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 about what to do and who to trust.
What is Social Proof?
The term Social Proof was first coined in 1984 by the psychologist 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.
Because it is an important part of how consumers make decisions, Social Proof can help marketers to increase conversions, reduce bounces and basket abandonment, and improve the customer experience. This article explains exactly what Social Proof is and the science behind how it works.
Social Proof is a psychological effect that causes someone to copy the behaviour or beliefs of those around them. It is especially noticeable in ambiguous situations, when the right mode of behaviour or course of action is unclear.
Social Proof can take a number of familiar forms:
- Social influence – adopting the beliefs and choices of the crowd
- Conformity – willingly imitating the behaviour of other people
- Compliance – imitating others whilst maintaining private differences
- Normative Social Influence – a kind of conscious conformity, where the individual is seeking acceptance or approval
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.
- 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.
Whilst technical solutions for creating Social Proof are quite modern, the effect has been studied for over 50 years. The influence of groups over individual behaviour was first identified in the 1930s.
Muzafer Sherif – Attitudes and Group Influence (1935)
In 1935, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif tested whether the perception of movement could be affected by group influence. Presenting his subjects with a stationary dot (which, nevertheless, appeared to move due to the auto-kinetic effect), he compared the estimates for its speed and direction when subjects were together and when they were on their own. In most cased, the group produced a big change in they way individual subjects perceived the dot’s movement.
Soloman Asch – Independence and Conformity (1956)
In a similar experiment to that conducted by Sherif, Asch encouraged subjects to conform to the opinion of an artificial majority. Each subject was asked to compare the length of various lines and share their opinion with the group. The group presented a different (and obviously incorrect) opinion, pressuring the subject to conform.
Asch identified three different kinds of response:
- The participant did not conform at any stage (only 25%)
- The individual conformed due to fear of rejection (the majority)
- The individual was effectively persuaded of an obviously incorrect judgement
Robert Cialdini – Social Norms as Motivation (2008)
In an another experiment, the “fathers of persuasion” Robert Cialdini and Noah Goldstein attempted to study whether Social Proof could be used to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour in hotels. Their task was to persuade guests to reuse their towels. The experiment compared two different kinds of sign. One had a provided a sample of hotel guests (B – Social Proof) with signs informing them that the majority of other guests in the hotel had chosen to reuse their towels.
Help save the environment by reusing your towels – (A)
Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment – (B)
Group A (who received the industry standard environmental message) recycled their towels 35.1% of the time. Remarkably, the group exposed to the Social Proof message (B) recycled their towels 44.1% of the time. This experiment, and others like it, has led to serious discussions among policy makers about the ethics and efficacy of using cognitive biases and psychological influence to guide behaviour.
Mathew Salganik – Social Proof and Cultural Markets (2006)
Mathew Salganik is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Princeton. In 2008, he conducted an experiment to test the effect that Social Proof would have on personal preference. Salganik created an artificial sharing platform for music. Whilst the songs were real, he introduced his own (invented) popularity rankings.
Some of the songs, which were not highly rated elsewhere, were given inflated popularity. One or two of the least popular songs were even displayed as the most popular. Remarkably, he found that the songs with artificially enhanced popularity became his participants’ favourites. In his summary, Salganik concluded that:
…most songs experienced self-fulilling prophecies, in which perceived—but initially false—popularity became real over time…
In 1969, the sales and marketing expert Cavett Robert published Human Engineering and Motivation. In a section where Robert imagined selling to a “Mr Jones”, he famously stated:
95 % of people are imitators and only 5% initiators…people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.
However, it took another 15 years for the term “Social Proof” to be applied to marketing. The psychologist and marketing expert Robert Cialdini coined the term in his 1984 book Influence. It was one of his Principles of Persuasion:
- Social Proof
Cialdini noticed that TV shows use laughter tracks even when it was clear audiences disliked them. He also saw that products described as “popular” sold more quickly than others. Unlike traditional economics, Social Proof can make the fastest-selling products the most desirable.
On 31st March 1929, Bertha Hunt led a group of women on what became known as the “Torches for Freedom” march through Fifth Avenue, New York. The carefully orchestrated incident challenged the stigma surrounding women smoking in public. Rather than a demonstration, though, the public stunt was part of a marketing campaign for the American Tobacco Company.
Psychologists and Social Scientists have identified a number of factors that enhance the effect of Social Proof. Their are four common factors that make conformity more likely:
These four ingredients are all present in the world of online business. They help to explain why Social Proof is such a powerful tool for digital marketers.
The Uncertainty Principle and Social Proof Marketing
Ambiguity and doubt have been shown to enhance the effect of social proof. Modern life presents an overwhelming amount of choice. Not only do we have to decide between toast or cereals for breakfast, we now have to choose between hundreds of different brands for each.
Decision-making can be exhausting, and that increases that likelihood that we will look to our peers for recommendations and advice.
Similarity – Why “Us” is Your Secret Weapon
We are more likely to copy the behaviour of those who are similar to us. The characteristics that affect us most significantly are age and gender.
In 1984, the behavioural specialist David Murray conducted a study on the best way to stop adolescents from smoking. He compared four persuasive strategies and their effects on adolescent behaviour. The study found that the teenage subjects responded far more readily to advice and information from their same-age peers.
The Law Of Attraction
We are more likely to listen to, and comply with, people who we find attractive. In 1979, Shelly Chaiken conducted an experiment in which her students were approached by one of two people.
The responses to these people showed that subjects were significantly more likely to be persuaded by people they described as “attractive”. This was true not only for their verbal responses, but also for their behaviour.
Some researchers, for example Albert and Bernice Lott, have found that attractiveness is transferable. In other words, positive feelings or experiences can be transferred to associated objects. This is one reason why “attractive” people and glamorous settings are used in advertisements.
Sense and Sensibilities: Why Being “Good” Always Matters
From a young age we are taught to behave according to certain norms and standards. These ideas are extremely powerful and very difficult to change. When you do manage to shift the earth, the effects can be dramatic.
To supercharge your Social Proof, you should focus on building momentum with people that your target market find attractive, relatable and recognisable. However, one of the most enduring forms of persuasion is simply to make a product or an idea Socially Desirable.
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 these 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. Social Proof marketing is a technique that small businesses can use to achieve explosive growth.
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.