The Psychology of Social Proof
Before we get to the good stuff, let’s take a step back for an overhead view of human behavior. Our earliest ancestors depended on one another for survival. A single hunter doesn’t present much of a threat on the Savannah. Compared to the other predators out there, we’re weak. Yet humanity had no trouble establishing itself as an apex predator.
Large kills, such as elk and mammoth, gave our ancestors a respite from constant hunting. This downtime further strengthened their social bonds. Because of this, most people today enjoy a complex social life. In fact, piles of research have shown that social interaction is essential for a healthy human mind.
As early human society became more varied and complex, and as food became more plentiful, individuals began to specialize. Some people devoted their entire lives to working stone into useful shapes; others developed complex knots and nets that allowed for a better haul. Still others developed pottery, the wheel and refrigeration.
These innovations weren’t developed at the same time around the world, but were developed independently from region to region. What’s more, settlements relied on barter to conduct fair trade. A fishing net developed in one coastal region might have been exchanged for a spear from another. As early humans began trading with one another, reputation, and social proof, became important. If a warlord was unable to get another tribe to vouch for them—verbal social proof—they had a hard time securing vital goods. Spurned, they would often have to rely on violence to get what they needed, but this is an inefficient means of advancing culture.
In today’s world, social proof has become bewilderingly complex. Our propensity for social interaction has given birth to numerous social networks, and if you want your product or service to be seen by lots of people on the cheap, you’ll have to master them—or pay someone else to manage them. However, only by understanding how to put social proof to work for you, can you get the most out of this investment of time or money.
Leveraging social proof comes down to understanding one thing:
We are hard-wired for social interaction. We crave it. We need it.
When evaluating a product or service, a person looks to others for cues. We aren’t saying that social proof is the most important factor, but it’s one of the most important without a doubt. And if your competitors are better at leveraging it than you are, they will take business from you.
According to global marketing firm Mintel, 70 percent of consumers consult product reviews before making a purchase. The survey, conducted in 2015, was of 2,000 U.S. adults. The report says that product reviews are viewed just as much—if not more than—product descriptions. How often have you searched Amazon for something only to scroll down to the reviews first thing? For many people, this is an automatic reaction.
Social Proof Defined
For our purposes, an endorsement is any kind of advocacy. It could be a social share, a backlink, a testimonial, product review, etc. To bring the concept of social proof into sharper focus, let’s talk about how it benefits us:
The benefit of social proof is the positive association created when a potential customer learns that other people are happily using your product or service.
Social proof falls into four categories:
- Celebrity endorsement
- Expert endorsement
- User endorsement
- Wisdom of crowds endorsement
We’ll look at each in greater detail in just a moment.
Focus on Pain Points
To enhance your sales pitch, social proof must address the customer’s pain points. When a prospect is looking for a solution that could satisfy their pain points, it’s human nature for them to seek others who had a similar problem. This occurs at every point in the customer life cycle—more on that later.
For now, identify these pain points if you haven’t already. Why does your customer need your product? This isn’t about the features of your product. It’s more fundamental than that. Being clear about pain points helps you make the most of social proof.
Before we get into that, let’s look at a stellar example of social proof in the wild.
McDonald’s and Collective Consciousness
In January of 2015, McDonald’s ousted CEO Don Thompson in favor of Steve Easterbrook. Nervous stockholders have been following the situation with baited breath. Some speculators blame falling prices on an unfocused menu while others cite new competition from casual dining establishments like Panera Bread. But from the beginning, McDonald’s has been a marketing powerhouse, and while consumer tastes may be changing, no one can deny that the chain has achieved something spectacular over the last half 60-odd years.
The first McDonald’s opened in 1940 in San Bernardino, California. The first drive-in of its kind, McDonald’s offered hungry consumers inexpensive burgers ‘by the bag.’ McDonald’s used an assembly-line method to produce the burgers, fries and shakes. This was revolutionary in its day. Entrepreneur Ray Kroc bought the McDonald’s brothers out in 1955 and went to work optimizing the concept.
By 1965, Kroc had opened 700 McDonald’s restaurants, collecting 1.9 percent gross from each. He was keenly aware of the need for savvy marketing. Kroc came up with a plan with the help of marketing expert Harry Sonnenborne. He would scoop up choice real estate for future McDonald’s franchisee and then charge them rent. But Kroc knew that to make the franchise appealing, he would have to boost sales.
Back in 1958, McDonald’s had seen a huge milestone: their 100 millionth burger served. Kroc and his marketing team knew that the fast food concept was new, and there were still some holdouts. Understandably, some consumers wondered how good ‘fast’ food could possibly be.
By 1960, McDonald’s had served 400 million burgers, and by 1963, 700 million. This gave Kroc an idea: squeeze as much marketing juice as possible out of their 1-billionth burger served. In 1963, on the Art Linkletter TV show, that burger was made to order. In the decades that followed, all McDonald’s signs have proudly proclaimed some variation of, “Over one billion served.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is leveraging social proof.
Now, how many fast food restaurants use red and yellow as their dominant colors? Here are just a few:
- In-N-Out Burger
- Burger King
This isn’t an accident. Color has a huge impact on consumer behavior. The colors red and yellow convey a sense of urgency, and they imply speed. These implications are conveyed to the mind instantaneously. Words take much longer to make their way through the heavy machinery of the brain. Fun fact: yellow is the most visible color in daylight, which is why you can see a McDonald’s sign from a mile away.
When leveraging social proof, it’s essential you keep your branding consistent. Whatever ideas your consumers have about your product or service will be forever linked with your logo.
In recent years, McDonald’s has changed their branding in some regions.
The new green visage implies a natural, relaxing environment. But do any of us really associate McDonald’s with nature? Do you associate McDonald’s with relaxation? This new branding coincided with McCafé, a large expansion of their menu. We aren’t saying the new colors caused the slump in sales, but they probably didn’t help.
Endorsements in Detail
Now for the nitty-gritty. Following is a detailed explanation of each endorsement type.
1. The Celebrity Endorsement
Clearly, this is an endorsement of your product from a celebrity. While this strategy might seem like a no-brainer, you have to use it with care. Your garden-variety celebrity has a volatile public image, and their reputation will affect how consumers view your brand. It’s crucial you take their current reputation into account, but you have to consider how their reputation could change throughout the life of your association with them. Of course, you can’t predict the future, and no one is suggesting that companies like Hertz and Subway didn’t thoroughly vet their spokespeople. It can happen to anyone.
That said, celebrity endorsement can work wonders. It works because of a concept known as the extended self. People view their possessions as an extension of themselves. If they own something a celebrity also owns, they feel a little better about themselves. In addition, because we all have a tribe mentality, we tend to defer to the “chiefs” in our society. For better or worse, this includes celebs.
Examples of celebrity endorsement:
OJ Simpson, Hertz
William Shatner, Priceline
2. Expert Social Proof
The meatier cousin of celebrity endorsement, expert endorsement is just what it says on the tin. This endorsement gives your product a stamp of approval from a verifiable expert. Expert social proof can come in many forms. Here are a few:
- Guest blog post
- Facebook post
- Press release
- Book forward
Expert endorsement works because of the halo effect. The halo effect refers to the tendency of people to judge a product or service not on its merits alone, but by the overall impression they have of the person promoting it. If your spokesperson is respected in their field and is well-known, their positive reputation will rub off on your product. Essentially, you can buy instant positive association. But this, too, can be a double-edged sword.
When Dr. Oz was called to task by the U.S. Senate, we’re guessing his endorsement offers dwindled.
Examples of Expert Social Proof:
Dr. Robert Jarvik, Lipitor
Various “doctors,” R.J Reynolds Tobacco
3. User Social Proof
User social proof is any form of approval from other users. This can take many forms:
- Case studies
- User testimonials
- User reviews
- Posts on Facebook wall
If social proof is an army, think of user endorsement as a foot soldier. They come easily, so get as many as you can.
4. ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ Social proof
This is similar to user social proof, but deals with approval from large groups of like minded people. ‘Wisdom of the crowds’ came into prominence as a valuable psychological concept in 1906, when Francis Galton hosted an experiment at the local county fair. He asked participants to guess the weight of an ox, and then write their guess on a slip of paper.
While most guesses were off by a wide margin, Galton was surprised to find that the group guessed accurately. That is to say, the average of the guesses was very near the animal’s actual weight.
You can hold this experiment on your own. Just fill a glass jar with jelly beans and ask people to guess how many are in the jar. Then add up all the guesses and divide that number by the total number of guesses. The more guesses you have, the closer the average will be to the actual number of jelly beans.
The results will be less consistent if you use coins instead. This is because each coin represents a different value which makes the process of estimation much more complex.
The takeaway is that we all value the consensus of our social circle.
- Amazon Recommendations
- iTunes Recommendations
Think about Kickstarter and Teespring for a moment. The campaigns tip when enough people put down the cash. Cold prospects are wary of a new campaign, but as people invest, you see a snowball effect.
You can get pretty subtle with the wisdom of crowds concept. Take Tesla, for instance. Tesla Model X has an intriguing new feature: Bio Weapon Defense Mode.
According to Elon Musk, the car contains a HEPA filter so advanced that it can filter out contaminants from a biological weapon. Might consumers, on a collective level, think that such a car is safer and cleaner than other cars? This collective consensus adds to Tesla’s allure. It doesn’t really matter whether the feature is practical.
Increase Conversions with Social Proof
Now we get to the really good stuff, folks. Let’s talk about how to leverage social proof. This section contains two lists of tips. Read them over carefully and put them into practice in the order that best suits your needs. You might find it helpful to create a mind map of each tip like the one below. Freemind is a great mind map app.
7 Keys to Leverage Social Proof
Let’s start with the fundamentals. These concepts can help you decide what to focus on.
1. Don’t use negative social proof.
When you claim a negative while trying to get people to take an action, you’re employing negative social proof. Here is an example:
“Lots of other people have missed out on this one-time sale! Don’t be one of them!”
If lots of people have passed on the offer, there has to be a reason, right? When you use negative social proof, you risk planting an unfavorable subconscious association in your prospect’s mind. Don’t confuse negative social proof with urgency.
2. The sale isn’t enough anymore.
Often, a sale isn’t enough to get people in the door. There’s just too much competition out there. Fuse news of your sale with positive social proof, like this:
“77 percent of your neighbors are already saving money. Take 20% off today.”
This tactic triggers your prospect’s natural competitiveness. It plants the idea that other people are better off than they are. You should employ this killer tactic when prospects are very close to making a purchase.
3. Consumers listen to people who are similar to them.
This is called implicit egotism. If your target market is seniors, your celebrity endorser should be a senior. Things are more flexible when it comes to expert endorsement—especially with medical products or services—but the principle still applies. Can you imagine a well-known billionaire doing a commercial for a fast food restaurant? It would strike the wrong tone, wouldn’t it?
This is why you have to construct complex buyer personas early. The more thorough your customer persona, the better you’ll be able to match your product with a promoter.
4. Social proof and pictures go hand in hand.
Testimonials are one of the most valuable forms of social proof, but you can make them even more effective with pictures. After all, just because you have real testimonials on your site doesn’t mean your prospects believe them. Testimonials are more likely to be believed when they’re accompanied by a picture of the customer. Stock photos of people often seem wooden, so don’t try to fake this.
However, if you can’t get a photo for each testimonial, it might be better to leave photos out entirely. Having a photo on some testimonials and not others can leave a bad impression.
The video testimonial is the Holy Grail. If you’re a B2B entrepreneur selling a service, get as many of these as possible and put them on a dedicated page in your site navigation.
5. Stories, stories, stories!
What would persuade you more, a 5-star review, or a story about how the product helped a customer solve a problem? For most people, it is door number two. A good customer story has these three characteristics:
- Addresses the pain points
- Is relatable
- Mentions how pain points were resolved
According to psychologist Christopher Chabris, author of The Invisible Gorilla, stories are more effective than reviews because they are remembered for longer and more vividly. When a prospect reads a story, they unconsciously imagine themselves in the storyteller’s place. This automatic and interactive process creates a strong positive association.
Our early ancestors learned from oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. We built entire mythologies to convey our moral values. Our brains work the same way today.
6. The halo effect redoux.
It bears repeating: we judge the value of a product—at least in part—based on our overall opinion of the person recommending it. Go out and get the support of social media influencers. The best kind of endorsement is the free kind, and not just because it’s easy on your pocket book. When social media influencers promote your product because they use it and love it, you can expect a spike in sales.
7. It’s better to have no proof than low proof.
A low number of likes is worse than no likes at all. Maybe your article is new. Maybe your site is new. Consumers don’t care. If shown two different articles side-by-side, one with 100 social shares and another with 10,000, which do you think they will read?
The bottom-line is that pages with low social proof are considered less trustworthy. If your share counts are low, you might want to remove them from the most important parts of your site for now.
Remember, this is all about managing subconscious associations.
6 Strategies You Can Use Right Now
1. Leverage the help.
Your employees are brand ambassadors—whether you like it or not. What are they saying about you on social media? Another question: is your marketing team cranking out posts for your company social media profiles? This only gets you so far. The consumer will be wary of any profiles your company owns.
You can increase your reach exponentially by getting your employees to post about you on their own social media accounts. Coming from your employees, posts about your product and service will feel much more authentic. Here are a few ways you can get your employees to tweet about you:
- If you’re hiring, ask your employees to let their followers know.
- Hold a company-wide contest to see who can generate the most likes, clicks or shares.
- Create an employee advocacy program with a service likeSocial Chorus. Feed company news into the system and encourage your employees to share it on their own social media channels.
- Create a hashtag for your company and encourage employees to use it. Come up with something unique that reflects your company’s culture—but keep it short.
2. Listen to your social mentions.
If you want to promote your company online, you have to keep your ear close to the pipes. Use a service like Mention to track your brand across the Web. Note that you can find free tools for specific social networks.
Whenever someone mentions your brand, favorite, retweet and @mention them. Don’t just respond to the positive messages, though. You should proactively manage negative messages. Let the customer know you’re sorry they’ve had a negative experience and ask them how you can make it right.
You can also cast a wide net, targeting industry keywords. This can help you intercept customers looking for a product or service similar to what you offer. However, there’s a fine line between gently guiding the consumer and spamming them.
3. Embrace content marketing.
Over the last few years, content marketing has proven itself an invaluable tool. Big brands such as Anthropologie, American Express, Birchbox, Lana del Rey, Callaway Golf and Business Insider have all profited from savvy content marketing campaigns. However, you need to bring your customers and brand ambassadors into the fold. Your loyal customers want to help you. Here’s how to let them:
- Invite customers and influencers to speak at your webinars orcom events.
- Identify passionate followers through social media monitoring and invite them to participate in a case study. Publish your study on your own site and other platforms such as SlideShare and Medium.
- Identify your biggest brand ambassadors through social media monitoring and ask for an interview. Publish the interview in a special blog post and in your newsletter.
- Ask passionate customers and influencers to contribute quotes to your future blog posts.
- And, of course, create a “Testimonials” page on your site.
4. Ask for online reviews.
Remember that 70% of consumers look for reviews before making an online purchase. Reviews are crucial to the success of your brand. Here’s the thing: customers don’t often leave positive reviews without a bit of prodding. Negative reviews are a different story. Go out and ask your customers for reviews. Additionally, it’s a stellar idea to seek reviews on as many niche sites as you can.
5. Add social share buttons to your site.
…But remember that low likes can be worse than no likes. Once you’ve established a healthy social media presence and have several brand ambassadors, add social share buttons to your site. Many first-rate WordPress plugins can add this functionality to your site for cheap. If you’re in a position to get a custom-coded solution, that’s even better.
Again, if you’re still low on shares, hide the counter until you get more traction or remove the share buttons altogether.
Bottom-line: if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
6. Leverage huge social media sites.
Let’s take Reddit as an example. Reddit is one of the largest websites in the world. And what is Reddit but a giant social proof mill? If they’re talking about you, you must be important, right?
But take note: Reddit users are very protective of the platform, so you can’t outright spam. You will get shadowbanned if you do.
Here’s a few ways you can take advantage of Reddit’s insane traffic:
- Search Reddit for your brand and respond constructively to mentions.
- Create a sub-reddit about your product, service or company. Use this as an extra customer service hub to get things going. As your sub gets more traffic, encourage users to start discussions about your product too.
- Create content on a neutral domain like Medium. Let’s call this a ‘bait’ piece. Link to your own site from this bait piece where appropriate. By ‘appropriate,’ we mean ‘natural.’ Don’t link back to your site more than twice. Once is ideal.
Content on a neutral domain performs much better than content that links directly to a company blog. When you link to your site from Reddit, some users might downvote your post because they think you’re trying to promote a product—which you are.
Your bait piece must have value.
If you’re smart about this, you can pull thousands of hits from Reddit regularly. But before you can get traction on the site, you’ll have to build up karma. On Reddit, karma represents how much you have contributed to the site, depending on how your posts are voted on. Building karma is easy.
- Find a sub-reddit you’re passionate about. Post helpful articles—not from your own domain—that the sub’s readers will find enjoyable.
- Submit content to the big sub-reddits like r/funny.
- Search for questions on Reddit that you know the answer to. Make sure your answer is more detailed than all of the others.
- Use a service likeBuzzSumo to find a news piece with a lot of social shares. This is a strong indication that the post is quality. Still, give the post a manual inspection just to be sure. Next, find a relevant sub-reddit and search for the article. If it hasn’t been shared yet, post it. Instant karma.
Don’t make a Reddit account with your company name as the handle! This is a stellar way to get downvoted into oblivion. Additionally, when you start promoting your content, keep to a ratio of 1:10. For every one time you link to your own site or content, link to a domain you don’t own nine times. Reddit users are a savvy bunch. If you spam your site, they will know.
How Social Proof Affects the Marketing Funnel
The classic sales funnel is a symbol of an era gone by.
It’s too inflexible to be of much use in the social media era because there are too many new inputs.
Looking at this, it’s only natural to assume that consumers should come to a buying decision faster than ever before. However, with access to so much information, customers are easily distracted. According to Forrester, 33.3 percent of purchases occur over a period of a month or more, with the consumer consulting at least 10 sites. Therefore, you might find it easy to get the prospect’s attention, but difficult to hold it. Remarketing can help here, but social proof has a vital role to play, too.
The New Funnel
No longer can you sit back and wait for prospects to fall into your funnel. Today’s e-commerce environment demands a proactive approach. Now it’s all about responding to what the customer does at each stage of the customer life cycle. To recap:
- Expose prospects to your social proof as they flit from channel to channel across the Web. This includes social media sites, YouTube, Reddit, etc.
- Lead consumers to content on your own domain that further emphasizes your social proof.
The problem is that social media has an incredibly short half-life. The average tweet lasts around 20 minutes and Facebook posts don’t fare much better. That’s a lot of social proof going down the drain. Let’s look at each stage of the customer life cycle.
1. Getting noticed: the Shotgun approach.
Trying to get traction on as many social networks at once can be viable early in the customer life cycle. It takes a lot of time and effort, but if you can work up a good data sample, you’ll easily home in on the best sites for your product or service. A mistake a lot of marketers make is sticking around on a social network that doesn’t perform for them. Don’t get attached. Listen to the data.
2. Being compared to other brands: beware vanity metrics.
For years, marketers have been holding contests on Facebook and Twitter that incentivize “likes” and shares. This has eroded the consumer’s perception of these metrics. When displaying social proof on your pages, look for relevancy first. 100,000 shares on Facebook looks nice at first blush, but it competes for other forms of social proof like customer testimonials. Don’t your competitors have thousands of likes too? A testimonial is far more relevant.
3. The purchase: display reviews from real advocates.
It’s no secret that most prospects abandon at this phase. You can stem the tide by displaying reviews here, but consumers have grown wary of this form of social proof—thanks Amazon. Companies like TrustPilotare addressing this problem by taking the anonymity out of online reviews. One review that’s tied to an active social media profile is worth five or ten anonymous reviews.
4. After the purchase: Ask for engagement.
If you want to keep the consumer engaged, you must make the first move. One way to do this is to set up a company Instagram account. Give customers a backstage view of your organization. Customers love to see that you’re not just a faceless corporation out for their money.
Here are a few other ways to retain customer interest:
- Newsletter with exclusive discount codes
- Loyalty program
- Dedicated 24/7 customer chat
- Stories of how your product has helped other people
Here are a few tips you can implement right now:
- Use a communications calendar. This calendar reminds you to reach out to your customers regularly—an essential tool for B2B entrepreneurs.
- Ask for feedback. This is huge. Most dissatisfied customers don’t complain, they just go to your competitors. You’ll never know why customers leave you unless ask.
- Keep the focus on lifetime value. If your salespeople are thinking of the one-time commission they’ll get from a sale, you will have problems in the long-run. Calculate a single customer’s lifetime value and make sure every salesperson sees it.
At the end of the day, social proof is just too important to ignore. People have access to more information than ever before, and consumers are becoming more resistant to sales copy. To be successful in today’s business world, you have to go out there and engage. Your customers can be powerful allies. Let them.
If you’re still with us, we would like to thank you for hanging around. We hope this post has been of some use to you! We’ll be posting these guides weekly, so stick around.
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comment’s section below!
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