How often when you are choosing a new restaurant do you refer to Yelp or your local food critic’s review? Or when deciding on a weekend movie, you check out the film reviews, leaning toward the ones with star rankings. How do you find a hotel in another city? And when you are buying apparel online, do you go for the recommendations for how to accessorize it, or in Amazon’s case, “We think you might also like this.” Informally, this is the practice of the power of the “wisdom of the crowds” philosophy that others may know more than you do. If your style, tastes, and interests align with the recommended sources, it’s a handy shortcut for decision-making. It works best when it is fundamentally built on trust.
The Digital Psychology of Persuasion
It is human nature to rely on third-party input when deciding to make important investments (engagement rings come to mind). But there is a new wave of digital tools that are built to influence decisions that may not be so trustworthy. Take TikTok and its power to influence and even change the behaviors of impressionable next gens. Or Instagram’s role in enabling body shaming and mocking others. And more recently asking ChatGPT to build an itinerary, say in Barcelona, of top cultural sites, the best restaurants, where to shop, and where to stay. It is irresistible to get a polite, informative response in less than 10 seconds. But can you trust it? Probably about as much as you can trust all online listings and crowdsourced input, which are the sources of GPT’s recommendations.
The internet has made choice easier, more accessible, and actionable. It has also flooded society with biased, fake, false, and untested information. Plus, it has diminished the level of critical thinking – even skepticism – of people to evaluate the efficacy of what they read and see. It is just too easy to rely on the opinion of strangers and bots to make decisions. And that is causing generations of children to lose the ability to discern fact from fiction.
Powers of Persuasion
Relying on others and institutions for guidance is one of a set of principles that Dr. Robert Cialdini identified that have become fixtures in our marketing and communications strategies with our workforce, customers, and stakeholders at large. We have written extensively about Dr. Cialdini’s work on psychological persuasion in our book, The Truth About Transformation. In brief, his seven principles are summarized here by CXL:
- Reciprocity: People by nature feel obliged to provide either discounts or concessions to others if they’ve received favors from those others. We as humans hate to feel indebted to other people.
- Commitment (and Consistency): Humans have a deep need to be seen as consistent. Once we have publicly committed to something or someone, we are much more likely to go through and deliver on that commitment.
- Social Proof: This is when people do what they observe other people doing when they feel uncertain.
- Authority: We trust authority figures and they are inherently more persuasive because of this (authority can be based on many factors – wealth, uniforms, status, etc.)
- Liking. The more you like someone, the more likely it is you’ll be persuaded by them.
- Scarcity. When you believe something is in short supply, you want it more.
- Unity: A shared identity that the influencer shares with the influence, moving beyond surface-level similarities.
In each principle, we are influenced by basic (primitive) feelings. Cialdini encapsulates this response as primitive automaticity, a subject we covered in Issue 27 of our newsletter.
Of Cialdini’s seven principles, we are going to focus on social proof and its deep potential in marketing and messaging. To review, social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon wherein people copy the actions of others in choosing how to behave in a given situation. It is also predicated on the belief among people that others have more knowledge about a current situation. At its core, social proof is the most influential when one is faced with uncertainty, and that’s when we are most vulnerable. When people are uncertain, they will typically look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own.
This feeling of uncertainty and the resulting choice isn’t consciously driven. When we are presented with the unfamiliar or find ourselves in situations where we don’t feel we know enough our subconscious drives the want and need to seek social proof. Put into different terms, it is confirmation bias. Consider a couple of simple examples:
- You attend an organization-wide meeting that has an inspirational keynote. You are inspired by what you hear and as the speaker ends her talk, everyone begins to clap. The applause seems appropriate, and you want to stand up and give an ovation. But you aren’t sure if doing so is socially acceptable (a feeling majorly driven subconsciously). You see a few fellow attendees in the front stand up as they continue to clap. Now that you have proof that it is acceptable, you do the same thing.
- You and your family dine at a new restaurant, and you are unsure of what to order from the menu. The waitstaff comes up to the table, shares the daily specials then offers “what is popular with other customers.” All of a sudden you feel the right decision come into your mind. You will choose one of the items that is popular with other customers. Obviously if others believe it is good, you will as well.
In the first example, your proof came by virtue of seeing someone else do something that made your next action acceptable. We are herd animals at our core and 9 times out of 10 we will follow the herd to reassure us that our behavior is acceptable.
In the second example, you were uncertain, perhaps even stuck in what decision to make. By virtue of someone telling you something that others prefer, even though you had no personal proof that they do, you were able to overcome your uncertainty by inference. It should be a disturbing thought noting how often decision-making and actions (even thoughts and opinions) stem from what others have expressed — without any actual proof.
Before we dive into how social proof works, let’s plant one more example in your mind.
- You call your friend, and we’ll call him John, to ask if he has any experience with a brand’s new Bluetooth surround sound speakers. You want to replace the wired speakers in your family room after your partner tripped over the wires for the 10th time. John expresses that he doesn’t have any experience with the speakers, but his brother’s wife’s cousin’s spouse Joe and his brother Bob mentioned they were the Bluetooth bomb. You obviously don’t know Joe or Bob, but when John (whom you trust) shared that there is someone out there, several degrees of separation from you, that is enough proof for you to go ahead and get the speakers Joe and Bob recommend. Every time you use the speakers (or when you are experiencing issues with them), your mind defaults back to the social proof that Joe and Bob said they were the experts.
We are all victims and perpetrators of practicing social proof. There is a safety in numbers sense of security in social proof. Social proof can work both ways. Conforming to the behavior or belief systems of others without adequate information and critical thinking can trigger mass movements. Many mass demonstrations of social proof fall into the less positive zone. The assault on the government on January 6th is a dramatic example of the negative effects of social proof. That said, obeying laws, being considerate of others (no smoking), and rallying for social causes are for the greater social good. The root challenge is the individual versus the demands of the group.
Social Proof Business Model
So, how does this relate to how you serve your customers? Social proof can make your organization relevant and can improve your branding. We live in an era of social influence, which Cialdini could not have imagined when he wrote his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in 1984. According to Global Newswire, 83% of consumers recommend a brand they follow on social to friends and family; 95% of shoppers read online reviews before making a purchase and 82% of Americans ask for referrals and recommendations from family and friends before making any kind of purchase. These are your customers.
There are several ways to incorporate social proof into your marketing strategies to showcase the power of your brand, according to Chloe West for Sprout Social.
- Case studies: Showcase satisfied customers with is case studies about their experience with your organization.
- Testimonials and reviews: Share testimonials and reviews on social media. Including ratings and reviews on your website as well as sharing on social media lets your audience know what others think.
- Existing customers and clients: Showcase the well-known organizations you work with.
- Awards and accolades: Make sure your stakeholders know of any awards or rankings your organization has received.
- User-generated content (UGC): Share user-generated content on your social pages. This strategy can work on nearly any platform but is most effective on Instagram.
- Influencer marketing: Influencer marketing in business can be powerful. Identify your champions and let them network and connect for you.
- Partnerships: Another form of social proof is partnerships with key allies in the industry.
- Customer base: Showcasing the number of customers you’ve served, products you’ve sold or services you have. This shows that your organization is trusted, reliable and knows what you are doing since you’ve worked with so many professionals.
To distill the strategy of social proof to its basics: Instead of communicating “Do you want to also buy x, y or z?” you say, “Do you want to also buy x, y or z, which the majority of our customers have already chosen.” It’s changing the conversation to position your offerings as relevant and meaningful. When the qualification is added to a pitch that others have purchased and found your products and services to be valuable, others (adhering to social proof) most of the time will follow suit and want to conform to others and what is suggested.
At 2040 we work with clients to understand how easily we are manipulated without conscious questioning for real proof. It is a scary proposition if someone or an organization can perpetuate a lie or mistruth and still influence you and your customers’ decision-making. Consider the fine print displayed on some commercials: “Those presented in this advertisement were paid for their endorsement” or “Testimonials in this advertisement are from paid actors and do not represent real customers.” Very few people read or even notice the fine print. It is there to protect the brand legally in case someone in the audience questions the advertisement’s truthfulness. But typically, no one does, and the ad is enough proof by virtue of the endorsements to influence decision-making.
Most of us believe what we see, conform to what we read — even if it is a stretch headline or call to action that tells us “Now serving over 2 billion customers.” In McDonald’s case, there isn’t evidence to what the 2 billion number actually means, but it’s enough to influence us to trust the quality of the brand.
Sadly, we are lazy by nature. Why use our energy to research and apply our own critical thinking when it is so easy and less energy-intensive to simply believe what we read, see, or hear? Granted this behavior is situational, and we advise clients to always use critical thinking when there are serious business implications.
We are not here to decide whether leveraging social proof for business is ethical or right. That is for you and your organization to decide. We simply seek to remind everyone about how our default behaviors, consciously or driven subconsciously, influence decision-making and the decision-making of customers. Social proof is the antithesis of critical thinking. And fact-based decision making will win in any situation over dependence on qualitative social proof.
Editor’s Note: This article is republished with permission of the author, with first publication on Social Proof Issue 114, June 22, 2023