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June 20

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What is social proof? How to get customers to take a risk

By Jennifer Clinehens

June 20, 2020


“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.” - Charles MacKay

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In any customer experience, we ask people to make a lot of choices. Often these decisions are low risk, like what color to choose or how much memory your new phone needs. For options that don’t carry too much risk, it’s easy to nudge customers to make a choice. A simple tactic like prompting with a default (“Is a large meal ok?”) provides a significant impact. But what about choices that are a little riskier?

When asked to make novel or high stakes decisions, like buying a new car, customers feel anxious and unsure. Choices like these call for a strong persuasion tactic. How can you ease someone’s mind and give them permission to try something new? The answer lies in a psychological principle known as Social Proof.

What is Social Proof?

Coined by Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the Social Proof principle describes the tendency of people to look to the actions of others to gain psychological permission to try something new. According to Nielson research, 83% of consumers in 60 countries say they trust social proof over any other form of advertising. Marketers and businesses use social Proof in a few different ways:

  1. Ask customers to be more like the crowd: People are more likely to follow social norms, especially when they know or relate to the group. Describe desired behaviors as common and valued in the community. Make them feel like “everyone’s doing this, except you.”
  2. Enable customers to put their trust in the crowd: One of the most important ways you can drive your business with Social Proof is through 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 and testimonials before buying a product.
  3. Get an expert to recommend your product: When experts suggest a product, customers are more likely to believe it will work. Getting an expert’s recommendation builds trust and validates you as a legitimate business in your field.

Examples of Social Proof 

“Social proof can be delivered in many ways. But its effectiveness generally stems from the idea that we, as humans, find safety and comfort in pursuing the unknown if we know that others have done the same and found success.” - Dennis Pavlina, manager at Widerfunnel

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  • Use social norms to encourage healthier choices. Using social norms in advertising can increase sales of healthy food. Research has foudn that telling customers that “every day over 50 of our customers buy a salad” results in more people making a healthy choice.
  • Use reviews to encourage customers to try a new product. 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.
  • Use testimonials from experts to drive users of an unfamiliar product. Potential customers are taking a big risk by trying a new product. When experts provide testimonials, it helps people feel the risk is mitigated, because other successful people use the tool.
  • Use a celebrity or influencer endorsement to bring social credibility to a 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.
  • Use quantitative measures of social proof to drive new users. 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

Social proof is the most effective marketing tactic if you want to convince customers to try something new. The best part about it? It’s relatively easy and cheap to implement, you just have to reframe your marketing messages with Social Proof tactics. So ask yourself, what does your company stand to lose by testing Social Proof?


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