Social Proof is a psychological effect that leads us to follow the actions and decisions of other people. It has become an important part of the digital world because it is hard to know who and what we can trust online. In an uncertain environment, Social Proof helps us to make better decisions and allows marketers to build trust much faster.
This is the Ultimate Guide to Social Proof (2020). It will show you:
- How and why Social Proof works
- Examples of Social Proof in everyday life and digital marketing
- 20 highly-effective examples of social proof in marketing
It will also deal with one of the major challenges faced by businesses and consumers in 2020: fake social proof.
The Ultimate Guide To Social Proof
- What is Social Proof? Interview with a Consumer Behaviour Specialist
- Social Proof Statistics
- Examples of Social Proof in Everyday Life
- How Is Social Proof Used in Advertising?
- 10 Highly-Effective Examples of Social Proof in Digital Marketing
- The Problem of Fake Social Proof
- 5 Principles of Ethical Social Proof
- The Best Social Proof Apps For Shopify
- Real Social Proof and Digital Marketing in 2020
The term Social Proof was first coined in 1984 by Robert Cialdini, who described the effect as a kind of decision-making shortcut…
Not every time, but the crowd is usually correct about the wisdom of actions, making the popularity of an activity a stand-in for its soundness.
Although it may seem straightforward, Social Proof is one of the most complex aspects of consumer behaviour. To really understand what makes people join a queue or jump on the bandwagon, you need to talk to someone with experience of Social Proof in action.
“What does Social Proof mean, and when does it happen?”
Jochen: Social Proof is a psychological effect that leads people to conform. In other words, it creates a kind of herd mentality. The effect happens because people make a lot of their decisions based on feeling, rather than sitting down and thinking about it for hours. Copying what other people have done – or following the most popular trends – feels like a quick and easy way to make safe choices.
When you start to look, you see it everywhere. It’s important for businesses to show that they’re busy so restaurants and bars often make sure there is a queue outside the entrance. Websites do the same thing, but with different strategies…
“Like comments sections and reviews?”
Jochen: Yes, exactly! Comments sections, customer reviews, even star ratings are there to build a sense of group consensus. Star ratings actually have a big impact on sales, so they’re incredibly valuable.
“Why is Social Proof so important?”
Jochen: Well, it’s important because it can make or break your business. It’s especially important for smaller companies, because Social Proof is the best way to build trust with customers. It doesn’t have to be all 5-star reviews, either – just as long as people don’t feel like they’re the first person through the door.
“What would you say to a business or a website that was just starting out, then? How do you get Social Proof with low traffic?”
Jochen: In that case I would say that the first few days, even hours, are critical. You need to get as many reviews from your first few customers as possible, and you need to give people a good reason to take a chance on you. A lot of websites use a test launch to gather that kind of feedback, but you can also lean on some friends to get the ball rolling…
“Do websites ever fake Social Proof? What do you think about that, and is there any way to stop them?”
Jochen: It’s worrying, to be honest. Social Proof is a safety net for customers, so they need to be able to trust that what they see is real. I would encourage businesses to be responsible and to let their customers do the talking for them – luckily, most of them do. I would also say that customers are usually quite good at spotting fake reviews and there is a lot more to lose from being underhand than there is to gain.
- 91.9% of SMB owners say that their company’s reputation accounts for at least 25% of its value (PR Week, July 2018)
- 83% of customers trust reviews and ratings more than advertising (StatusLabs, 2019)
- 84% of people discount Social Proof older than 3 months and only 1% trust reviews older than one year (BrightLocal, 2019)
Statistics About Star Ratings
- The star ratings that provide the highest number of sales across all product categories are between 4.2 and 4.7 stars (Spiegel, 2019)
- A one star increase in a product’s star rating can increase sales by 7-9% (Harvard Business School, 2016)
- Only 53% of people consider a product or a business with less than 4 stars (BrightLocal, 2019)
- Businesses require a rating of 3.3 stars minimum for most people to consider working with them (Podium, 2017)
- Only 5% of customers would use a business with a 1 star rating (RevLocal, 2018)
Statistics About Customer Reviews
- 95% of customers say they often read reviews before making a purchase (Spiegel, 2019)
- 72% of customers say they never make a purchase until they have read reviews (Testimonial Engine, 2019)
- A Product with 5 reviews is 270% more likely to be purchased than one with 0 reviews (Spiegel, 2019)
- 82% of consumers look for negative reviews to prove that a collection is legitimate (PowerReviews, 2015)
- The average consumer reads 10 reviews before feeling able to trust a business (BrightLocal, 2019)
- Reviews were 60% shorter on average in 2018 than they were in 2010 (Review Trackers, 2018)
Psychologists like Robert Cialdini have identified a number of factors that affect the power of Social Proof. Most of them occur regularly in everyday life, increasing the effect of social influences:
- Uncertainty (when we don’t know what to do)
- Similarity (when we are surrounded be a group that we identify with)
- Attraction – when we would like to be associated with someone or something
- Values (when something is seen as “good” or “bad” by those around us)
The most common examples of group influence occur when most of these factors are present.
Everyday Examples of Social Proof
- Habits (like Smoking) – Social Proof was an important feature of early cigarette adverts. The adverts encouraged consumers to buy a particular brand in order to be fashionable or to fulfil an identity. More recently, Social Proof has been used to encourage smokers to quit. A famous study from 1984 showed that social influences were the best strategy for preventing adolescents from smoking.
- Trends (like upgrading to a new technology) – Not everyone adopts new technological changes straight away. In fact, most people wait until a majority of their peers have taken the leap. This effect is one reason for the curve observed by market analysts in “innovation adoption” graphs.
- Attitudes (like environmental friendliness) – In 2014, a school in the Netherlands managed to increase sales of fruit in its canteen by 35%. Rather than telling the students to eat healthily, signs told them that the majority of their schoolmates were health-conscious. A similar effect has been achieved with major international companies and their attitudes to pollution. In 2011, Indian paper companies were given a “Green Rating” system that compared their polluting activities. The rating system prompted a 30% decrease in pollution.
- Behaviour (like laughing or clapping) – TV shows often use canned laughter to make it easier for audiences to laugh. Similarly, theatres sometimes use plants within the audience to encourage a response. When we are uncertain about what to do, or when we feel self-conscious, Social Proof takes over.
Adverts often sell us products by showing how popular they are. Rather than persuading us with statistics or facts, these ads rely on our assumption that other people are making good choices. Using an expert endorsement increases the impact of this kind of social proof.
By highlighting our membership of a particular social group, advertisers are able to enhance the effect of Social Proof. For example, inviting a consumer to fulfil gender roles with a product can make it feel like an essential purchase. Even by challenging gender roles, adverts can take advantage of the groups we feel attached to. Brands like Dove and Nike have managed successful campaigns that create consensus around a rejection of traditional gender identities.
Social Proof Marketing allows a business or a website to grow, using reviews and testimonials to attract new customers. These are 10 common, but highly-effective, examples of how Social Proof can be used in digital marketing.
1. Star Ratings
When Amazon displays a star rating, it uses a low-resolution image. Why? Because there are hundreds of stars on every page. The simple format allows customers to quickly see what other people think about a product, and it can be used to rate different features of the same item. Most eCommerce websites have their own unique way of presenting star ratings.
2. The clickbait headline
Social Proof is often used to make a headline more striking or a story more intriguing. It is also used to give more authority to adverts. For example, these two headlines use a combination of expert authority, social groups, priming and visual symbols to trigger curiosity.
3. Highlighting popularity in product descriptions
We assume that best selling products are worth having. Because of that, big brands will often present their items as the best selling products on the market. We are particularly susceptible to this effect when the value of something is subjective and can’t be judged before buying it. Films, TV and books all rely on word-of-mouth and consumer buzz to attract consumers.
4. Highlighting popularity in branding
Because we are more likely to imitate the choices of people we relate to, Social Proof is often targeted at specific groups of people. For example, these Meta Titles and Meta Descriptions both present the companies they represent as “The UK’s Number One.”
4. Displaying high-impact consumer reviews
Consumer reviews are an effective way to build trust in a product or a business. They are most effective if you can use images of real customers and make sure your reviews are as recent as possible. Video reviews are even more compelling because they combine voice and images, making them feel more authentic. It is important to remember that Social Proof expires fast, and the more up-to-date your reviews are, the more trustworthy they will appear.
5. “People like you” recommendations
Amazon converts with over 10% of browsing sessions and it has an exceptionally high average order value. One of the reasons for this is that it personalises the shopping experience. Once a customer has looked at a few items, Amazon suggests others that similar people have looked at. The same thing happens once you add an item to your shopping cart and even after you have purchased your item.
Amazon also tells you which products are the best-sellers in each category. The way it uses Social Proof is one of the reasons Amazon has such a high conversion rate and average order value.
6. Showing recent sales and creating a shop floor buzz
Showing your visitors that an item has been purchased recently creates trust in both your website and the thing you are selling. It also creates a sense of urgency, because your visitors don’t know if it will sell out soon.
A Social Proof app can display recent sales and sign-ups automatically, in a notification or with dynamic text. For example, online stores like Hotter and Argos show recent sales figures in text that floats above their product pictures.
An article recently published on the BBC website highlighted a problem with the way a travel website was creating urgency among its customers. Having browsed the website looking for a good deal, one browser noticed something strange.
It’s common for websites to tell customers that there is only “one room left,” or that “10 people are looking at this flight” – these messages trigger Social Proof and encourage customers to book earlier. However, it is hard to know if the information is true. In the case of OneTravel, the number of people supposedly looking at the deal was fake. The notification was designed to show a random number between 28 and 45.
Influencer Marketing And Fake Social Proof
In 2018, the market for influencer marketing was worth $1.3 billion, and it is expected that the industry will grow to represent $2.3 billion over 2020. The rise of influencer marketing has created an incentive for brands to fake that kind of social media activity. One online store even created fake influencer profiles to highlight the extent of the problem. The profiles, called “Amanda Smith” (or, “wanderinggirl”) and Alexa Rae (or, “calibeachgirl310”) attracted over 82,000 Instagram followers before being revealed as false.
Fake Reviews And Product Ratings
Reviews impact 95% of online purchases. Because they have such a big influence, a number of online brands have resorted to buying fake reviews.
In 2019, an investigation by the consumer investigator Which found thousands of fake reviews for products being sold on Amazon. The reviews were from unverified customers and could be easily identified by the language they used and the fact that they arrived in large groups at uneven intervals. The product category most associated with fake reviews was headphones. The investigation found over 10,000 fake reviews across 24 different products.
Fortunately, there are a number of online tools you can use to help identify fake reviews and report them:
Fake Social Proof Notifications
Whilst some websites develop their own fake notifications (such as the OneTravel page with its “view_notification_random” variable), others use plugins that openly encourage fake Social Proof. For example, the WordPress app store contains plugins designed to imitate real notifications.
Similarly, an investigation involving the support staff for a number of small web notification developers found that customers were being advised to use “dummy” data to trick customers.
This kind of counterfeit Social Proof makes it hard for consumers to trust the information they see online. It is also a problem for businesses who want to display real data about their most popular products.
Using Social Proof in an ethical way is about treating consumers fairly. These 4 principles provide a framework for ethical Social Proof.
1. Keep Your Content Honest
Nothing should be added or removed from the information you show to browsers. That means no “dummy” data and no filters designed to mislead people.
One of the main advantages of Social Proof is that it allows companies to build trust fast. But, if customers can’t even trust the information you show them, displaying it is completely useless.
On the other hand, honest marketing is the most effective way to create a real connection with customers. Some of the most successful campaigns in history have emerged from a focus on the whole truth. For example, the “We Try Harder” campaign by Avis Car Rental focused on honesty.
2. Play Fair With Your Customers
It is important to be open about where your data comes from and why you’re showing it to your customers. Browsers already know that you’re trying to sell them something, but notifications from apps or plugins can sometimes be made to look like third party content.
You should never take advantage of a customer who does not have all the information, whose choices are limited or who misunderstands the circumstances. It is unethical to apply Social Proof to create urgency if your customers are buying something essential (like medicine).
3. Be Representative and Balanced
Anything you use to promote your products should be a fair reflection on the reality. It’s not just about being truthful in a literal sense – it’s about giving a faithful impression of the facts. For example, telling a browser that there are only 3 rooms left, in a Bed and Breakfast that has 4 rooms total, is true but not representative. Unless customers can see that they are getting a real insight, they will end up discounting most of the information they read.
4. Respect Your Users’ Privacy
There are legal guidelines to respect with any form of marketing, but Social Proof presents particular challenges with regards to data privacy. In addition to the formal requirements of the EU’s GDPR legislation, there are certain principles that should be respected in order to maintain an ethical approach to marketing.
- Individual consent – Anybody whose identity or actions are being displayed should have the opportunity to opt out.
- Legitimate causes – The use of an individual’s data should be necessary for achieving a reasonable aim.
- Minimisation – You should only use the information you need, and delete it once it is no longer required.
- Security – Any data you store should be impossible for a third party to access.
- Accountability – Individuals should have an easy way to access, question and remove their data from your records.
Using a social proof app is a quick way to show customers they can trust your store – but there are over 200 plugins in the Shopify App Store for creating Social Proof.
Not all of these apps offer the same features or user experience. For example, Nudgify is built into Shopify itself, so you can add it to your store without even leaving the Shopify interface. Like other social proof apps, Nudgify displays recent sales and page views. However, it also lets you show when the stock for a particular item is running low or when a deal is ending.
For a detailed view, we have published a survey of the features and pricing of the best Shopify Social Proof apps for 2020.
Because the digital world is overwhelming, browsers use mental shortcuts to help them sort through it. They use similar “rule-0f-thumb” strategies to judge which websites they can trust. In both cases, the “wisdom of the crowd” (or, Social Proof) is a useful guide.
Knowing that people think in this way gives digital marketers an advantage. If a business needs to build trust quickly, it simply has to show reviews from previous users. A Social Proof app can provide the same form of group endorsement, either on Shopify or elsewhere. Unfortunately, consumers should be aware that unscrupulous marketers use fake content to promote their businesses.
Despite this, ethical Social Proof continues to be an essential part of digital marketing, and an area of investment for international business.