Social Proof: The most powerful technique in a successful marketer’s toolkit
Have you ever wondered why people don’t walk around naked and why men don’t usually wear skirts? Why shows use canned laughter and why there is always money in the bartenders’ tip jars? Or why there is an increase in suicide after someone famous jumps off a building?
Why Kitty Genovese was murdered while 38 people watched her being stabbed to death and did nothing? Why it would be harder for the Queen of England to influence you than someone from your grad school? Social proof is the answer to many of these questions.
Social proof is the phenomenon whereby we decide what the correct behaviour is based on those around us. It is considered to be one of the strongest tools of influence and persuasion. There are certain circumstances under which social proof works better than others, such as when the correct course of action is uncertain or when we perceive ourselves to be similar to those already engaging in the behaviour.
This article will aim to examine the cases in which social proof is the most effective persuasion tactic available, outline how it can be used in marketing and suggest reasons why the phenomenon is more relevant now than it has ever been.
Uncertainty, Similarity, Attractiveness, and Desirability
As sales consultant Robert Cavett 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.” Many might be sceptical of this statement. Surely, people have their own clearly established preferences and act accordingly?
Salganik et al (2008) conducted an experiment in which they aimed to examine exactly this. They created an artificial music market and manipulated people’s ratings of songs so that some which had the poorest rating were made to appear at the top of the list as “most popular”. They found that these songs were then better received by users. The legitimately popular songs still performed well, however, lower-reviewed songs became just as listened to. This study illustrates just how powerful social proof is, even when it goes against one’s own personal preference.
In an another experiment, the “fathers of persuasion” Robert Cialdini and Noah Goldstein investigated the best way to persuade hotel guests to be more environmentally friendly by reusing their towels.
They placed different signs in washrooms and aimed to determine which mode of influence would have the largest effect. In one condition, they provided guests with a standard environmental message such as “Help save the environment. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.” In another condition, the message read: “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towel more than once.”
Which condition was more effective?
Did you go with B, “join your fellow guests”? If so, you guessed correctly!
The message which described the behaviour of other hotels guests resulted in significantly more towel reuse.
As with any tools of social influence, there are certain conditions in which they work better, and certain people who are more susceptible to them. What and who are they? When it comes to social proof the two biggest situational factors are uncertainty and similarity.
Attractiveness and desirability also play a role. We are more likely to be persuaded through interaction with people who are perceived to be similar, attractive or desirable.
Let’s first take a look at the situational factor of uncertainty and see how that intensifies the effect of social proof. Perhaps the most striking examples of social proof to date is the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 on the streets of New York. Catherine Genovese was stabbed to death by an unknown attacker.
However, what was most shocking about this incident is that it had not been a quick death. It had been a prolonged, public event and there were 38 witnesses. People on the streets of New York watched her beg for her life and did nothing. Why? How? What was going on?
Indeed, one of the principles at work was that of social proof. People looked around to see what others were doing, and since no one did anything, that was considered to be the appropriate behaviour. This was a “diffusion of responsibility.” People gave up personal liability because they expected others to take action. And so, no one did.
However, there is a second factor that is now thought to have had a significant contribution to the incident: uncertainty. In a crisis of this magnitude, it is easy for confusion to prevail. Hearts are thumping, blood pressure is rising and people are not sure how to act.
When uncertainty in any situation is high, people are even more likely to turn to those around them and look for cues for appropriate behaviour.
So how does that relate to marketing?
In a recent article we published (link) we discussed The Paradox of Choice, a theory introduced by Barry Schwartz. This theory describes how in the modern age we are constantly overwhelmed by choice (such as having to choose between 272 cereals for breakfast) and that this choice is driving us toward inaction and making us more miserable and helpless.
If you think the sheer variety in shops makes decisions impossible, the competition is even worse online without the constraints of physical space. In shops, and more so online, we feel unsure as to how to make the right choice. As mentioned above, this uncertainty is more likely to drive us to our peers for recommendations and advice.
Recently, I wanted to buy a new product to style my curls. I walked in the shop and looked around. Just looking at the array of options made my hair curlier. There were products for blonde, brown, long, short, frizzy, not frizzy, and then one of each by every brand. I walked out of the shop and decided to first check online which products were the most popular and best-reviewed.
Making a decision any other way was simply too difficult, as I felt I lacked enough information to make an informed purchase.
The Paradox of Choice has made situational uncertainty a permanent condition – smart marketers should take advantage of this by using social proof!
The next condition which intensifies the effect of social proof is similarity. We are even more likely to copy the behaviour of those who are similar to us. This is because relating to someone makes us pay more attention to what they are doing, in an effort to understand what is the correct thing to do.
Ever wondered why the number of average-man-on-the-street TV testimonials have increased to an unprecedented level? Because they are people just like us.
An experiment by psychologists from Columbia University examined this phenomenon. The researchers placed wallets on the ground in various placed on the streets of Manhattan. They wanted to see what would happen when they were found. The wallets contained $2 in cash and $27 in checks.
In addition, the wallets contained a letter making it clear that the wallet has been lost and found before. The person who had previously found the wallet indicated in the letter that he was happy to help, and returning the wallet made him feel good. What the research changed throughout the different wallets was the origins of the “founder.”
In one case, the letter was written in broken English and was supposedly from a foreigner, and in another condition, it was from a native English speaker, likely an American.
The results were striking. Only 33% of the wallets were returned when the founder was someone foreign—likely dissimilar to the person reading the letter—and 70% of the wallets were returned when the founder wrote in perfect English, likely similar to the person reading the letter.
The characteristics that specifically affect us are age and gender. Numerous studies that have investigated that these traits found them to intensify the effect of social proof.
A study conducted by Murray (1984) examined the most effective way to prevent adolescent smoking. In their study they compared four smoking strategies and they effect on minimizing smoking behaviour. They found that teaching specific skills to resist social pressures to begin smoking is indeed effective, however, what they found to be most effective was using same-age peer leaders as teachers.
Appealing our bias to follow the actions of those who are similar to them is no secret to marketers. Just take a look at the following advertisements:
These marketing campaigns make salient the gender similarities and imply that those who identify themselves as similar would benefit from the product.
Moreover, studies done by Dickinger and Mazanec (2008) have investigated the main influences on whether a customer makes a hotel booking on a website like booking.com. They found that the most influential sources for customers were online reviews, in particular those written by friends.
Our friends are those that often we identify closely with and share common traits, values, and characteristics. Therefore, it would make sense that based on the similarity principle, a friend’s suggestion would intensify the effect of social proof.
So what does that mean for marketing?
- Ever wondered why you see notifications such as this on Amazon.com?
This uses not only the technique of social proof but also the one of similarity. It shows what was the “correct” behaviour (in this case, the next purchase) made by people who had a similar interest to yours (bought the same book).
The third factor that significantly influences social proof is attractiveness.
The principle of attractiveness is the simple rule that we are more likely to listen to and comply with people who are attractive compared to ones who are not. Chaiken (1979) aimed to test this hypothesis by conducting an experiment whereby he had students at a university be approached by either someone attractive (condition 1) or unattractive (condition 2) and asked to complete an opinion survey.
The results showed that people were significantly more likely to be persuaded by attractive communicators (both on verbal and behavioral measures of agreement).
Attractiveness is often employed in advertisements through association.
Association is the linking of an idea or cause to another object/concept in order to transfer the meaning of one to the other. Some researchers like Lott & Lott (1974) have found that often, the positive/likeable trait of a person or an object is easily transferable to another.
For example, they found that when participants received awards from someone about whom they felt neutral, it increased the likelihood that they might start to like that person.
In other words, the positive experience of receiving an award was transferred to the person. This is why often attractive people or emotional buttons are used in advertisements—because we form associations between the feelings that we would like to experience and the products that we are being sold.
How is this relevant to marketers?
- When your product is presented, attractive users satisfied with its quality should be presented.
- Your reviews should include an attractive photo of the person writing them.
- That way, your product becomes just as attractive as the person selling it.
The last condition that affects our likelihood to engage in a certain behaviour is the desirability of the traits/qualities of the person seen doing it.
There is no better example for this than the case of Ms. Bertha Hunt and Edward Bernays, who is considered to be the father of public relations.
On 31st of March, 1929, a young woman named Bertha Hunt stepped out onto Fifth Avenue in New York City and lit up a Lucky Strike cigarette. She was the first woman to ever smoke publicly. Before then, women who were seen smoking were considered to be outcasts, and previously, this behavior could have been punished with a prison sentence. There was heavy stigma attached to women smoking, and it was considered a behavior typical only of prostitutes and the like.
Edward Bernays was an influencer at heart, and well aware as to what a golden opportunity it would be to open the cigarette market to women. His difficult task was to convince women that smoking cigarettes would be an effective move in their battle for gender equality.
But how could he do this? It seemed impossible to battle the years of heavy stigma. He had to convince women that smoking was “respectable” rather than downstream, and that lighting up could be a revolutionary action.
He found his answer in social proof.
When a man confronted Bertha Hunt asked her to extinguish her cigarette as it “embarrassed him,” she was already using social influence: She replied that she and her girlfriends had discussed the matter, and concluded that it was time something was done about the matter. Soon her cigarette became known as a “torch of freedom.”
The following day, The New York Times printed a story entitled, “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom.” Ten young women followed Bertha Hunt that day down Fifth Avenue, brandishing their own torches of freedom.
This is a great example of how here, social influence was as powerful driving force, because it became associated with a trait of desirability—that of freedom.
- So how is this relevant to marketing?
It turns out that one of the biggest secrets is that very often marketers and salesmen do not sell their products, they sell desirable traits.
You want to be more fit? These Nikes will get you there! You want to be more liked? This watch is a magnet for women! You want to be more environmental friendly? Check out our green products!
When these traits are linked to a recognisable, influential person, social proof becomes even more effective.
The rise of social proof
Earlier, it was claimed that the principle of social proof is more relevant than it has ever been. How so?
Firstly, in 2018, marketers will have access to more customer information than ever before.
They will be able to easily understand who people identify with, what their desirable traits are, and who and what they deem to be important. While this might sound scary for some, it provides a great opportunity to reach new heights in marketing.
Moreover, as if technology has not penetrated our lives enough, the line between humans and machines will become even more blurred in the near future. Statistics show that we are more engaged with social media than ever before.
Social media use increased by 30% in the last year, and in a 6-month period, Instagram grew its daily user count by 100 million . There are 2.5 billion people globally who use social media, who account for 91% of all media users.
Social media is a great source of social proof. It sets our radar and writes our agenda. It shows us what is trendy, what is liked, and what is popular.
A report conducted by Deloitte found that 47% of millennials say that their purchase decisions are influenced by social media.
Moreover, consumers who include social media as part of their shopping process are four times more likely to spend money on purchases, and 29% more likely to make the purchase on the same day when they have seen it on social media.
By becoming more integrated with social-minded technology, we inevitably become more social ourselves. Therefore, persuasion tactics which have social influence at its core will become increasingly more relevant—and successful.
So let’s answer some of the questions that we began with.
Social proof is the reason why people wear clothes every day, and why men usually wear trousers. It is also why shows feature laughing audience members at moments they want to seem funny. Even though it is considered as stupid, phony and fake, experiments have found that the mere presence of such a record makes people laugh more and rate the material presented as funnier.
Bartenders “salt” their own tip jars at the beginning of an evening to give sign of the “appropriate behaviour.” The Werther effect, the phenomenon wherein people commit suicide after someone famous has, works on the same principle of social proof, like after the death of Kurt Cobain for example.
Kitty Genovese was not saved due to the Bystander Apathy Effect.
And you would not be easily influenced by the Queen because there are fewer points of similarity between yourself and her (unless, of course, a member of the royal family is reading this article!).
But let’s end on a positive note. Although the principle of social proof has existed since the dawn of time, it is just about to get even more prevalent in our lives—and make marketing and purchasing more personal than ever.
Do you want to use the power of social proof on your website?
Smart Persuasion starts here!
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