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How Local Can Inspire Loyalty

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I was listening to the radio recently when I heard something completely unexpected.

The station was WUNC, the Triangle’s NPR member station, and the program was Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock and roll talk show.” Each episode concludes with a five-minute voicemail segment of messages left on the Sound Opinions’ hotline.

The selected voicemails always present a diverse range of musical preferences and geography (callers include their city and state), but I noticed something unusual about this episode: Every voicemail was from a caller in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Before I had time to think about the sheer coincidence of it all (Sound Opinions is produced in Chicago and broadcast on nearly 100 stations throughout the country), I remembered that WUNC was in the middle of a fund drive.

We like people who are like us

In his landmark book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes a study from the early 1970s in which experimenters, dressed either in “hippie” or “straight” attire, asked students on a college campus for a dime to make a phone call (ah, the days of the phone booth).

The study concluded that if the student and experimenter were dressed in different styles — say, a hippie experimenter asking a straight-laced student for change — the request was granted less than half the time. But if they were dressed similarly, the student was more than two thirds likely to spare a dime.

Attire is just one way people can be linked. Ethnicity, socioeconomic status and favorite sports teams are all indicators of similarity. One recent study even showed that students wearing glasses were much more likely to choose a seat in a computer lab next to another student with glasses.

The power of the testimonial

Public radio listeners, of course, share similarities. They enjoy getting their news and entertainment through radio (radio!) while others prefer the interactivity of an iPad app or the manic pace of cable news. They have inside jokes; they mobilize when Congress threatens to cut NPR funding. They like tote bags, or at least we imagine they do.

Stations understand this connection. Throughout the year, WUNC airs testimonials from listeners, some who explain what they love about the station and programming; others, why they’ve chosen to become a “sustainer” by making ongoing monthly contributions.

This kind of social proof, stations hope, will spark a desire to donate in listeners who may have never considered it before.

The more specific the similarity, the more potent the social proof

The Sound Opinions episode I heard added a twist by showcasing local voices on a national program — essentially, a geo-targeted segment aired during a time when it is especially important to say, “People like you enjoy this programming too.”

A more common tactic would have been to use the last five minutes of the program to beg for money — and if you’ve ever listened to a public radio fund drive for more than 10 minutes, I needn’t elaborate.

Instead, WUNC mixed social proof with entertainment. As Program Director David Brower explained in an email, “We did not do any actual pitching during the show, but I thought it would be nice to drive home the connection to NC that week.”

Driving home the connection can be more valuable than coercion. In Influence, Cialdini recalls that his three-year-old son, Chris, was scared to swim without an inflatable tube. Adults tried to teach and coax him, including Cialdini himself, but it wasn’t until Chris saw another three-year-old swimming without a tube that he actually had the courage to do it.

“Tommy can swim without a ring,” he told his dad, “so that means I can too.”

Whether you want your listeners to make a donation, your members to be more engaged, or your customers to upgrade their memberships, keep in mind that there is more than one way to spur them into action.

Strengthen the power of social proof. Whenever you can, spotlight more precise connections between your current customers and your intended audience. These similarities matter more than you think.