The first thing to understand when talking about the psychology of social proof is that human beings are pack animals. Regardless of how advanced we are as a species, we’re programmed to follow the crowd.

Social proof is an interesting phenomenon and a tool that professional marketers use to their advantage in countless clever ways.

In essence, people want to copy others. They will replicate behaviour or model their emotional response based on what other individuals think – or are perceived to think!

Of course, there are a small proportion of outliers, but social proof applies to most demographics.

Why Do We Care About Social Proof?

Perhaps the easiest way to quantify social proof in the modern world is to compare it to FOMO. If everyone else is doing something, I should do it too – otherwise, I’m missing out!

Even if we wouldn’t independently pick to do something specific, we’re far more likely to change our minds with strong evidence that others are already doing it.

Very few people assume that their knowledge, emotions, understanding and perception are more advanced than everybody else’s. We automatically buy into a situation on the basis that larger groups of people collectively know more.

Here are a few quick examples:

    • A long line for a club, event or food counter means it is the best place to go.
    • Asking for second opinions about a purchase or decision.
    • Following the average speed on the road, even if it’s over the limit.
    • Buying new clothes because you read about a new trend.

In fact, these examples also pinpoint a nuance – the older we get, the less susceptible we are. Younger adults are considerably more likely to abandon an activity, style or interest if they believe it isn’t popular or considered fashionable, relying on other opinions to make those decisions.

Mature adults can still be affected by social proof. Still, they’re more confident in their decision-making abilities and aren’t as easily swayed – they require a greater burden of social proof to change behaviour.

How Do Businesses Leverage Social Proof?

Now we’ve got a clear idea of what social proof is and why it works, it’s pretty easy to see how this makes for a fantastic marketing resource!

If you publish online content and other people often repost, share, comment, screenshot and like it, your audience will grow because friends of your followers will copy them – even if they aren’t conscious of why they’re drawn to doing so.

Social proof is particularly relevant in eCommerce because it can showcase demand for a product, create a climate of perceived scarcity and amplify our sense that we’re missing out on something special.

Pop-ups stating that ‘3,000 sold in the last seven days’ or something similar make the shopper feel that there is a sense of urgency and that the product is innately attractive because so many other people have already bought it.

Unsure customers put the most emphasis on social proof and rely on the collective to help them decide whether something is worth spending money on.

High numbers of positive reviews, large follower counts and impressive sales figures validate a buyer’s thought process and make them more inclined to check out there and then.

Examples of Social Proof Applications

Social proof can be harnessed in many ways, and highlighting the demand for a specific product is just one option – although something that has been proven to increase sales.

Another concept is that when we’re wavering, we like to have a feeling of community. Online brands foster a sense of identity, making customers feel that they’re part of something, in a group, or joining a community with people of similar ages or interests.

That might be through brand marketing – for example, using familiar language, such as the well-known fashion brand that starts all their emails, ‘Hey Girl!’

Another method is to use geo-location tracking. That badge we mentioned earlier telling the visitor how many people have bought a product can be customised to the shopper’s location.

People are more relaxed and confident about their purchase decision when they feel at home, don’t experience any friction and are reassured that they’re in the right place.

Here’s a real-life study that examined how influential social proof really is:

    • A residential community was invited to participate in an energy conservation scheme, replacing air conditioning with fans.
    • The reasoning was split into four communication approaches to test how households responded.
    • The promotions stated 1) a saving in energy bills, 2) reducing greenhouse gases, 3) being socially responsible, and 4) 77% of other neighbours have already switched.

The neighbours who received the promotional materials advising that 77% of other residents had already switched took up the offer in the highest volumes, even though we might assume we’d be more likely to do something to save money or protect the environment!

Social Proof vs Value Proposition

Of course, regardless of how amazing your social proof is, there are countless things that might ultimately put a customer off, so it’s just as important to put effort into the value proposition and marketing content.

Social proof as a tool works effectively for apprehensive shoppers and positively influences purchase decisions. Still, it isn’t a standalone sticking plaster for something that isn’t pitched correctly or doesn’t meet core customer needs.

The right balance is to leverage social proof to support the information you provide and substantiate the claims you make.

A top-selling product with excellent reviews will continue to perform well because if your customers leave glowing testimonials, it tells the next buyer that everything you say is true.

Testing is important if you’re unsure what type of social proof to focus on or how to introduce this credibility to your business.

For example, social proof might refer to features in highly respected publications, posting research journals and case studies in industry news editions, or being endorsed by an influential celebrity.

A/B testing means introducing two formats or social proof snippets and monitoring how they impact add-to-cart metrics, conversion rates or total sales.

This exercise helps you tap into which motivating factors make the most difference to your customers and ultimately produce the best bottom line.