Bill Nichols

18 April 2014

Bill Nichols

015 – 22 April 2014

Hard-wired consumer responses:  Magic of Three Trumps Four Or More

We are hard-wired: especially our consumer responses.  Often more or less automated.  Up to 80% of the time, according to a top psychologist buddy.  So, in most situations, for communicators, it should be a case of press the button, trigger the receiver’s mental ‘software’ and await the outcome.

Should.  If only we know which buttons. And, not least, how intensively to make claims and to persuade.

On intensity, insightful new research (*), based on a sequence of carefully-controlled experiments, confirms what many might guess.   The answer: it’s three, stupid.

For most message-receivers most of the time, three data-points are sufficient to triangulate and infer meaning.  Whether positive or negative.  So only three assertions per press release or three claims per ad.    Stir gently… It’s enough.  Really.

This is crucial evidence for hard-pressed PR execs, advertising copywriters and online scribes wishing to push back on the client’s demands for ever more positive claims.  And sobering for politicians parroting the exact same answer again (and again!).

The Power of Three

Three of course resonates in our culture. It is, for example, the deep structure of rhetoric.  In medieval numerology and theology, three is God and the Trinity.  And nine (3×3) is the number of miracles.

St. Augustine, that great marketer of the early church, offers perhaps the richest insight.  Three, he suggested, in a passable advance draft of the Theory of Reasoned Action which has dominated consumer behaviour thinking over the past 30 years, speaks to and aligns the three parts of the human being.  That is, mind (attitude), spirit (normative beliefs) and will (motivation).

Selling, Unselling and ‘Persuasion Knowledge’

But if we abuse this magic?  Beyond three positive messages in a marketer-controlled persuasion setting, four or more triggers the receiver’s scepticism.  His defences kick-in.  In the jargon, you run his ‘persuasion knowledge’ software.  Like the anti-virus on your laptop, it functions as a coping strategy.  It mediates, and may negate, initial acceptance.

Make sense?  As every great salesman knows, at a certain point, the more you push, justify and promote, the more you ‘un-sell’.  Or, as every wise consultancy head knows, the more times you re-write that client proposal, the less likely you are to win.

Risks and Rewards of Social Media

Further, in an age in which we increasingly consume news by aggregating narrative across multiple-platforms, simple repetition is high risk. The over-zealous marketer who transmits the same message in the same format across multiple social platforms (say Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) triggers defences.  As the research authors note, “small changes in message design can have profound effects on message effectiveness”.

But there is good news too.  Information in a non-persuasion setting (e.g. customer chat, reviews and likes on social media) does not trigger the defence.  It adds authenticity.  That is the reward of social media.

Managing the Message: Beware the Fourth

Over past decades, communicators have learnt much about message management.  They know about the power of source credibility.  The importance of aligning presentation to audience.  The contextual potency of e.g. price signals, message framing and message sequencing.  And the subliminal effects of environment.

Now add, if you like a posh phrase, the ‘theory of inference sufficiency’.  Or if you prefer, the ‘power of three’.

Three only!  Beware the fourth proposition and do not un-sell.  Whether you pitch a story, proposal or new product, close quickly and close early.  Hard wire those consumer responses.


(*) Shu, S.B., and Carlson, K.A. (2014), Why Three Charms But Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings.  Journal of Marketing 78 (1).  

One thought on “Hard-Wired Consumer Responses: The Magic of Three

  1. Pingback: social media, social influence, three key touchpoints

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