Instinct tells us that "humanizing" a brand—connecting it in the consumer's mind with a distinctive personality or an engaging personal narrative—is a good idea. But we don't have to rely on instinct. Research demonstrates how human interaction affects transactions, with lessons for marketers.

Iris Bohnet and Bruno Frey conducted an economic research study in 1999 called "Social Distance and Other-Regarding Behavior in Dictator Games." Two groups of students were recruited to participate in a series of social interactions in which members of the first group had to decide whether to share any portion of a sum of money—approximately $10—with a person in the second group.

When the first group knew nothing at all about those in the second group, participants offered, on average, only 26% of the money. When the moderators asked the second group to stand up—making them less anonymous to the first group—the offer increased to 39%. When the moderators shared personal information about those in the second group with those in the first, the average offer increased to 52%. And when members of the groups were introduced to one another, the average offer was 50%.

In other words, the greater the social distance, the less willing people were to hand over money.

Social Distance and Charitable Marketing

The most obvious application for Bohnet and Frey's study is in marketing nonprofit causes. For instance, Charity:Water asks people to give up birthday presents and celebrations to pay for water in underdeveloped areas. And its tactic works because it tells stories about people: people who need clean water, people who volunteer to help drill wells, people who have a passion for fulfilling a basic human need.

Charity:Water closes the gap of social distance with videos, images, and written narratives that it distributes via offline events, email, social networks, YouTube, and websites.

People have a much harder time saying no when they feel they are saying no to a specific person.

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Emily Eldridge is a co-founder of The Agency Post and CEO of Pure. She has worked on both agency and client-side strategic communication strategies and tactics for the B2B, B2C, e-Commerce, and entertainment industries. Reach her via LinkedIn.