system.

Our preferred representational systems are our points of contact with the outside world i.e. our five senses. Every one of us has a mixture of all four representational systems but we all have one that we prefer and operate in most of the time.

When we take the time to learn to recognise other people’s preferred representational styles we can relate better to them by adapting our style to theirs.

Auditory: people with an auditory preference are great story tellers and love to talk. Ultimately they want to have fun and attend “fun” events. They are big picture orientated so don’t require the details so consider picking up the phone and having a chat.

Auditory Digital: individuals with an auditory digital preference are very detail orientated perfectionists, preferring order over chaos and their personal space. When you write an email to them be specific, prepared and precise &offer them plenty of links and references for further research such as charts and data.

Visual: people with a visual style are driven and very businesslike. They don’t want the detail and need the big picture so make sure your communications with these types of people are brief and to the point. These types of people prefer visualisations (infographics and photos) and very much love to win; so think about blogging competitions and ego bait to get this particular groups attention.

Kinaesthetic: individuals who have a kinaesthetic preference are doers and want to take action. These types of people enjoy getting out and interacting so why not arrange a meet-up with other webmasters in their location, pick up the phone, invite them for a coffee or host a webinar.

Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

Optimal Distinctiveness Theory is a social psychology theory which states that individuals work to achieve a balance of integration and uniqueness within social groups and situations. When people feel similar to others, they seek out some way to be different.

When they feel different, they try to be more similar. The Optimal Distinctiveness Theory suggests that individuals are constantly making adjustments to maintain equilibrium between the need to be similar and the need to be different.

This is a great theory that a link builder should be aware of in crafting an outreach campaign. It is human nature for individuals to want to differentiate themselves from a group, but simultaneously wish to maintain a certain similarity with a group.

As a link builder you can design your campaign so that it speaks to these two opposing motivators in a clever way, appealing to a person’s need to be different, by showing them a new angle or offering an exclusive, such as an interview with a senior member of staff.

Yet at the same time, your campaign will need to promote the fact that a person will be seen as keeping up with popular behaviour, because by featuring your content they will be seen to fit in to the trend of the other websites in their niche.

So how does this work in reality?
 “Hi [First Name],

I just read your article on [blog topic] and I would love the opportunity to write more about the subject for your blog.

As you know [blog topic] is pretty hot right now and I have recently written some very popular posts on the subject at [list of websites in their niche], and I notice very few people are writing about [proposed blog topic].

Let me know if it is of interest to you and I will send across a draft in the next few days,



Appeal to their Ego

We all have an ego and most of us don’t mind when our ego is massaged from time to time

Egobait is an incredibly simple and effective marketing tactic to get your head around and is a very good way to get onto the radar of a thought leader in your niche:

  1. Curate a best of post or Top 10 list
  2. Create a badge or award
  3. Mention Influencers in your blog posts (link out)

If you want to learn more about creating Egobait then I recommend this post by James Agate, this post from Anthony D Nelson and there is a great round up from Steve Morgan on Communitybait where you egobait a larger group of people, rather than just focusing on a few individuals.

Create an Information Gap

Most experts think they know a lot about their subject matter area and by creating a need based desire you create an itch that only you can scratch.

In the competitive and ego-driven mindset that most of us have developed we pick up on details and drive wedges between ourselves and others in order to have a clear and distinct position.

Dr. George Lowenstien wrote a paper about Information Gap Theory in 1994 and it works like this:

When we come across something new that is not explained by our previous knowledge or experiences, an information gap is formed, and we have a desire to find the answer. 

This is marketing 101 and yet very few people utilise this in their outreach efforts. I have given an example of this type of email before, but just in case you missed it, here is another:
Hi [First Name],

I came across some research that shows (insert the conclusion of the research)

If you would like me to send across more information about the research let me know, and I’ll happily email it across.

Many Thanks,



This is a great link building tactic I like to use a lot as it means they are asking me for the link to my client’s content and therefore I am not sending the stereotypical outreach email.

Prospect Theory

Prospect theory was developed by Kahneman and Tversky to explain how we make decisions, particularly in the face of risk. It is one of the most direct and strong applications of psychology to business because of the solid research basis.

The word “prospect” doesn’t refer to “link prospect”, so don’t be thrown off by that. It’s meant to refer to how we deal with risk, loss, and complicated decisions. Responding to a link request is a decision which involves the perception of risk, so if we know how people think, we can improve the way we pitch to them.

The theory rests on the idea that losses are more hurtful than gains are pleasurable. Many studies conclude that losses are about twice as painful as gains are enjoyable.

The key in prospect theory is the reference point. Above this point, someone perceives a gain. Below this point, he or she perceives a loss. So you need to frame the benefits of your pitch around the minimisation of risk and maximisation of winning.

The Six Principles of Influence

In my recent interview with Jon Cooper, he recommended that link builders read the well known book by Robert Cialdini – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

A few days later I had finished the book in double quick time and wanted to include Cialdini’s theories in this post as well as some of the other theories I had started to curate.

Below is a video from Robert Cialdini that gives you the cliff notes of the six principles.


1. The Rule of Reciprocity

Have you ever noticed that when you do something nice for people then tend to do something nice for you in return?

Human relationships are based on the reciprocity principle; “If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you in return.” This principle forms the cement of the social masonry that society is built up on.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t want someone to do something for you as you may feel like you ‘owe’ them? That’s because it is so deeply ingrained in to us from child hood that we should reciprocate.

Below is a recent Whiteboard Friday from Rand where he runs through his own experiences with the power of reciprocity in link building:


This is a great link building methodology to understand it was brought up by Melanie Nathan as  the key principle behind broken link building and this has gone on to form more link building tactics such as helping bloggers with spam problems or who may have had their websites hacked.

Rejection Then Retreat

The rule of reciprocity is also the root of a classic negotiation strategy. Called the Rejection-Then-Retreat tactic, you start by making a request (or offer) that you know will likely never be accepted. Once rejected, you make a more reasonable request or offer, and your concession sparks a return concession. The second request should be made soon after the first request, before the effects of guilt and other “motivators” wear off.

For example, you might ask someone to link to a piece of content on your website or blog but actually settle for them to send a tweet or share your content on Facebook as they have a large and engaged social media following.

2. Scarcity

Availability might be threatened by limited quantity, a time deadline, or by competition. Whatever the reason, the item in question becomes more attractive to us if we think we can’t have it.

Cialdini tells of a saleman who always arranged for more than one interested buyer to arrive when he was showing a used car. The competition generated from the two buyers looking at the same car increased anxiety in both of them, and made the car seem much more attractive.

Using scarcity techniques in your outreach campaign may seem counter-intuitive, because it’s normally most effective to help people associate themselves positively by taking an action. But the raw power of the underlying psychological principle at work in these scarcity techniques suggests some interesting opportunities to influence others.

This type of method is great for offering access to senior members of staff who are rarely publicised or perhaps limiting the number of samples you are offering if you are using product reviews as a link building tactic.

3. Social Proof

Wikipedia describes social proof as “a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others reflect the correct behaviour for a given situation… driven by the assumption that the surrounding people possess more information about the situation.” In other words, people are wired to learn from the actions of others, and this can be a huge driver of consumer behaviour.

At some point the majority of us will have succumbed to its powerful magical draw. Perhaps we’ve chosen the busy restaurant over the quieter one, bought a product that was endorsed by a celebrity or was in a “top 10” list or chart. Regardless of ‘the what’ and ‘the where’ there is a universal truth at play, if we see others behaving in a particular manner it will often lead to us following, in an almost automatic fashion.

Robert Cialdini: Birds flock together in very neat patterns, fish school, cattle herd, social insects swarm together. So this is something that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive capacity in order to trigger the conformity. All you need to do is to see what those around you, like you, are doing. And it’s a good shortcut to deciding what you should do in a situation.

This is a great technique to use if you are trying to get someone to do an interview on your blog or you want to get more online press mentions. By listing the names of other people or publications who have already taken action within your outreach request can have a positive effect on your response rates.

4. Consistency & Commitment

Once people have made a choice or taken a stand, they are under both internal and external pressure to behave consistently with that commitment. This desire for consistency offers us all a shortcut to action as we recall a previous decision we have already made.

Getting people to answer ‘yes’ makes them more powerfully committed to an action, Cialdini says. For instance, don’t tell people: “Please call if you have to cancel.” Asking “Will you please call if you have to cancel?” gets customers to say yes, and measurably increases their response rates.

Businesses sometimes use this strategy to sell you something small, even if they make no money on it. They are counting on the fact that your own self-image has changed in the process & you now see yourself as their customer, and will be much more likely to return to make a larger purchase.

Like the other weapons of influence, this one lies deep within us, directing our actions with quiet power. It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done.

This is a great technique to utilise to cement existing linker relations. You can do this by praising them for making good past decisions, based on the information they had at the time. Then find ways to stress the consistent values connecting their past actions with your current requests.

5. Likability

It’s not hard to believe that we are predisposed to be more responsive to people who we know and like. If you already have some interests, hobbies or similar experiences to your link prospect it’s a good idea to highlight them in your outreach.

Did you grow up in the same town?

Did you both attend the same college?

Do you both have pets?

Do you both have an interest in Tuvan throat singing?

Be sure to mention these types of facts in your outreach and it doesn’t have to be a huge list of commonalities just one or two things will make a huge difference to making you seemingly more relatable and therefore more likable.

Familiarity = Likeability

A particular concept from human psychology from Swap (1977), who found that familiarity fosters likeability.

The findings of this study suggest that the more exposure we have to someone, the more we are predisposed to like them, especially when we feel they are giving us value or rewards

As people see you “everywhere,” they start to pay more attention. And as they pay more attention, you become more familiar. And as you become more familiar, they like you more therefore it’s important that you establish your persona within their online communities.

Start out slowly comment on their blog post. Retweet them thoughtfully. Send them a compliment about something they recently wrote.

I know this isn’t the most scalable link building approach but believe it or not it can have a high success rate. There are a number of CRM and outreach tools on the market that you can use to help you with maintaining a number of these relationships.

6. Authority

People respect authority. They want to follow the lead of real experts. Business titles, impressive clothing, and even driving an expensive, high-performing automobile are proven factors in lending credibility to any individual.

Giving the appearance of authority actually increases the likelihood that others will comply with requests – even if their authority is illegitimate.

Cialdini describes the infamous Milgram experiment, in which subjects believed they were inflicting increasingly high levels of electric shock on an actor, even though he was screaming for them to stop. The subjects were extremely uncomfortable with what they were doing, but they continued to shock the subject because the researcher urged them to do so.

Milgram concluded from this experiment that humans possess an “extreme willingness … to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.”

Given the incredible influence of authority figures, it would be wise to incorporate testimonials from legitimate, recognised authorities to help persuade prospects to respond to your outreach efforts.

It’s important to remember that the fastest way to come off as inconsequential is to keep telling people how influential you are.

The Six Weapons of Influence are incredibly powerful and can be combined together in many different ways. I recommend that you use them whenever you approach people you want to influence and if you want to discover some more examples of ways that these principles can be used in real life situations then I recommend “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways To Be Persuasive”

PS don’t forget if you’re new here, then sign up to my RSS feed to discover more ways to build links and improve your online presence.

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20 Responses to How To Be More Persuasive – Psychology 101 for Link Builders

  1. Se▲n says:

    *slow clap*

    Brilliant work. Will be coming back to this a lot!

  2. Bravo Chris, an exceptional post. I have employed several of the techniques outlined here, without thinking find out the theory that governs them or do any further reading. I too shall read Cialdini’s book avidly.

    The stuff on representational systems is fascinating – and has given me a lot of ideas about how to communicate complex ideas to other staff members who I know well. However surely it is more difficult to determine for a link prospect? Do you have any methods for establishing this?

  3. barrie moran says:

    Kudos, nice post, great read

  4. awesome stuff Chris.
    and you know why? because it’s human. and I like it a lot. it’s sincere.
    sharing this around!

  5. Thanks – this one made the rounds in our linkbuilding team. I do have The Psychology of Persuasion on my “to read” list – hardly a week goes by without someone smart recommending this book to me. It’s on my shelf calling my name…

  6. juliejoyce says:

    This is really fantastic. I think it’s exactly what Patrick says, which is something we tend to do without considering what’s behind it. One of my link builders wrote something similar in a post where he compared link building to working in a grocery store and described how differently he’d approach one person vs another based on something obvious like the way they were dressed. I don’t mean that he treated people differently if they had “nicer” clothes or anything…he would talk to a hipster in a different way than he would a 60 year old lady though.

  7. Chris this post is awesome! Thank you for sharing this information.

    I knew many principles here, but I’ve never thought to apply them to link building – and the few that I applied were at unconscious level.

    Instead I applied many of these principles to make my last post (the one about the 101 experts) and I have to say that they work greatly.

    I really appreciate the 2 email templates, and I’m going to use them 🙂

  8. I’ve been going up and down looking for a twitter button, Chris; would love to share the post (it’s awesome!), but you are making it difficult! 🙂

  9. Brian DeBelle says:

    Great post Chris! I just picked up Cialdini’s book Influence, very interesting stuff.

  10. Thanks Chris for informative post. I like the clip of “Friday white board” from SEOmoz. It makes sense to me.

  11. Carlo Borja says:

    Great post, Chris. I love how this article points out real scientific facts to support how things work. It’s genuine and everyone can relate to each point. This could extend not only to link building but to every career out there.

  12. Thomas Smith says:

    Thanks Chris, great post! I read half of that book, and I guess it’s time to pick that up 🙂

  13. Adam Levine says:

    good job on this post Chris!

  14. Kim Troskie says:

    Its so nice to read an article written in a human way, making it easy to understand. Great Stuff! Thanks Chris

  15. Eyeflow says:

    Great advice! I agree its important to treat the blogger as an expert in their field and to ask for their input, making them feel as though they are being used as a source of knowledge.

  16. ronellsmith says:


    As a phych-bio major, I have this to say: “Psychology 101,” my foot. This is some senior-level social psychology here, sir. And spot-on. I cannot think of a single field, industry that cannot benefit from the techniques you describe. We’d all benefit from putting this to good use.


  17. Spook SEO says:

    Fantabulous post, Chris! These are advanced level and most modern link building strategies I ever came across. Marketing psychology is really the fad nowadays with the significant impact of social media and verified authorship – technology is already fine-tuned to more natural human linkages.

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