Many – many – factors contribute to the decisions we make and how our lives are shaped, but one of the strongest influencers on our day-to-day lives is social proof.
Put simply, social proof is the driving force that compels us to mimic the choices of others. It exists because, as a society, we naturally pull together and behave as a “pack.” When used in marketing, social proof monetizes the fact that, if enough people are seen doing something, others are likely to follow suit.
A great example of this is the way we tend to act when choosing a restaurant. If we walk past a restaurant with no one dining inside, we usually take this as a sign of a poor establishment and move on. On the other hand, if we come across a restaurant that’s packed with diners, we make the assumption that it must be good and are likely to head inside ourselves.
Of course, social proof is an unreliable metric. I’ve had excellent meals in places where I’ve been the only customer, and terrible meals in restaurants where I had to wait for a table. The real reason one restaurant might be busy and another empty might be marketing, location, or, simply, the snowball effect of social proof.
Interestingly, the flip side of the coin is also true: social proof doesn’t always lead to positive actions. Social proof is simply evidence that others are doing something – that “something” isn’t necessarily something “good,” and it can be used (either intentionally or unintentionally) to encourage us to act in unfavorable ways.
The Zimbardo Experiment
A great example of social proof encouraging our darkest traits is the 1973 Zimbardo experiment. The experiment saw a group of 21 college-aged men being placed within a mock prison and allocated the role of either “prisoner” or “guard.”
The goal of the experiment was to establish whether the reported brutality of American prison guards was a result of the inherent personalities of the men within those roles, or whether it was being caused by the harsh prison environment.
It took just hours for the pretend guards to begin harassing the pretend prisoners. The harassment became so severe that, after 36 hours one “prisoner” had to be released due to “uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger.”
So what happened? Social proof (through which some guards participated in prisoner harassment because they saw others doing so) wasn’t the only factor at play. It’s safe to say that some of those allocated the role of guard were predisposed to become carried away by power. But the rest? It’s quite clear that social proof played a huge part in exacerbating the abusive behavior exhibited by some of the guards.
Everyone’s Doing It So It Must Be Okay!
The harsh reality is that the more people do something, the more acceptable that thing becomes. Think back to witch hunts, gladiator fights, and Nazi Germany for examples of horrific acts that became legitimized through social proof. In hindsight, we can’t comprehend how humanity allowed these things to happen, but at the time? Social proof meant few people questioned the ethics of these acts, while most chose to simply follow the crowd.
Negative Social Proof
Although social proof can be used to intentionally encourage seemingly good people to act in inhumane ways, it can also unintentionally encourage negative behavior. This can often result from what’s known as negative social proof.
The theory behind negative social proof is that, if we’re told lots of people did something “bad,” we can be encouraged to do the opposite. One of the best recognized examples of this theory in action is the political slogan, “4 years ago, 22 million single women did not vote,” which was promoted heavily by the Women’s Voices Women Vote campaign before the 2004 presidential election.
However, it turns out this theory doesn’t always hold water. In this particular example, the slogan was intended to use negative social proof to compel others to take positive action. In actuality, researchers have since determined that “messages emphasizing low expected turnout are less effective at motivating voters than messages emphasizing high expected turnout.”
So why did I start out with all these negative examples? After all, you’ve always been told that social proof is a positive thing – one that deserves a place on your website, social profiles and marketing materials, right?
It’s true that social proof can do a lot of good in terms of motivating prospective customers to act. But it’s also true that social proof, when wielded poorly, can do more harm than good to your business. The rest of this article will give you the best practices and guidelines you need to use social proof appropriately.
Let’s start with reviews… Reviews are one of the most commonly used forms of social proof. They’re also one of the most powerful. A study from BrightLocal found that the average consumer spends 13 minutes and 45 seconds reading reviews before making a decision, and reads ten reviews before feeling able to trust a business. What’s more, a separate study revealed that over 88% of online shoppers incorporate reviews into their purchasing decisions.
The fact is, we’ve always relied on others’ reviews – they’re just more accessible today than they ever were before. Here are a few tips to get the most out of your reviews:
- Feature positive reviews most prominently within your marketing materials
- Don’t hide negative reviews – 68% of people have more trust in a business when it has a mix of good and bad reviews
- Actively encourage customers to leave reviews
- Ensure that review content can be read and indexed by the search engines (for example, don’t hide it in an image)
- Be careful to avoid duplication of reviews (or snippets of reviews) across multiple URLs
Bonus tip: If you have plenty of positive reviews, use schema markup to encourage Google to show your overall ratings in the search results. Doing so can really help your brand stand out against your competition (which can lead to increased click-through rates), like the top two results here:
Comments left on your website’s blog posts and/or pages indicate that other people are reading, absorbing, and reacting to your content. They reinforce in the visitor’s mind that this is quality content; in other words, they act as an excellent source of social proof.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that commenting systems are not maintenance-free. You’ve got to spend time moderating your comments to weed out spam, and when appropriate, responding to comments in order to encourage conversation and build relationships with your audience.
A testimonial is almost like a “featured” review, except that it’s usually presented in snippet form and, needless to say, is always positive.
Testimonials are most commonly found on SaaS websites and sites that don’t sell tangible products; for example, sites that sell software downloads or an eBook. They’re especially popular among B2B marketers, with 62% using testimonials as one of their primary marketing tactics – more than any other activity.
Get Rich Click author Marc Ostrofsky has a whole page dedicated to testimonials (in addition to featuring them on his homepage):
Get the most from your testimonials by:
- Drop-feeding them to key areas of your site (i.e. key landing pages, any page designed for conversions, and during the checkout process)
- Using photos and references to increase their legitimacy
- Trading in text testimonials for video testimonials
Endorsements are like testimonials on steroids – essentially, they’re testimonials from people that are trustworthy, relevant, and influential. The more trustworthy, relevant, and influential the endorser, the better.
That said, at some point, influence will trump relevance – for example, Pepsi has partnered with a wide array of celebrity brand ambassadors who have no discernible connection to the caffeinated beverage market, from Beyonce and Nicki Minaj to Madonna and One Direction.
Unfortunately, few of us have the budget to pay for an A-list celebrity endorsement. What we need to do instead is identify an industry specialist who has enough clout to be recognized, without demanding multi-million dollar fees.
Bloggers (and more recently, vloggers) are an excellent starting point. In fact, 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers say they relate to YouTubers more than traditional celebrities, while four in ten Millennials say their favorite creator understands them better than their friends.
Sony is just one of many major brands to enjoy recent success by teaming up with lower-tier influencers rather than A-list stars. In a 2019 campaign targeting the Canadian market, the company worked with a small group of Instagrammers and YouTubers to raise awareness of its PlayStation VR headset. By choosing micro-influencers, Sony was able to reach a much more engaged audience, with the campaign generating an average engagement rate of 3.64% on Instagram – more than double the platform’s median engagement rate.
Bonus tip: We tend to be most drawn to those that most resemble ourselves. When shortlisting potential candidates to endorse your products, choose people who best match your buyer personas.
Case studies tell a story. They begin by presenting a dilemma or problem – the story will then unfold to show how a particular product or service enabled that problem to be overcome.
When writing case studies:
- Write a beginning (the problem your customer was facing), a middle (how you diagnosed the problem and offered a solution), and an ending (the results your customer saw after implementing your solution).
- Let a relatable protagonist lead the story. At a minimum, the study should be legitimized with a photo of the protagonist and, if possible, social signals that confirm their identity (twitter handles are great for this).
- Write a short form and long form version of the study and split test to find out which length works best for you.
- Use specific numbers to back up your claims (i.e. don’t just say the product saved a customer money, say how much it saved them).
- Format the story so that it can be skimmed. This means thinking about how you’ll break up the text, as well as utilizing headlines and quotes to provide relief.
For more information on writing a killer case study you might want to take a peek at this piece from Zapier.
Alternatively, take your case studies to the next level by creating a video case study. Don’t believe this can work? Just take a look at the success of shopping channels and infomercials for proof.
Or, present one as a slideshow.
Ever worked with a recognizable brand? Featuring their logos on your website is a really quick and easy way to validate yourself and your products through social proof.
“I Will Teach You to Be Rich” founder Ramit Sethi has been featured on many authority websites, so understandably, he employs this tactic on his “About” page:
“Get Rich Click” author Marc Ostrofsky does something very similar, however Marc makes an even bigger feature of “as seen on” press logos by placing them on his homepage, both as static images and within a carousel banner.
Another sure-fire way to validate your brand is to show off your stellar client list. This is particularly true if you’re a smaller business; seeing all those household names on your website can be a major reassurance to potential customers checking out your credentials.
Generally you’ll want to employ this tactic by displaying your clients’ logos in prominent places on your site. Some companies choose to dedicate a page to their client-base, as seen here on Percolate:
While others incorporate logos on their homepage (quick snippet of shameless self-promotion here):
That said, there’s no reason you can’t do both.
Here’s what not to do though: don’t create a page that talks about how amazing and important your clients are, without including any definitive information on who they are. For instance, the following page is far too vague to offer social proof of any real value:
Bonus tip: Take this idea one step further and link your client logos through to individual case studies about how you worked with that client and what you achieved for them. Even better? Include testimonials from said clients backing up the impact of your work.
Your social sharing buttons shouldn’t just serve to make it easier for people to share a piece of your content – they should also show how many people have already shared that piece of content. They come in many different shapes and forms – you can see one in action right there on the left of this page.
As a general rule, sharing buttons with counters are advantageous and I’d strongly advocate using them, but they can backfire. If someone enjoys a piece of content but can see that no one else has shared it, they may question their opinion of the piece and be deterred from sharing it themselves. That’s a particular concern given that 50% of all published content gets eight shares or fewer.
There are two solutions to this problem:
- Avoid implementing social proof sharing buttons until your site or blog has a strong following that’s actively and regularly sharing your content
- Implement a system where the chance to be the first to share something is highlighted as a positive. You’ll often see this strategy in action on product pages where customers are encouraged to be “the first to review this product,” like so:
This is a clever tactic for encouraging email subscriptions and works on a similar premise as social counters.
It’s relatively simple to employ – all you’re doing is supercharging your subscriber CTA by displaying how many other people have already decided that subscribing was a wise idea.
HubSpot uses this tactic to drive subscriptions to its digital marketing blog, emphasizing that it already has a community of “more than 350,000 subscribers”:
Popular personal finance blog Mad Fientist also references its subscriber count in its email signup form, as well as giving people a reason to subscribe (“start tracking your progress in the FI Laboratory!”):
Sales counters are often used to create urgency, by stating how many (i.e. how few) units of a product are still available:
However, similar counters can also be used as social proof by showing how many of a given product have already been sold. We can see this in action on eBay:
In theory, seeing the number of purchases already made will convince you that purchasing yourself is a good idea. Of course, there are situations where this can backfire – especially if you’ve sold few items or if the success of your product depends on its exclusivity (that is, your customers don’t want to feel that they’re using the same product as everybody else).
Travel websites are seasoned pros at utilizing sales counters as social proof. In addition to incorporating reviews into their product pages, many websites such as Expedia will show how many people have booked that particular hotel in the last 24 hours:
In addition, they also display how many people are viewing that hotel at that exact moment:
Another travel site, Booking.com, urges users to act fast by highlighting how few properties are available on the dates they’re planning to travel:
This doesn’t just work to provide social proof – it also helps by creating a sense of urgency. Clever stuff.
When Social Proof Goes Wrong
The best social proof is the proof that comes organically – the consumers that shout about your brand or your product because they genuinely love what you do.
Yes, you may need to translate their praise into a format you can feature on your site (i.e. by turning their comments into a testimonial or case study), but this is the sort of genuine brand advocacy that can’t be faked, and can’t be beaten.
So when can social proof go wrong?
This is a huge no-go for your company. I can see why brands do it. It’s a vanity thing, and it comes from a worry that social proof will work against them if consumers can see how few followers they have. But that said, it’s largely ineffective.
First, you’re paying for followers from (primarily) fake accounts that will never convert. Second, anyone that’s even a little wise to the ways of social media can spot a brand account that’s built on fake followers from a mile away. Generally, the giveaway is the follower to engagement ratio. If you’ve got 10,000 followers, but no retweets or favorites, it’s pretty obvious that most of those accounts are fake.
There’s no point marketing to 10,000 followers if 9,900 of them are fake. It doesn’t look good, and it can potentially deter those with a genuine interest in your brand.
Watch out for tools like Twitter Audit too, as these kinds of programs can quickly leave your biggest secret exposed.
If you want to “buy” followers, at least do so with an ounce of legitimacy. Use Facebook ads to promote your brand to people who are likely to have a genuine interest in what you do. In essence, you’re paying to gain followers, but those followers will be real people with real accounts who have chosen to follow you, even if the root source of the follow was money. You’re buying “likes,” but really, it’s just like any other type of paid advertising.
“Perfect” Product Reviews
I touched on this a little when I spoke about reviews before, but I think it’s important enough of an issue to explore further.
How do you feel about negative reviews? Does the thought of receiving one scare you? Perhaps you’ve tried to counteract negative reviews by faking your own positive ones, or rigged your website to display only glowing comments?
A survey by Revoo found that 68% of consumers trusted reviews more when they were shown a balance of opinions. Let’s dive into this one further… That same study found that, when faced with only positive reviews, 95% of consumers suspected the reviews to be either fraudulent or censored.
Still not convinced? Revoo also found that consumers who were actively seeking negative reviews were 85% more likely to convert than consumers who didn’t seek them out.
The moral of the story is this: nobody’s perfect. Social proof is about balance – take the bad with the good to prove how genuine your brand and your following are.
I love testimonials, but any old praise just won’t do. Your testimonials have to be genuine. If a consumer questions the legitimacy of a testimonial, not only will it fail to have the desired effect of encouraging a consumer to convert, but it may actually cause that same consumer to lose faith – not just in the testimonial itself, but in your brand or website as a whole.
I use testimonials on my homepage, but the testimonials I feature come from recognized names in the industry, instantly reinforcing their legitimacy.
If you aren’t able to use testimonials from recognizable names, using photos (real, not stock!), web addresses, and handles from social profiles can all help back up what your testimonials are saying.
Aim for something like this:
Rather than this:
Carefully consider the words as well. Avoid having your testimonials sound like they’ve been hand-crafted by a marketer. This isn’t the time for word-perfect sales copy – you simply need to sound human.
In general, the key lesson here is to not overthink how you incorporate social proof into your marketing. It’s not about being perfect – it’s about honesty and integrity. If you can let your genuine nature show through, while ensuring your best points shine the strongest (and split testing to be sure that you aren’t having an unintendedly negative effect), it’s easy to make social proof work in your favor.
Are you utilizing social proof on your website? Share a note with what’s working – or not working for you – in the comments below!