Persuading Strangers

April 8, 2008

So I have not written in a really long time. This reminds me of when I was writing and drawing a webcomic. It was a dark time in my life. I was really depressed, and the thing I wanted most desperately was meaningful human contact. The web comic was a way of cheering myself up. Generating jokes was like smashing flint together. I’d get sparks that gave me hope of starting a fire. The fire didn’t start until I got help and started psychotherapy, but that’s another story.

At one point, I was really imploring people to send me email about the comic. I constantly got pokes from friends who wanted to be in the comic, or wanted me to keep putting them in the comic, but I wanted to get messages from strangers. I wanted to have influenced someone so severely that they would reach out through the nether and take a moment of my time.

No strangers ever contacted me. The closest I got is when I was standing in line waiting for a movie, and a friend of a friend, who I didn’t know too well, started talking about my comic. I guess one of my friends had pointed my comic out to him, and he really enjoyed one of the strips. But he wasn’t aware that I was the author. I told him, and we had this great conversation until I disparaged Disneyland. (A warning folks, don’t every disparage Disneyland. Evidently it’s the happiest place on Earth. And there must be some ride that turns you into a Disney zealot that I didn’t ride.) Like I said, I was depressed at the time, so nothing seemed very appealing.

I have gotten stranger-input on some of my other projects, like this graph showing the consolidation of the aerospace industry. That was really cool. That generated three emails from strangers. Two were informational updates and additions to the graph, one of these was from Sweden. I love the interconnectedeness of the internet! The third, was from someone who had shown the graph to various people at work and then got in trouble with her coworker because the aerospace graph had a link back to my marginally not safe for work comic.

I guess the graph was so popular because it was more of a resource than anything else. I’ve noticed that resources go much farther than opinion or sentiment on the internet. My only programming post on this blog is about Ruby on Rails. It generates the majority of the visits to this blog because it gained enough Google rank. After the Ruby on Rails posts, I seem to get a lot of traffic on my meditation posts.

I am still very curious about how to persuade people to contact me out of the blue. Recently I stumbled onto this article on how to persuade people in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The author’s subjects of study were non-profits, but the lessons can be applied anywhere. I would recommend the article because the stories he tells to illustrate his conclusions hammer the point home quite well, but here are some of the main forces he sees at work in persuasion. I use my own examples to illustrate them.

1. Reciprocity: I make a graph of aerospace consolidation for everyone, for free. People who like the resource appreciate this, and contribute information I was missing.

2. Scarcity: I don’t have a good example of using the tactic of scarcity to promulgate something. Perhaps I should threaten to ban comments in my blog, to see if this prompts people to comment while they still can.

3. Authority: I attached the information the article on persuasion is from the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Prestige is a form of authority. Expertise, or at least its claim, can be used as an expedient because it is often less costly to follow rather than attain the expertise you could otherwise challenge.

4. Consistency: People line their actions up with their declarations and vice versa. Sometimes I find myself loathe to declare some course because I feel I won’t follow through, and then the discrepency pains me. That does show how strong the impulse is.

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One Response to “Persuading Strangers”


  1. I like the way you phrase the question: how can I persuade strangers to contact me?

    We met at SHDH late last year, I watched your lightning talk (on meditation, I think?), and I’ve been following your blog ever since. So I’m not sure if this counts as contact by a stranger :)

    Studies have shown that for every 100 people that read something, 10 may write a throw-away sentence, and 1 person may actually be moved to create something more substantial in response. While such studies are usually in the context of websites rather than blogs by individuals, I think the pattern continues to hold: to get responses from non-friends you have to build something that rises above the chaff and grabs them. Getting strangers to contact you is isomorphic as a problem to building something people want. So keep iterating. Seek after feedback, but don’t rely on it for social needs. That’s what friends are for.

    It’s the flip side of ‘release early, release often’: as more and more people release early and often, the bar keeps going up on how ‘fully baked’ something must be before people pay attention to it without social proof (because that’s what attention from a stranger is).


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