Is your online presence credible? Thoughts about the book “Persuasive Technology”

February 3, 2010 — 1 Comment

As you know, I am now on a “half-sabbatical” for the next two semesters here at Biola, with one of the outcomes being a book on using the Internet and social media for ministry. As part of this process, I am spending some time reviewing some different materials for possible inclusion in the book and/or my online course this summer.  As I complete my review of these materials, I will post a summary to this blog. To see all my reviews, click here.

Yesterday, I finished working my way through Persuasive Technology by B.J. Fogg. Dr. Fogg is the founder and leading researcher in the field of “captology”, which is defined as the design, research, and analysis of interactive computing products created for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes or behaviors. Though not written specifically to help churches and ministries with their online efforts, this book has a myriad of insights that are extremely applicable to those us interested in understanding how our ministries can have a more effective online presence.

There may be some who would ask: should a Christian ministry be learning about how to use technology to persuade people? Shouldn’t we just present our message and then let people make up their own minds about their faith without any technological convincing?  Isn’t the use of “persuasive technology” one step short of tricking someone into believing our message? This simple answer is: no. Persuasion is not coercion. In fact, I feel that anyone who wants to effectively share the gospel must understand how to persuade someone.  I would argue that anyone who puts up a web site, writes a blog, or even posts in Facebook is actually attempting to persuade: “go to my site!” “read my blog!” “like me more!”  It is incumbent upon us to use technology to its best effect for the cause of Christ; understanding how to make it more persuasive and credible is an important step in this.

Technology can be persuasive

The book begins by defining how computing technology can be persuasive.  Several categories of technology use are defined, along with the methods of persuasion that are associated with them. You can tell that Dr. Fogg is a researcher  and an academic by how he methodically moves through the definitions and categories, with each chapter building on the last.

In these first few chapters, there are several insights that those of us doing online ministry can learn from :

  • One form of persuasion is the use of suggestions at “opportune” moments. These moments include: when one is in a good mood; when one finds their current world view no longer makes sense; when one can act on the suggestion immediately; and when one feels indebted because of a favor done for them, a mistake they have made, or a request they recently denied.
  • The gentler the intervention to achieve behavior change, the better the long-term outcome.
  • Simulations can be used for persuasion because they provide a safe environment to explore new roles or perspectives.
  • Just as one can be more effectively persuaded by an attractive person, an attractive technology is more persuasive.
  • Computers can motivate and persuade people more effectively when they share personality traits, opinions and attitudes, lifestyle, background with them.

Technology can be credible

It is the chapters beyond these opening, defining chapters, however, where this book becomes invaluable for online ministry.  Here Fogg begins describing the idea that a technology must be perceived as credible if it is going to be persuasive.  Perceived credibility is defined here as a combination of “perceived trustworthiness” and “perceived expertise”. You must be viewed strongly in at least one of these two components; being perceived poorly in either one will lose you credibility.    Dr. Fogg then takes these ideas of credibility and applies them to a research project on the credibility of web sites.  The results are a laundry list of web site characteristics and how they relate to credibility. In the book over fifty different characteristics are ranked by the positive or negative effect they have on credibility.

Here are several characteristics of interest to online ministries that have a positive effect on credibility:

  • The site represents an organization you respect.
  • The site lists the organization’s physical address.
  • The site gives a contact phone number.
  • The site has articles containing citations and references.
  • The site looks professionally designed.
  • The site gives a contact email address.
  • The site links to outside sources and material.
  • The site has been updated since your last visit.

Here are several characteristics of interest to online ministries that have a negative effect on credibility:

  • The site makes it hard to distinguish ads from content.
  • The site links to a site you think is not credible.
  • The site is rarely updated with new content.
  • The site has a link that doesn’t work.
  • The site has a typographical error.
  • The site is difficult to navigate.

The chapters on credibility end with the description of what Fogg calls the “web credibility framework”. This framework is designed to help us understand the many different variables and facets related to credibility in the online world. It brings together many of the concepts developed in the book and is a helpful tool for those of us who want our web sites to be effective and persuasive.

Final Thoughts

If I had any criticisms of this book, it would simply be that it is already getting out of date (it is copyright 2003). While many of the concepts presented are lasting, the examples used in the book could use a refresh. The good news it that Dr. Fogg and his team at Stanford continue to research and write on this topic and many new works are in progress or available. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to understand how to make their site more credible. If you want more information about web site credibility specifically, here is a slide presentation created by BJ Fogg on web credibility.

I was first made aware of Dr. Fogg’s work by Tony Whitaker at Internet Evangelism Day – I would highly recommend you take a look at their site and blog if you are not aware of all the great resources and insights they provide.

Feel free to provide me feedback on this review or your thoughts on this subject. You can look forward to more reviews as I prepare to develop my book on Internet ministry and put together the summer online course.

You can buy this book and many others at my Amazon bookstore.


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Online ministry researcher and educator. Associate Professor and Director of Innovation for the Crowell School of Business at BIola University. Author of Ministry in the Digital Age.

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