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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

The Aristotle Code: Inspiring Online Credibility (Part 1)

By Jeff Sexton
October 19th, 2007

Plato and Aristotle discuss online persuasionYou want a credible website. And you’re a Grok reader, which puts you much closer to your goal. ; )

So you checked out Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab slide show, and were careful to note the beginning explanation, where credibility was broken down into two components: (1) Trustworthiness, and (2) Expertise. (And boy, did those look familiar. Sort of… )

Where had you seen them before?

Being a good student of rhetoric, it hits you: Stanford got it wrong! There’s more than two components of credibility; there are three (at least according to Aristotle).

1.) Virtue
2.) Practical Wisdom
3.) Disinterested Good Will (toward the audience)

Maybe the Persuasive Technology Lab placed “virtue” and “goodwill” in the same category. At least all of their guidelines for website credibility neatly divide into the three components:

VIRTUE — Guidelines 1, 3, 5, 8, and 10 each describe various ways of proving or demonstrating your organization’s overall virtue. In rhetoric, virtue is relative: It generally means the audience believes you share, and live, their values. Obviously, values vary with audiences — but start with typical work ethics and you won’t go wrong too often. With that in mind, is it any wonder that a Virtuous website is one that…

  • Looks professional (Guideline 1)
  • Shows that there is a real/substantive organization behind it (Guideline 3)
  • Shows the stand-up/credible people working for said organization (Guideline 5)
  • Is frequently updated/maintained, and (Guideline 8 )
  • Is free of errors (Guideline 10)

Heck, that’s just good old fashion takin’-care-of-business. Of course, the “varies by audience” bit applies to what qualifies as “professional looking” and what types of employees qualify as “stand-up/credible.” Obviously, a surf school and an accounting firm would want different looking websites, highlighting different staff credentials.

PRACTICAL WISDOM – It’s not enough to be virtuous. You also need job-related skills and experience (i.e., the actual know-how required for the situation at hand). To paraphrase a modern day rhetorician: I may count my priest as a virtuous man, but that still doesn’t mean I’d want him performing my heart surgery.

Guidelines 2 and 4 provide ways for your Website to demonstrate or display your organization’s practical wisdom by:

  • Presenting information, claims, and credentials that are easy to verify (Guideline 2). Tell me your company is a leader in fabric technology and I may or may not believe you. Let me link to Lands End, Outdoor Research, and, say, Cabela’s, where I can see different products labeled with your fabric logo or trade-name (maybe you’re the new GORE-TEX?), and I’ll make that claim for you in my own mind: “Wow, these guys are like the king of outdoor fabrics.”
  • Showcasing the staff’s professional expertise and accomplishments (Guideline 4). Some companies have such overwhelming credibility that it’s just assumed that their people kick butt. (Think of a programmer or designer for Apple.) But for non-iconic companies, people understand that organizations don’t have expertise – only people do. So play up the expert credentials and accomplishments of your people.

DISINTERESTED GOOD WILL – Even if you’re generally a virtuous person with outstanding expertise in a given area, I might not find your advice credible if you have an obvious bias or vested interest that’s potentially in conflict with your audience. (I don’t care how honest a man or how fabulous a lawyer your father-in-law might be; he’s probably not who you want to take legal advice from when you’re divorcing his daughter.)

Business executives and salespeople often have a hard time with this one because, well, they DO stand to benefit from their audience’s purchasing decisions. Progressive Insurance will tell you when they’re not your best deal. Why? Because that move violates their own self-interest in favor of yours — which buys them huge credibility for the times when they tell you that they are the best deal!

So, how do you translate this onto the web? Well, I’ve got plenty of techniques for doing this with your copy (more on this in the next post), but the Persuasive Technology Lab’s Guideline 6, 7, and 9 suggest that credible websites should…

  • Make it easy for visitors to contact you (Guideline 6). Face it, if your willing to interrupt your day to field their calls, people are more likely to think you actually care about them.
  • Make it easy to use the Website (Guideline 7). If you speak to customers about what matters, and make it easy for them to shop in a way that’s intuitive and natural, they just might feel that you care about them. Forcing people to buy the way you want to sell sends the opposite message.
  • Use restraint with promotional material (Guideline 9). Giving people the hard sell never indicates respect. Stop pitching and start talking to your visitors. Polite conversation indicates respect. Hype indicates, and creates, cynicism.

Well, that covers all ten guidelines. But now that you understand how each of them is merely a facet of Aristotle’s famous triad, you’re ready for more advanced credibility-building techniques. (Hint: A lot of them come from Persuasion Architecture™ methodology).

And you might be surprised to learn that a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” has written some of the most compelling advice I’ve ever found on the subject. First it’s Stanford, now it’s a MacArthur Fellow. Holy high-brow, Batman!

(Don’t worry, it leads to some incredibly doable, practical stuff. Tune in next week… )

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Comments (6)

  1. Very cool trick Jeff. Posting a presentation and making us draw our conclusions, then putting your own thoughts online is a great way to get maximum viewership. I went back and viewed the slide show once again in the context of your commentary.

    May be many readers will do that. And quite a few who did not bother or could not make time will now watch it. This is a cool marketing trick you used. May I use this technique in my marketing too?

  2. [...] persuasive ethos and credibility? Create thumos through your web copy. (In my last article, The Aristotle Code, I warned you that I was on a high-brow kick, so bear with me. This is actionable [...]

  3. [...] confidence. Once you've taken a look at that, I humbly suggest you look at my series on Inspiring Online [...]

  4. The presentation was good to go through. Even though some of these everyone follows but still was great to go through them again as it is also easy to forget sometimes about very basic things.

  5. I would be using some of above tips on my small website. I somehow stumbled across your website and I think for small business like mine there is lot of valuable information here. Even though mine is not ecommerce website still I can pick few important pointers such as “Make it easy for visitors to contact you” I was not earlier using contact info in header now I have put phone etc in header of website.

  6. [...] more than just personal experience with a given product. It requires the listener or reader to have faith in the person’s overall judgement and in their field-specific [...]

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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