Apple. Gymshark. MrBeast.
On the surface, it might not look like these brands have much in common. But what if I told you that there was a persuasion principle that connected all three?
Their success is down to many factors, but all three use a psychology principle called Social Proof to improve their products and experiences.
What is Social Proof?
Social Proof describes our tendency to look to the actions of others to gain psychological permission to try something new — and it’s incredibly powerful. Nielsen research found that 83% of consumers in 60 countries trust it more than any other form of advertising persuasion.
Professor Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, has studied Social Proof for decades. In this video, he references a study where restaurant owners experimented with Social Proof. They all added an asterisk to particular items on their menus that signify it was “one of our most popular items.” According to Cialdini, each item’s sales rose 13–21%, without any other changes.
Three Real-World Examples of Social Proof
1. Apple: Use Social Proof to Launch a Product
We could give lots of examples of how Apple uses Social Proof, but we’re going to time travel back to the year 2001. That’s the year the iPod was introduced.
Now at the time, most headphones were black, with crude foam covers and a thin metal band that went over the top of your head, like this:
But when Apple’s iPod was introduced, they did something different. The iPod came with a set of earbuds. They went into your ears instead of around, and they were white.
Having white earbuds doesn’t seem that compelling at first, except when you think about what everyone else was using — unremarkable foam and metal headphones.
Now imagine you’re on the subway or college campus in the early 00s, and suddenly you start noticing white earbuds. They catch your attention.
And then you start to notice that there aren’t just a few white earbuds. There’s a lot. Pretty soon, it seems like everyone has a set of white earbuds — the ones you could only get with an iPod… except you.
So there’s pressure to buy them because everyone else has them.
More people started wanting iPods not so they could stand out. They now wanted iPods so they could fit in.
2. Gymshark: Use Social Proof to Establish a Brand
One key thing to note about Social Proof is that people follow the lead of two kinds of people. Many others, and similar others.
Gymshark, the athletic wear brand, are masters at this. They grew from a startup to a massive fitness brand in only a few short years, mainly by using Social Proof. How? They used the power of “similar others.”
Here’s how it worked — they rang up what seemed like every Instagram fitness influencer on the planet and asked them to become Gymshark athletes. People like three-time Mr. Olympia Chris Bumstead or former bikini competitor Robin Gallant.
And that’s a big part of how the brand blew up — from people seeing Social Proof about how good the brand was from most fitness influencers. This strategy worked because the people Gymshark targeted were similar to these fitness influencers — they lifted weights, worked out, and looked up to people like Chris Bumstead.
So when these influences did a collab or a haul video of Gymshark’s latest gear, his fans noticed. Pretty soon, everyone at the gym was wearing Gymshark to become more like their role models.
3. MrBeast (aka YouTuber Jimmy Donaldson)
If you don’t know who MrBeast is, I’d encourage you to ask your kids or do a Google search. He’s one of the most prominent YouTubers since PewDiePie, and his main channel has 72 million subscribers.
So what could Social Proof have to do with this guy?
Well, it took a long time for MrBeast to gain any followers. He was making videos for years before he found success. But once he started to gain subscribers, his gains got faster and faster.
MrBeast celebrates getting his first 1000 subs after years of making videos. His main channel now has 72 million subscribers.
That’s partially down to improving his content, cracking the YouTube algorithm, and network effects that allowed him to make bigger and crazier videos the more folks followed him. But it’s also down to Social Proof.
Once MrBeast hit a certain number of subscribers, it seemed like everyone knew who this guy was and followed him. While Social Proof wasn’t 100% responsible for his success, it did light a fire under his early growth.
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How to Apply Social Proof Like Apple, Gymshark, and MrBeast
1. Like Apple, make whatever you want customers to do or buy seem like it’s approved by the crowd.
Describe whatever you want them to do as the popular or smart thing to do. Make people feel like, “everyone’s doing this, except you” so that they’ll feel the (ethical) Social Pressure to fit in via your product.
If you’re lucky, you can do this like Apple with their earbuds. But most of us can’t create a world-changing product. But what we can do is use data.
For example, you can take a cue from Hubspot, the CRM software company, when it talks about the size of its community. The number of languages, social followers, customers, and more is enough to convince nearly anyone that Hubspot is an expert in its field.
2. Like Gymshark, use product reviews and testimonials from “similar others.”
According to Mintel research, more than 70% of Americans ask others for their opinions before making a purchase. Younger customers ask even more — 81% of 18–34 year-olds look for reviews before buying a product.
When people like us 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.
A version of this would be the social proof that Gymshark athletes provided to their fans. Another example is from Zapier, the no-code automation platform — they use the power of “similar others” to gain new users. Their copy references “people like you” over real customer quotes, creating a potent combination of Social Proof triggers.
3. Like MrBeast, get lots of people to endorse you (and talk about it).
If you’re launching a new brand and someone looks at your Instagram account with 100 followers, they’re less likely to trust you. On the other hand, if you have 50k followers, you’ll spark some interest with potential customers.
A classic example of using data as Social Proof comes from McDonald’s, which has shared the number of burgers it has served for decades.
The Bottom Line
“Men, it has been well said, think in herds.”
― Charles MacKay, Author
Like all psychology and behavioral science principles, Social Proof is not a silver bullet. But, 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 perceived risk for customers?
- 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?
Enjoyed this article? Check out more fascinating marketing psychology stories on the podcast: