Authority: The Influence of Experts

Note: this is part four of an ongoing series of psychological marketing techniques based on renowned psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini’s work. If you haven't read the others, you can jump to part one, part two, or part three.

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4. Authority

The basic idea of Authority is that people tend to obey, respect, and trust experts.

Seems obvious, right?

What’s surprising is just how little evidence there needs to be that someone really is an expert.

And how far people will go in following the so-called expert. Far beyond simply trusting the attached marketing message.

It doesn’t even necessarily matter if the expertise is related to the situation at hand. 

For example, appearing financially successful makes people more likely to trust and follow you for other things: more pedestrians jaywalk when someone in a business suit does it first. 

But the most famous experiment about the concept of Authority shows how incredibly powerful it can be. 

The Milgram experiment at Yale was designed to find out the answer to one question: How much is the average person willing to make someone else suffer, when asked to do so by a figure of authority?

The results surprised even the researcher who designed the study.

Here’s how it went.

A researcher in a lab coat told a volunteer to ask a series of difficult questions to a second volunteer, who was strapped down to a chair.

Secretly, the second “volunteer” was actually an actor.

The actual volunteer also had one other task: each time the strapped-down actor provided a wrong answer, the volunteer was supposed to give him an electric shock by pulling a lever.

The volunteer was told that each electric shock would get more powerful as the test went on, starting with mild discomfort and going all the way up to a level that would cause extreme pain.

The study was repeated 40 times, with startling results.

Quoting Influence: 

“Not one of the forty subjects in this study quit his job when the victim first began to demand his release; nor later, when he began to beg for it; nor even later, when his reaction to each shock had become, in Milgram’s words, ‘definitely an agonized scream.’

Not until the 300-volt shock had been sent and the victim ‘shouted in desperation that he would no longer provide answers to the memory test’ did anyone stop--and even then, it was a distinct minority who did.”

So even as the actors screamed in agony, begged to be let go, and pleaded that they had heart conditions, almost every single volunteer continued administering the intensifying electric shocks.

What's crazy is that these volunteers were just normal people.

And they weren't being paid or compelled to do anything by any legal authority; it was simply a researcher in a lab coat, making polite requests that they to torture other people.

The same study has been repeated around the world, with similar results each time.

That shows you how incredibly powerful the psychological concept of Authority can be.

In startup marketing, Authority can be used in a lot of different ways. (Aside from torturing people.)

One of the most common ways is calling out results in terms of numbers: valuation, user count, # of app downloads, growth rate, amounts of funding raised, revenue, etc.

A great example of this is on Noah Kagan's blog, As you can see in the screenshot below, he calls out that he has a) started 2 multi-million-dollar businesses, and b) grew a 700,000+ person email list. (Plus, tacos.)

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Including those factors in his marketing helps prove Noah's expertise and give him Authority.

Do you think those things make people more likely to give him their email addresses?

Of course they do.

Here are some other ways people and businesses demonstrate Authority:

  • Affiliation with famous investors or incubators like Y-Combinator
  • Past startup acquisitions/exits
  • Showing media badges
  • Testimonials and reviews (which we also talked about in the Social Proof post)
  • Showing off any awards
  • Referencing past clients, especially any big names
  • Mentioning that the founder went to a famous university (even if they dropped out)
  • Calling out their number of years of experience and/or places they've spoken
  • Wearing a doctor's lab coat or expensive business suit 
  • Having a well-designed site or app (or a nice office)
  • Displaying a diploma on the wall, or certification letters next to your name (M.D., PhD, MBA, etc.)

One last example to wrap up...

If I wanted to use the principle of Authority to encourage you to subscribe to our email newsletter, I might say this:

As the founder of Blue Mint Marketing, I've used scientific marketing techniques to drive hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for our clients.

As a result, my agency was one of the first in the world to be officially awarded Google's top-tier "Premier Google Partner" status.

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How are you going to use the psychological concept of Authority in your startup marketing or investor pitches?

Leave a comment to let me know.