Use the Foot-in-the-Door Technique to Sell More [Research Summary]
Updated: Aug 16
The “foot-in-the-door” technique comes from the days of door-to-door salespeople. It describes a series of requests that aim to increase the number of people that agree to a request.
The idea is, as a door-to-door salesperson, you get your “foot in the door” by asking first for a small request. Then, when your audience agrees, you ask for a larger request — what you really want.
It’s the opposite of the “door-in-the-face” technique: you can increase compliance with the larger request by first asking for a more modest one.
Evidence for the Foot-in-the-Door Effect
Some of the original research on this effect was conducted by Johnathan Freedman and Scott Fraser in the 1960s. In one experiment, they first asked a bunch of housewives (this was the ’60s) to sign a petition for political action to improve safe driving. The majority of housewives that they approached agreed to the petition.
Then, two weeks later, they contacted the same group of individuals as well as a new group of housewives that they had not approached before. They asked these groups a much bigger request: to allow the experimenters to place a large, ugly sign on their lawn.
They found that 76% of individuals agreed in the first group compared to only 17% in the second group. In other words, asking for a petition signature two weeks earlier led to three times as many people agreeing to the lawn sign. People were more likely to accept the big request if they first accepted a smaller request.
This effect has been demonstrated in a number of contexts. For example, it may also be able to get you more dates. In one study, a young man approached a number of women and asked them to have a drink with him. In the foot-in-the-door condition, he first asked for directions or for a cigarette lighter. In the control condition, he simply asked them for the drink. The women were much more likely to agree to the drink if he first asked them for directions (16%) or a lighter (15%) compared to if he just asked for the drink directly (3%).
The effect also seems to work even if the requests are not made face-to-face. In one study, students were much more likely to complete a 20-minute email survey when they were first asked to help give some information about file conversion. In another study, researchers showed that the foot-in-the-door technique also works in virtual communities.
Why Does it Work?
Why is it that we’re more likely to have a drink with a stranger when he or she first asks us for directions? It’s not exactly clear but psychologists suggest that one answer has to do with self-perception theory.
Self-perception theory basically states that we sometimes make inferences about our attitudes about something from our behavior towards it. We like to think that our behavior comes from our attitudes and values: we exercise because we value health, or we vote for a particular candidate because we like them and their policies. We have a general sense that our attitudes — how we feel about something — determine our behavior.
But it turns out that it goes the other way too: Our behavior can also change our attitudes towards something. Collecting and recycling cans can actually change people’s attitudes towards the environment. Similarly, exercising can make us value health more.
When we see ourselves recycling cans or going for a run, we make an inference about our attitudes. From collecting cans, we infer that we care about the environment. When we are running, we infer that we care about health.
Basically, our attitudes and our behavior are related. We often behave in certain ways because we are motivated by our attitudes. But sometimes it’s reversed: we also develop particular attitudes based on our behavior.
That could be what’s happening with the foot-in-the-door effect. When the person signs the petition for safe driving, that behavior helps them make an inference that they care about safe driving. It helps actually create a positive attitude towards safe driving. Later, when the researchers ask them to put up a big sign, they agree, since they care about safe driving.
That’s one theory, anyway.
How can you use this in your marketing? There are a number of ways that you can apply the technique in business. Basically, anytime you are looking for someone to agree to a request, you can add a smaller request first.
Here are some examples.
Boost online sales.
You can use this to increase sales for your online business. For example, you could:
First, figure out a small request to get a quick “yes.” This should be something the majority of your visitors can do and would be willing to do. For example, it could be to ask them to sign up for a free trial.
Then, create a pitch for your second, larger request. This one will be much more conversion-focused. You can do this immediately after making the small request, you don’t need to wait. It could be taking them to a subscription or sales page.
Other possible ways to get your foot in the door with an easy, quick “yes” from potential customers is to ask them to accept a complimentary service, sign up for your email list, or to schedule a meeting. It could even be to participate in a user-generated content campaign — maybe getting people to submit photos of themselves or ideas for a new product slogan.
Building your email list.
Email is still one of the most powerful forms of marketing and building an email list is an important goal for many marketers. You can use the foot-in-the-door technique to improve sign-ups by asking for something small first, followed by asking for an email subscription.
For example, you could:
Create a very short survey on your site.
After the survey, ask them to subscribe.
Maybe you’re a content writer and you sell blog posts. You could adopt a strategy like this:
You pitch writing a single blog post for your client where they only pay for it if they like it.
When they accept the post, you could then pitch a monthly blog bundle or a retainer.
Maybe you really want to work at a particular company. Your foot-in-the-door strategy could be to:
Apply for and accept any position that comes available at the company.
Then, once you’re in the company, apply for positions you’re better suited for.
Maybe you want testimonials from customers or an influencer. You can use this technique like this:
Ask if the customer or influencer would agree to try your product and give you feedback on it.
If they give you positive feedback, ask for a testimonial.
Are you looking for donations for your charity? The foot-in-the-door technique can be effective in the non-profit sector. In one study, researchers studied whether this technique could be effective in increasing organ donations. They found that many more people were willing to become organ donors when they first filled out a questionnaire about organ donations compared to when they were asked to become a donor directly.
First ask potential donors a small request, like signing a petition.
Then ask them for a donation.
Similarly, you can ask for a small donation before asking for a larger donation or a bigger investment in the organizations.
First ask for a small donation, say, of $2.
Then ask for their contact information to send them a monthly email.
The Fundamental Principles
Ask for something you’re pretty sure you can get a quick “yes” on.
Then ask for something bigger.
It sounds a bit intrusive, doesn’t it? Putting your “foot in the door” of the people you’re trying to sell to. The name paints a bit of an aggressive image.
But it’s actually the opposite: Freedman and Fraser called this a method of increasing “compliance without pressure.” The idea is not that you’re forcing or manipulating people into doing something. It’s that you are creating a context where your audience feels more positively towards what you’re offering.
At the end of the day, if people don’t want what you’re offering, no amount of foot-in-the-door will sell it. You can’t use it to trick someone into something; they are always in control of their decisions. All you can do is help your customers get on board with your product and develop a positive attitude towards it. Your customers are more likely to agree to a larger request because of their more positive attitude.
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