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The “Anchor to a Persona” Strategy

What if you want to get people to do stuff, but there isn’t an existing persona you can crack? Can you create a new persona?

If someone has an existing persona, you can use that as an anchor and more easily create a new persona from it.

What if someone knocked on your door and asked if you would be willing to put a huge, and not very well constructed, billboard in your front yard that said in large block lettering DRIVE CAREFULLY.

Do you think you would agree? Well, most people in Palo Alto, California who were asked to do so in a research study in 1966 said no.

Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser (Freedman 1966) had a researcher pose as a volunteer and go door to door asking homeowners to allow just such a sign to be installed in their front yards. They were shown a photo of the sign that would be installed. The signs were quite large (they essentially would take over the front yard) and were fairly ugly. This was not an attractive object to have in their yards! Fewer than 20 percent agreed to have the signs installed in their yards. No surprise there. (Well, actually it is surprising that as many as 20 percent would agree at all.) That was the control group (Group A) of the experiment.

Here’s how the rest of the experiment went:

Group B was created, comprising random people who were contacted by an experimenter who asked them to put a small (three-inch) sign in the back windows of their cars that said “Drive Carefully.” Then, three weeks later, a different experimenter showed up to inquire about their interest in having a large DRIVE CAREFULLY sign installed in their yards.

Group C comprised people who were contacted by an experimenter who asked them to sign a petition to “Keep California Beautiful.” Then, three weeks later, a different experimenter showed up to inquire about their interest in having a large DRIVE CAREFULLY sign installed in their yards.

In the control group (Group A) only 20 percent agreed to have the large DRIVE CAREFULLY signs installed in their yards. What about Groups B and C?

In Group B, which had been asked to first put the small Drive Carefully signs in their car windows and then were approached later to put the large signs in their yards, 76 percent said yes to the signs in their yards.

For Group C, which had been asked first to sign a petition to Keep California Beautiful (a totally different cause than Drive Carefully), 46 percent agreed to the big, ugly signs.

It’s important to note that in both B and C, different experimenters returned to make the second request—people in those groups were not agreeing simply because they had a relationship of any sort with the person asking.

Twenty percent versus 46 percent. Twenty percent versus 76 percent. Why were people much more willing to put a big, ugly sign in their yards in these two other conditions?

The first reason has to do with activating an existing persona, as we discussed earlier in the chapter. By agreeing to the request to put the small Drive Carefully sign in the back windows of their cars, a persona was activated in Group B. They were telling themselves the story that they are a person who cares about the community at large; they are someone who cares about safety. So when they were later asked about installing the big, ugly signs, well, for most people that request now fit the persona they had about themselves.

But what about Group C? Group C people were first asked to sign a petition to “Keep California Beautiful,” and later asked to put up the DRIVE CAREFULLY sign. The agreement was double that of Group A (46 percent, compared to 20 percent), but still not as high as the condition of Group B (76 percent).

That’s because the petition activated a persona that says, “I’m a person who cares about the community,” but didn’t necessarily activate a persona that says, “I’m a person who cares about safety.” The “I’m a person who cares about safety” is a new persona that was created from the original anchor persona. Because it’s new, it’s not as strong—but it’s a start.

When you activate an existing persona, you then create an opening where a new but somewhat related persona can be introduced. When they were asked later to do something a little bit different (to install the huge DRIVE CAREFULLY sign in their yards), that request activated a new persona that was somewhat related to the existing persona. The original persona of “I’m a person who cares about the community” is different from “I’m a person who cares about safety.” But the two are consistent, and easily connected.

You can use someone’s existing persona as an anchor and more easily create a new persona from it. Make a request that activates the existing persona. After the person has agreed to that, then make a request that fits with the persona you are trying to create. Here are some examples of persona pairs:

  • Existing persona: “I’m someone who takes care of my body.”
  • New persona that would be easy to create: “I’m someone who cares about healthy children.”
  • Existing persona: “I’m someone who is frugal with money.”
  • New persona that would be easy to create: “I’m someone who votes to keep down government debt.”
  • Existing persona: “I’m someone who is creative.”
  • New persona that would be easy to create: “I’m someone who likes to try new things.”

In the next section we’ll expand on this idea by showing how to get small commitments, even to actions that are inconsistent with existing personas.

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