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What is Social Proof: Mastering the Art of Persuasion

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Quick Definition: Social Proof describes the tendency of people to look to the actions of others to gain psychological permission to try something new.

Has your mother ever said this to you: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Or have you ever felt pressured to buy a specific brand of clothes, a particular model of phone, or a new car just to “fit in” at work or with your friends?

If so, you’ve experienced the power of Social Proof.

What is Social Proof?

Made famous by Professor Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence, Social Proof describes the tendency of people to look to the actions of others to gain psychological permission to try something new. As Cialdini writes, we look to two types of people:

  • “Many Others”: Proof that lots of people are using this product
  • “Similar Others”: Proof that people we admire, identify with, or are part of our community are using a product or doing something

Social Proof is one of the most effective psychological tactics you can use to persuade customers to try something new. According to Nielsen research, 89% of consumers in 58 countries say they trust social proof over any other form of advertising. 

Social Proof in the Real World

Consider the case of “canned laughter,” recorded tracks of crowds laughing often used in sitcoms. Everyone hates the sound of canned laughter, so why is it so popular?

Studies have found that canned laughter causes audiences to laugh longer and more often when jokes are delivered. As Professor Sophie Scott put it:

“What this study shows is that adding laughter to a joke, increases the humor value, no matter how funny or unfunny the joke is.”

Audiences are feeding off the Social Proof that what they’re watching is funny, so they’re more likely to laugh. But interestingly, the same study found that while canned laughter does cause people to laugh, the sound of a real crowd laughing made a joke even funnier.

How to Apply Social Proof

To apply Social Proof to customer experiences, make customers feel like “everyone’s behaving this way or buying this product, except you.” A few of the ways we can use Social Proof to do this include:

Social Proof Types

Created by the Author

1. Reviews

One of the most potent ways to drive sales with Social Proof is by using product reviews and testimonials. According to Mintel research, more than 70% of Americans ask others for their opinions before making a purchase.

The younger the consumer, the more they seek out opinions. 81% percent of 18–34 year-olds look for reviews before buying a product.

2. Stats and Data

Using quantitative Social Proof can help convince customers that they’re in safe hands with your product in the form of numbers. A classic example of using data as Social Proof comes from McDonald’s, which posted how many people its crew had served for years.

McDonald's Sign

RyanStudiesBirds, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After a while, McDonald’s had so many points of Social Proof that it had to keep changing its signs. Eventually, it amended every store sign to permanently read “Billions and Billions Served.”

3. Designate Best Sellers

Studies have found that simply indicating an item is a best seller or “most popular” can help increase sales. For example, researchers studied the ordering habits of diners restaurants in Beijing, China. They found that simply labeling a product “most popular” could raise sales by 13% –21%.

4. Use Quotes and Verbatim

When people similar to ourselves endorse or use a product, we’re more likely to believe it will work. And if that person is a trusted member of our community, even better.

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Examples of Brands Using Social Proof

1. Everlane: Using reviews to drive business

Everlane, an online clothing retailer, uses reviews to encourage customers to try its products. These reviews can help customers find the approval of the crowd before trying something new.

Source: Everlane

Source: Everlane

2. The Body Shop uses data to convince customers their lotion is iconic

The Body Shop, a beauty and cosmetics retailer, relies on data to get more users to try its Hemp Hard-Working Hand Protector. By telling customers that a tube is sold every 9 seconds, they’re calling on the “many others” as a proof point for their claim that the hand cream is “iconic.”

Source: Body Shop

Source: Body Shop

3. Zapier uses testimonials from “similar others” to drive trial

Zapier, the automation platform, uses the power of “similar others” to gain new users. Their copy even references “people like you” over real customer quotes, creating a potent combination of Social Proof triggers.

Source: Zapier

Source: Zapier

4. Capital One uses celebrities to call attention to its product

Brands like Capital One (below) use celebrities to endorse their products because they’re seen as people whose opinions we should trust. Celebrities are likeable, successful, good-looking, and subtly reference that to be accepted in society, people should be more like them.

5. Use Social Norms to encourage healthier choices.

Using social norms in advertising can increase sales of healthy food. Research has found that telling customers that “every day over 50 of our customers buy a salad” results in more people making a healthy choice.

6. Yelp's business model is all about Social Proof

Use reviews to encourage customers to try a new product. Yelp provides user reviews for restaurants, bars, and even medical professionals like dentists. Yelp helps customers find the approval of the crowd before trying something new.

Yelp Social Proof

7. Hubspot uses quantitative evidence (aka, data) to provide Social Proof

Hubspot relies on numbers to get more users to join their mailing list. By referencing the size of their email list, they are appealing to people’s fear of missing out as well as their reliance on crowds to decide what will provide value.

Hubspot Social Proof

The Bottom Line

According to research firm Nielsen, Social Proof is one the most effective marketing tactics. The best part about it? It’s relatively easy and cheap to implement. You just have to reframe your marketing messages using Social Proof messages.

To apply Social Proof ask yourself:

  • What are the risky moments in our experience? Can we include a social proof message to minimize the risk?
  • Are there certain products customers might be willing to try if the risk were lower? Can we normalize the use of this product with our potential customers’ social group?

 If you enjoyed this article, check out my podcast episode about Social Proof: 

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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