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What the Authority Principle Can Teach Your Small Business

John Stevens
authority

Having authority as an individual or as a brand often translates to improved sales, conversions, and ultimate improvement in your small business ROI. Why? Because of how our brains operate.

In this article we’ll step out of small business marketing for a minute to explore human behavioral research on authority. In doing so we’ll understand how brands can use this research to their advantage. Whether it is by having or implying an endorsement from an authority figure or publication or by showcasing your network of influencers, your small business can harness the power of the authority principle.

Understanding the Authority Principle through the Milgram Experiment

In 1961, the famed psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments that would later become known as the Milgram Experiment. Milgram’s intention was to find out how far people would be willing to go if an authority figure asks them to do something.

For his experiments, Milgram recruited participants by placing adverts in a newspaper; participants who responded to the advert were then “paired” with someone else so that one of them was a learner (upon whom electric shocks were administered) while another was the teacher (who was administering electric shocks).

 In what seemed to be a random assignment, participants in Milgram’s experiments did not realize two key things:

  1.  The pairing wasn’t random; instead, it was rigged so that an associate of Milgram’s would always be the learner while the participant would always be the teacher administering the shock.
  2. The electric shocks weren’t real; the learner upon whom it was administered was a trained associate of Milgram’s who had to respond based on the “severity” of the shock.


While these two facts were not known to the participants recruited for Milgram’s experiment, the purpose of the experiment was simple: on a scale of 15 to 450 volts (with 15 being a slight shock and 450 producing a fatal shock), how extreme will participants go when asked to gradually administer electric shocks to someone else (a “fellow participant”) strapped to an electric chair.

authority principle and your small business miligram experiment

Once the experiments began, a researcher (an authority figure dressed in a gray lab coat) asks the teacher to administer electric shocks to the learner - and further instructs the teacher to increase the shocks until it reaches the fatal volt. Both the teacher and the learner are able to see the reactions of the learner.

Some interesting findings from this experiment:

  • A whopping 65 percent of participants went all in and administered the electric shock up to the fatal 450 volts at the request of the researcher (the authority figure).
  • This high compliance rate was despite the fact that the teacher administering the shocks watched the learner convulse and appear ultimately breathless due to the increasing intensity of the shocks.
  • In a variation of the experiment that replaced the researcher in grey lab coat (the authority figure) with an ordinary person, compliance dropped sharply to just 20 percent.


The findings of the Milgram experiments were simple, and potentially dangerous: if instructed to do so by someone considered an authority figure, participants were willing to do things that included fatally harming a fellow human.

The implication of this for your small business ROI

So, what does an experiment in which people were asked to administer electric shocks to fellow humans have to do with boosting your small business ROI?

A lot.

This experiment underscores the importance of the authority principle: people will be more willing to buy from you, interact with you, and listen to you if they see that you are an authority, or you are endorsed by an authority. This concept is really important, it’s a matter of credibility.

Case in point is Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of a product called the T-FAL Actifry. A while back Oprah posted the following message on her social media accounts:

authority principle and your small business social media

This message was a simple endorsement of a random air fryer by an authority figure. It included no links to the product or a prompt to buy. Just a picture of Oprah holding the air fryer and saying that the fryer “changed her life.” The result of that simple endorsement on social media was worth $150 million in increased stock value to the company that produced the ActiFry.

This further reinforced the power of the authority principle: whether in 1961 or in 2019, this principle is still as powerful as it has always been. We often talk about influencer and micro-influencer marketing and these techniques use the authority principle.

Applying the authority principle to your small business marketing

To use the authority principle in your small business marketing strategy you don’t need to know Oprah (but if you did that would of course help!). Here are a few quick ways to use the authority principle to boost your small business ROI:

1. Get an authority figure to endorse you or your product
Ok this one speaks for itself, if you have anyone in your network you can leverage, it’s highly encouraged! The most effective way to leverage the power of the authority principle is by getting an authority figure to endorse you or your product. It could be someone respected in your industry or across industries to endorse your brand, a range of products you offer, or even your as a business person. 

2. Gain authority with a community sponsorship
You could even think local, like sponsoring a baseball team. If you are marketing to families, your endorsement of their children’s local sports activities will cast a good light on your brand. It will show that you’re a part of their community and make them more likely to endorse your products in the future!

3. Highlight your association with authority publications
One of the projects I’m involved in helps people create WordPress websites using a step-by-step guide. To increase the number of people reading the guide I added some logos of high-authority publications I’d been mentioned in: 

authority principle and your small business associations

Indicating that my guide had been featured in top online resources like Forbes, Entrepreneur, and WikiHow, made a lot more people take it seriously. The last time I checked, the project has helped over 250,000 people start their websites.

You can use a similar approach for your small business: if you’ve been featured in top publications or are a regular contributor to these publications, highlight your association with them prominently on your website in order to increase your authority factor.

4. Highlight customers and partners who are industry authorities
“Oh, I haven’t been endorsed by an authority figure,” you might say. However, when you think about it clearly, you’ve probably been patronized by someone who can be considered an authority in your industry. Simply indicating the fact that these big names, or big brands (of course with their permission), have done business with you can provide implicit authority endorsement for you.

Web.com does this expertly as indicated by the Google, Bing, and BBB logo you can find in the footer of all pages:

comScore has a study that shows the effectiveness of this approach in which variations of a particular landing page on their website were made to see which would get the most conversions. By adding a variation that included the logo of some of their major customers considered authority figures in the industry, they were able to increase their conversions by up to 69 percent.

 

authority principle and your small business comScore

5. Imply authority
If you don’t have any prominent public figure to endorse you or any customers or partners or publications to show, all is not lost. You can imply authority.

For example, if you sell healthcare products, you could dress a model as a doctor and have that model hold and recommend your products or your brand. If you sell sports product, you could have a model dress as a sportsman and endorse your products. While the authority isn’t necessarily a real industry authority, just as the grey lab coat conferred authority on the researcher in the Milgram experiments, dressing up your model and having them endorse your product or brand will confer authority on you. While we don’t endorse any kind of over-promotion or false advertising, many marketers do a great job of implying authority while not breaking the rules. 

 

Image Credits
Feature Image: Unsplash/Jeffrey Lin
All screenshots by author. Taken January 2019.
Image 1: Via Simply Psychology
Image 2: Via Instagram
Image 3: Via Website Setup
Image 4: Via Web.com
Image 5: Via Optimizely

Author Information

John Stevens

John Stevens is the founder and CEO of Hosting Facts.com, a portal that gives an unbiased review of the best web hosts.