Jan 18, 2023

Drive results using the ‘foot in the door' technique

Henry Bewicke - Content Writer

Henry Bewicke

Content Writer


6 minutes to read

the foot in the door technique

At the base level, promotions are incentives. Businesses use them to encourage behaviors among consumers. Usually, it’s for sales and other purchase-related behaviors. But many businesses also use promotions to encourage other behaviors.

No matter what they’re used for, one thing remains true:

‘The higher the value of the product, the more a promotion needs to offer the customer.’

This applies to monetary discounts, loyalty points, free products, coupons — all manner of promotional techniques.

Unless you’re dealing with loyal, established customers, you need ways to make your promotions as attractive as possible. The ‘foot in the door technique’ offers a novel way to do so.

In this article, we’ll explore foot in the door technique in more detail, and explain how you can use it in your own promotions.

What is foot in the door technique?

Foot in the door technique is a compliance technique that’s used in many different contexts in sales and marketing.

It capitalizes on a psychological phenomenon that was first noted in 1966 by Freedman and Fraser.

‘Freedman and Fraser theorized that individuals are significantly more likely to agree to a big request if they are confronted with a small request first.’

Freedman and Fraser tested this hypothesis in their study ‘Compliance without pressure: The foot in the door technique’.

Participants were confronted with two different requests.

  • Answer a series of short questions via phone about the consumer products they use, followed three days later by;

  • Allow five workers to conduct a two-hour, in-person survey of the consumer products they use in their homes

The study found that compliance with a small request did indeed make compliance with a big request much more likely.

‘Participants who were first asked to answer questions via phone were 135% more likely to agree to a home visit.’

These findings have been confirmed by numerous follow-up studies. Because the foot in the door technique helps increase compliance, it has become a highly popular technique in the fields of sales and marketing.

Key findings of Freedman & Fraser (1966)

  • Once someone has agreed to a request, they tend to feel committed to their positive response

  • Increased compliance is seen even when the requests are only partially related

Foot in the door technique definition

The foot in the door technique is a strategy used in marketing and sales. It uses an initial small request to increase the likelihood of customers agreeing to a larger follow-up request. It takes advantage of what is known as the foot in the door phenomenon.

Foot in the door technique examples

So what does foot in the door technique look like in action? Look around online and you’ll see it in use in various formats. Some businesses use it purely for sales and others use it primarily for marketing purposes.

While the precise mechanism differs from case to case, the underlying concept remains the same. Here are some well-known examples:

  • The razor and blades business model:

This business model involves selling one product at a small profit or loss, while selling a complementary, often consumable product, for a significant profit. This secondary product is the primary source of revenue, even though it’s not what draws customers in.

Examples include reusable razors and disposable blades, and printers and printer ink.

Sony also has a similar business model with its Playstation games consoles. It sells the initial hardware (the console itself) at a small loss, while the controllers, games and other accessories are sold with high margins. As such they’re the main source of profit for the brand.

Foot in the door: Low profit main product

Core objective: Sell high profit consumable product

  • Free product samples:

Many cosmetics brands hand out free product samples to customers outside their stores. After accepting these free samples and talking with sales representatives, customers are more likely to enter the store to buy other products.

Foot in the door: Free sample/chat with sales representative

Core objective: Enter the store/buy other products

  • Online forms:

Shorter online signup forms are known to be more effective at securing leads. The fewer fields potential customers or clients have to fill out, the more likely they are to complete a form. Individuals who fill out the form will then be more receptive to a follow-up request, e.g. signing up for a trial or arranging a call.

Foot in the door: Short online form

Core objective: Sign up for a trial or product demo


  • Signup offers:

Many businesses offer signup bonuses to attract new customers. For example, ride sharing and e-mobility apps give free minutes when customers create an account. Without this incentive, many would-be customers would never try the product/service. But once they have, they’re much more likely to continue using it.

Foot in the door: Free minutes for e-scooters

Core objective: Create an account and transition to paid minutes


Why does foot in the door technique work?

Theories about the mechanism responsible for the foot in the door phenomenon vary depending on context.

Self-perception theory states that individuals often view their external actions and behavior as a reflection of their internal disposition.

In other words, after fulfilling a small request, they’re more likely to think of themselves as someone who does this type of thing by nature. In reality, it’s usually because the initial request requires very little effort.

Self-perception theory is thought to drive the foot in the door phenomenon in situations where there is little or no tangible reward for completing the initial request, e.g. surveys.

Commitment and consistency principle is more likely responsible for the foot in the door phenomenon when it comes to sales.

This principle states that, once a customer has committed to a behavior or attitude, they’ll likely repeat that behavior or attitude when confronted with subsequent requests.

Research suggests that the small request doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the final request. It can be as simple as asking for basic input from the customer, i.e. asking a question or getting them to click a button.

Ultimately, the foot in the door technique works because people display an inherent desire for consistency in their actions. This is true when it comes to their actions in front of others, and their actions as they perceive them themselves.


Door in the face technique

Another popular compliance technique businesses use when marketing and selling their products is the ‘door in the face’ technique. It’s effectively the opposite of the foot in the door technique.

With the door in the face technique, businesses first confront the customer with a large request, following up with a smaller request afterwards.

The initial request is the key part of this technique — it acts as the ‘door in the face’. The purpose of the door in the face is to confront the customer with an offer or request that they’re unlikely to agree to.

After being confronted with the initial request, the customer is more likely to agree to a second, more reasonable request. This is because:

  • The person feels like they shouldn’t always respond negatively to requests

  • The second request seems more reasonable when compared with the first

The door in the face technique works best when:

  • The same person makes the first and second request

  • The requests are related or similar in nature

The door in the face technique is used in a variety of situations.

Door in the face technique examples

  • Charity street fundraising

The door in the face technique is sometimes used in charity street fundraising.

Charity representatives may ask passers by if they’re willing to sign up for a $15 recurring monthly donation. When the potential donor refuses this offer, the representative will then offer them the option to contribute $5 dollar monthly donations, or $15 one-off donations instead.

The $15 recurring donation is the best outcome for the charity. But for the majority of potential donors this is too large an investment.

Following up with smaller donation options gives the customers other ways to contribute to the charity. Even if they didn’t want to donate in the first place, a lower donation option will seem much more appealing if it was preceded by an option the customer can’t afford.

  • Street market or antiques sales

The same approach is often used when negotiating a sale for Products or services with flexible prices, e.g. at markets or antique shops.

In these cases it’s possible for both the seller and the buyer to initiate the foot in the door technique. The buyer may make an unreasonably low offer to begin with, and then up their second offer to a more reasonable price. The seller may start with a higher price than they really want, and then lower it for their second offer once the buyer has declined.


Translating foot in the door technique to promotions

There are many ways you can make foot in the door technique work for digital promotions. In fact, the concept translates well to any sales-related initiative.

Think about the separate elements of your promotion and how they work together.

  • What will you use as your ‘foot in the door’?

You need something that will engage your customers. This could be an attractive promotional offer, or an intriguing bit of copy asking for input. If they complete this initial action, they’re more likely to participate in your big request.

  • What is your core objective?

This will be the large request or the key product/promotion you put in front of your customers after the foot in the door request.

Remember, you have to make this part of the campaign attractive too. Customers aren’t suddenly going to pay full price for an expensive item just because they’ve agreed to fill out a short survey for you.

  • What pitching method will you use for the core objective?

Although it’s the secondary to the main request/promotion itself, the way you pitch your request/promotion is still very important. Do you want to contact the customer via email or send them a notification in-app? How long do you want to wait to send your follow-up request? There are many small factors that can have an effect here.

Taking into consideration the three questions above, you could incorporate the foot in the door technique in the following promotion:

  • Set up an on-site banner offering customers a €10 discount coupon that they can use on their next purchase. To claim the coupon, customers have to enter their email address.

  • Send customers who entered their email address a special offer for 30% off your yearly subscription service.

Dissecting this promotion:

The initial request serves a dual purpose — 1. It allows you to build up your list of customer email addresses, and 2. It gives you a way to pitch your larger request/promotion.

The follow up promotion offers customers a significant discount on a yearly subscription service. Even with the discount, many customers may still be put off because of the high cost of the service.

In this case, the initial foot in the door request offers a simple, relatively inexpensive way to sweeten the deal and warm customers up to buying a yearly subscription.

You can use all sorts of promotional techniques in conjunction with the foot in the door technique. But one of the most effective is loyalty programs. Download our Loyalty Playbook to find out everything you need to know about loyalty programs.

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