Blog: Marketing Strategy
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Social Proof: Why We Want It, Why It Works

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

Every day, we are tasked with making decisions. When we are in doubt about what to decide, we look for factors to act as decision shortcuts. Social proof is one one of these “decision heuristics”.

Social proof gives your customers confidence in your brand. It is one of the most effective psychological tools in your marketing arsenal.

Six Principles of Influence

Psychologist Robert Cialdini named social proof as one of his Six Principles of Influence outlined in his 1984 book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.

You probably see dozens of examples of social proof every day. Here are some common examples.

  • Advertisements showing customer testimonials
  • Businesses showing number of total customers
  • Showing how many email subscribers you have
  • McDonald’s golden arches saying, Billions and billions served
  • Your barista or bartender leaving money in their tips jar as a visual clue
  • Product endorsements by people your audience will know
  • Showing positive reviews
  • Public-facing user ratings (5 stars!)
  • Displaying social shares (good, if this is a large number)
  • Exclusivity, like the velvet rope outside a popular club
  • Awards or honors for your service
  • Aligning your business with successful brands

Why We Desire Social Proof

Social proof works because of our need to belong. The human brain is hard-wired to seek safety in numbers. Most of us pattern our behavior by observing what others around us are doing and following the same pattern.

Wolf Pack

The pack brings safety. Being outside the pack means we are vulnerable. Even though we are rational beings, our primitive brain stem tells us that we are safe where there are other people around us.

The fear of social ostracization compels us to conform to popular opinion, even when the facts contradict what people around us are saying.

When we are faced tough decisions, we lean on the wisdom of the majority. We listen to people who we identify with, or who we consider authorities on a subject. The more testimonies you have, the more chance of success your product has of selling.

Why Social Proof Works

It’s a human need to belong to some sort of tribe. Apple is enjoying record-breaking company success because people see their computers as more than products, they see owning their products as being part of something larger. By owning something made by “the winning team”, this in turn makes the consumer part of the winning team.

This same psychology works for selling cars, clothes, makeup, headphones, shoes, watches, music, coaching, country club memberships, hamburgers, web hosting, and real estate.

Joining The Bandwagon

Momentum for a movement grows in direct correlation to the number of people already doing it. The more people that adopt an idea, habit or trend, the more likely others are to adopt the same behavior.

Bandwagon effect

The bandwagon effect explains why trends happen in the first place. It’s why Metallica couldn’t stay indie after Master of Puppets. It’s why people bought Chicago Bulls jackets in the 1990s and Miami Heat jerseys in the 2010s. It’s why hip-hop took five years to leave New York, five more years to get to the West Coast, and five years after that, conquered the world. It’s why being a hipster is no longer bucking the mainstream, it is the mainstream.

Belonging to something bigger than ourselves motivates and informs our behavior. We use the social proof of the crowd as justification for our decisions.

When we are faced tough decisions, we have a tendency to believe people who we identify with. We listen to the people who are similar to us, and the people we want to be like. When we hear positive stories about a product from people just like us, we trust what they are saying.

How Social Proof Benefits Your Online Business

You can use all types of social proof to convince people that they’re in the right place, and to buy what you are offering. Your messaging should match the story that your customers want to tell about themselves. They should see their own success in the stories of others. In other words, something good happened to others using your product, and it can happen to them, too.

Types of Social Proof

Here’s a rundown of the most common types of positive social reinforcement seen on websites and in marketing material.

The Celebrity Endorsement

Everyone wants to be successful. By getting someone who is successful and well-known to vouch for your product, you are implying that customers will also have a good chance of success. The celebrity is someone they want to be like, or someone they admire. Your product is a proxy way for them to be connected to the celebrity. Purchasing your product is something both the endorser and your customers now have in common.

Celebrity endorsement works because of logic. Successful people don’t make many bad decisions, therefore, if they are endorsing your product, it must be good. You are aligning their success with your product.

What If I Can’t Find A Big-Name Celebrity To Endorse My Product?

Not a problem. If you understand the customer base you’re targeting, you’ll probably know people who they recognize. A celebrity doesn’t have to be world-famous to effectively endorse your product. If you’re marketing to a niche audience (and you probably are), figure out who is important to them in their world. Go find these people and introduce them to your product.

Peer Endorsement

People tend to be influenced by people who are similar to themselves. This explains why laundry detergent commercials feature housewives and truck commercials feature manly men. When you know who you are targeting to buy your products, you can narrow the focus, so your customers are pitched by people they can identify with.

Reviews

We trust in services that other people have tried before, when accompanied by a positive review. Because we fear the unknown, reviews reduce our risk. They give us some sort of expectation about the experience we will receive.

Businesses or products that have no reviews are an unknown quantity. We perceive these as riskier than established businesses that people have already vouched for. As humans, we trust in the wisdom of the crowd.

Testimonials

In the area between reviews and case studies lie personal testimonials. When people who we identify with give personal testimonies of how this product changed their daily lives, we sit up and take notice.

Testimonials are a little more personal than a review. They put a face to the words, and we are able to see our own similarities in the person giving the testimony.

Testimonials work best when there is a structure to the story. Effective customer testimonials set the stage of what their challenge was before using your service, what changed when they first used it, and how their lives are different after using your service.

Although you’ll be able to find deeper, more detailed testimonials with certain types of products, this is still a powerful form of social proof.

Proof By Case Studies

Case studies are a great way to use social proof to highlight the efficiency of your service. When customers see that you have already solved problems that look very similar to theirs, they have a higher degree of trust in your business. If you’ve properly identified your target customers, you can create case studies in which they will see a reflection of their own situation.

Proof By Association

When you position yourself next to someone trustworthy and successful, some of that positive perception rubs off on you. This is known as The Halo effect, as you borrow some of the good karma from the entity you are associated with.

Halo effect

This can come in the form of celebrity or expert endorsements, but it can also come in the form of any positive coverage you get from the mainstream media. If you appear on TV, radio, in the newspaper, on podcasts, or speaking in front of people, this can help position you as an expert in your industry. If you can secure public appearances, or get mainstream coverage, take those opportunities.

Some websites use professional associations or seals of approval to get some positive rub. Displaying logos of important memberships, certifications, trade associations or strategic partners may help customers perceive your product as more credible. Local businesses may display seals from the Better Business Bureau or their local Chamber of Commerce. Ecommerce stores may display seals showing proper encryption, or trusted seals like Verisign, Authorize.net, or Virus-Free.

Proof by Popularity

Has your business won any awards? Anything noteworthy might be considered positive social proof.

Other stats that help establish trust by popularity are:

  • Years in business
  • Total sales
  • Total subscriptions
  • Total downloads
  • Number of social followers

More Resources

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

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