Just as black hat hackers break into secure networks to destroy data or make the network unusable, black hat selling employs unethical manipulation to goad you into buying something you really don't need or want. It doesn't happen often in the technology business, because most companies exist to retain customers for the long term. Black hat techniques don't withstand scrutiny in business for long, and the word gets out fast when unethical sales tactics are used.
I'm not advocating the techniques discussed below, but I believe they're worth studying so that you are familiar with them and recognize them if they're applied to you. The chances are that you won't see them in professional technical sales, but I guarantee that you will experience them firsthand in spam emails, and you're certain to run into them if you follow many Internet marketers.
There's a fine line between ethical manipulation and full-on, dark-side manipulation. It's hard to use these dark triggers effectively without lying or misleading people. That is the crux of the matter: At best, one must omit facts. The white hat salesmen won't like the following comment, but generally speaking, though sales and marketing professionals who completely avoid these psychological motivators are seen as nice folks, they often fail to close sales.
Now for the really dark side: There are some triggers that nobody talks about, except for people exposing cults. Here are six, but there are more.
- Vanity: People who think they are more important than others for superficial reasons will do many stupid things. Flattery works on most of us most of the time. Pile it on in sales copy, and you're loading the game. Presenting calls to action right after the flattery often results in the action being taken. I suppose a vanity trigger can be used in an ethical manner, but it's easy to slip deeper into the dark side.
- Laziness: There are a great many ways of sugar coating this, but people in general like to automate routine stuff, so they don't have to think. With more than 20 years of being urged to "work smarter, not harder" behind us, it's easy to avoid the central fact that people are lazy. People prefer to push a button and have everything handled. This makes them feel like they are masters of their domain -- without having to study to get it right. You can see this in spammy email. All you have to do is tell people they will learn a secret or a simple-to-learn technique nobody knows. Desired results like profits are supposed to happen magically. The mark will pay handsomely for such a secret, but it's the black hat marketer who reaps the rewards.
- Inner thief: Nice euphemisms like secret weapon, special technique, loophole, hedge, and sidestep do the trick. The bad guys don't say "steal." This way, prospects can lie to themselves and pretend they are not stealing. It's a sad fact of life that almost all people will steal if they think nobody will find out.
- Tribe member: You can see this one at work almost every day by the black hatters, and it's used by the good guys, too. An us-against-them approach is the most common way to activate this trigger. Potential customers feel they are part of a special minority striking a blow against an enemy of truth. (It seems like an advertisement for Marvel comics.) The implied promise is that they will get rich by being virtuous. This is often reinforced with some easy-to-learn insider jargon for common concepts. Black hatters use these words and phrases frequently in presentations and add subtle cues like nodding their heads. The deal is sealed once group contact with the customer is established and the expert singles them out for special praise in front of the group. Bang. Tribal feelings combine with vanity. Now the customer will do most anything.
- Guilt: Lazy people are easy to exploit with guilt. They know deep down that they don't know jack, so black hatters remind them once in a while that they really don't know anything. The customer only needs to push the magic button. The lazy customer always tries to get off the easy way and doesn't do the work needed to master the job.
- Greed: This one is my personal favorite. It works in a sinister manner. Tell people they are not to be greedy but must seek inner balance. Then, because these people are very special and enlightened, the scammers will teach them how to make millions. Now, visualization techniques come to the front. Black hatters make their customers think the millions are arriving soon -- tomorrow, the next day, or even in the next week. Pictures of money, beaches, expensive cars, mansions, and members of the opposite sex are used to reinforce the message. Even if the magic secret doesn't work, people who fall for this gambit will continue falling for it. Scammers counter lack of success with a promise of even more coming with a new and better secret (often something made up). Customers will fall for it again and again, because the larger amounts being promised cater to their greed.
There's plenty to learn about black hat manipulation. One of the best ways is to study cults. Cult leaders are masters of the dark psychological triggers. Gray hatters will be more ruthless using all psychological trigger techniques. Perversely, black hatters use these techniques sparingly. But look out when they're promoting special projects and spam email. Then they use the triggers without mercy.
Using psychological triggers responsibly is separated from becoming a con artist by a thin line. Marketers and sales people need to be highly disciplined to use the triggers well without crossing into black hat territory. Fortunately, most technology companies do a good job of using triggers responsibly.
Finally, a piece of trivia: What 1957 movie was used to influence people subliminally to buy popcorn and drink Coca-Cola? If no one gets this, I'll tell you the answer in my next column.