Have you ever attended a concert when, after a song has been played, a single person bursts into applause before anyone else? Have you ever noticed how almost everyone else follows immediately with their applause? This is an example of social proof.
A shill is a paid enthusiast. Shills are paid to, essentially, start clapping first.
Now, imagine that you are a hunter, spear in hand. Your group suddenly starts running. Would you run? Of course you would. You would run because you trust your social group (other hunters), and you don't want to be eaten. You'd run, even if you didn't know exactly why you were running. You'd be acting purely on social proof.
In business, the same is true for social media, reviews, and search results. If you see that others are upvoting something, your brain will often take that shortcut as proof, social proof, that following the herd is the right thing to do.
Businesses can leverage social proof. Businesses are constantly seeking new ways to build consumer trust and establish credibility. One powerful tool that has proven effective in achieving these goals is social proof.
Social proof is the psychological phenomenon where individuals look to others for guidance about how to behave in certain situations. It has an outsized influence on the consumer decision-making processes. A "shill" was mentioned earlier. Similarly, some companies hire people to seem as if they are interested in a product. It's called a "claque" and is somewhat similar to astroturfing.
The Importance of Social Proof for Consumer Trust
Most markets today are competitive. Thus, consumer trust is a make-or-break factor for businesses. 90% of customers read reviews before making a purchase because it's easier to make decisions based on social proof; we are simply wired that way. When potential customers see positive reviews, they are more likely to trust and buy from the brand. Minds can even be changed via social proof; this is called "group thinking."
Social proof serves as a tool for businesses to drive more sales. For example, when you search for something online, you comparison-shop, we all do. Most people are likelier to go with a product or service others have supported. The way you learn about their support is through social proof and group thinking.
Research shows that nearly 58% of customers with good reviews are willing to pay more for a product or service. By showcasing positive customer testimonials and reviews, businesses can effectively demonstrate the value and quality of their offerings, ultimately leading to increased sales and revenue.
There is also a force that works against social proof called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to believe what they already believe. In other words, people interpret information to match what they already believe. In business, this can be seen in brand loyalty. The belief is that one brand is better than another because of prior experience, even though both brands are essentially the same.
The Psychology Behind Social Proof
To understand the impact of social proof, we will need to delve into the psychology behind it. Social proof is rooted in human psychology – specifically in our desire to fit in and conform to societal norms.
Bertram R. Forer was a psychologist who identified the Forer effect, also known as the Barnum effect. The Forer effect is a psychological phenomenon where individuals believe that generic and vague personality descriptions are specifically applicable to them. For example, the Forer effect explains the appeal of astrology, fortune-telling, and some personality tests. It highlights a human tendency to accept questionable personality feedback.
We interpret information so that it agrees with our prior beliefs. Essentially, people are not good at making rational judgments, and, as part of the decision-making process, they look to their social group.
Three Factors of Social Proof
Social proof is driven by three primary factors: conformity, belonging, and trust.
- Conformity: People have a natural inclination to conform to the actions and behaviors of others to gain acceptance and avoid social rejection. Being canceled is one of the strongest forms of rejection. When individuals see others engaging in certain behaviors, they are more likely to follow suit. They're also more likely to avoid acting in ways that will result in rejection or cancellation.
- Belonging: Humans strongly need to belong and be part of a community. That's how we survived, by being part of larger groups. By aligning their actions with those of others, individuals reinforce their sense of belonging and connection to a group.
- Trust: People tend to trust the opinions of others, especially in uncertain situations. When individuals see others endorsing a product or service, it increases their confidence and trust in the brand.
Combining the Contrast Effect and Social Proof
The contrast effect and social proof often work together in business. The contrast effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when the evaluation of two or more things is affected by their comparison with each other rather than an objective standard.
For example, a person's attractiveness or a product's quality might be judged differently depending on what it is compared with. This effect can lead to a distortion in perception or judgment.
When social proof (following others' actions) is combined with the contrast effect (judging based on comparisons), it can become stronger or weaker. For example, if someone sees others doing something in a more extreme way than their situation, they might be more likely to do the same, thinking it seems more reasonable or better in comparison.
The screenshot above is from the online shopping site TEMU. It is a great example of social proof and the contrast effect working together in their web application user interface.
Conversely, if the context is less extreme or more favorable, the individual might not feel as compelled to conform.
The contrast effect is often seen in discounts. Have you ever noticed how online stores will show a discounted amount (contrast effect) right next to the number of times the product has been purchased that day (social proof)? This is social proof, and the contrast effect working hand-in-hand to entice you to buy.
In summary, the contrast effect can amplify or reduce the influence of social proof depending on how the situation or actions of others are perceived in comparison to the individual's current context or past experiences.
Types of Social Proof
There are several different types of social proof that can be used to enhance marketing efforts. Each carries its unique benefits and can be customized to suit specific business objectives. Here are some of the most impactful types of social proof:
Customer Reviews: This is the one you rely on most when you shop on Amazon. Customer reviews are a powerful form of social proof, providing (seemingly) authentic feedback and experiences from previous customers. Positive reviews can significantly influence potential customers' perceptions and increase their trust in the brand.
Testimonials: Testimonials are personal accounts of customers' positive experiences with a product or service. They are also a strong form of social proof, relating the real-life benefits and value customers have experienced with the brand.
Influencer Endorsements: Instagram, TikTok, and other online platforms drive this one. Influencer marketing has become increasingly popular in recent years. By partnering with influencers with a significant social media following, businesses can tap into their influence and leverage their endorsement to reach a wider audience.
User-Generated Content (UGC): UGC refers to customer-generated content, such as reviews, photos, and videos. Sharing UGC, especially positive reviews, on social media platforms and websites can provide powerful social proof, showcasing real customers' experiences and interactions with the brand. Reddit is an example of a website that is almost entirely UGC, so is Wikipedia.
Industry Awards and Certifications: You know those badges you see on websites? Those are often industry awards. Industry awards and certifications serve as external validations of a brand's quality and expertise from a supposedly expert review board. Displaying these accolades can enhance credibility and instill trust in potential customers.
Social Media Influence: Social media platforms provide a fertile ground for social proof. Businesses can demonstrate their popularity and social validation by highlighting the number of followers, likes, and shares a brand has.
Social Proof Best Practices
To effectively harness the power of social proof, businesses should follow these best practices:
Collect and showcase customer reviews: Implement a system for collecting and displaying customer reviews on your website and social media platforms. Encourage satisfied customers to share their experiences and provide feedback. Curate them as well by attempting to remove fake or negative reviews if it makes sense.
Leverage your brands' testimonials: Request testimonials from satisfied customers and incorporate them into your marketing. Use quotes, images of actual customers, and videos to showcase the positive impact your product or service has had on their lives.
Engage with influencers: Identify influencers within your industry who align with your brands' values and your target audience. Collaborate with, or pay influencers to promote your products or services and leverage their social media influence.
Encourage user-generated content: Create campaigns or contests that encourage customers to generate content related to your brand. Share this UGC on your social media platforms to showcase the positive experiences of your customers. Remember that, at times, UGC should be curated. It's not always good.
Highlight industry awards and certifications: Display industry awards and certifications prominently on your website and marketing materials. This helps establish your brand's credibility and expertise in the eyes of potential customers, even if they are not familiar with the award itself.
Respond to negative reviews: Address negative reviews promptly and professionally. Demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction by resolving issues and showing that you value customer feedback. Keep in mind that fake reviews, or those that are misleading, should be removed. The Terms and Conditions of various review platforms sometimes allow for this.
Citations and Further Reading
- Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Business.
- PowerReviews. (2021). 2023 Software Buying Trends.
- BrightLocal. (2021). Local Consumer Review Survey.
- SproutSocial. "How to Use Psychology in Digital Marketing"