The Psychology of Social Proof and Its Role in Marketing

In order to successfully master marketing in a crowded marketplace, you have to think like a customer. And in order to think like a customer, you have to tap into their psyche and understand what influences their perceptions and decision-making.

In order to successfully master marketing in a crowded marketplace, you have to think like a customer. And in order to think like a customer, you have to tap into their psyche and understand what influences their perceptions and decision-making. At the heart of this topic is social proof.

The Psychology Behind Social Proof

Have you ever spent any time around sheep? While they don’t smell great or look particularly cute, they’re fascinating animals, and their psyche and decision-making can teach us a lot.

Sheep have an incredibly strong instinct to follow other sheep – particularly the one right in front of them – regardless of where it’s going. There are many documented cases of one sheep walking off a cliff and dozens more following the same sheep toward inevitable disaster. On the flip side, there are plenty of situations where one sheep saves hundreds of lives by leading a flock to safety during a threatening blizzard.

In this sense, people are very much like sheep. Whether we do so intentionally or not, we tend to flock together and make decisions based on what others are doing. In the consumer marketplace, this idea of flocking together is closely connected with the social proof theory.

Popularized by psychologist Robert Cialdini, this theory says that people look to the actions of their peers to make decisions in situations where they’re uncertain of how to act.

Marketers who understand social proof can use it to their advantage by incorporating elements of this psychological phenomenon into their engagement and promotion strategies. It’s essentially the act of borrowing third-party influence to persuade potential customers towards your brand or products.

“As customers we buy products that make us feel good about ourselves, products that change us and make us better,” conversion expert Talia Wolf writes. “By using social proof in the form of testimonials, reviews and trust icons you’re helping customers make a decision, feel confident about their choice, and a part of something bigger.”

Leveraging Social Proof in Marketing

Social proof is a vast topic with thousands of intricacies and individual theories, but it’s helpful to boil things down to a few salient, overarching points. Sales and marketing consultant Lincoln Murphy believes there are three basic types of social proof:

  • Similar social proof. This is the most basic type of social proof. It’s the type of social proof that brands use when they integrate testimonials, reviews, and logos of other companies into their marketing materials. The goal is to show prospective customers that your products have the approval of their peers.
  • Aspirational social proof. This form of social proof is used to convince your target audience they want to be like someone else. In other words, you’re convincing people to aspire to be like your customers.
  • Endorsements. While most people think about endorsements in terms of celebrity advertisements, famous people are just part of it. Customers also rely on recommendations from authoritative third-party websites. For example, Top10.com ranks products in different categories as a way of helping customers identify their best options. This is a type of endorsement.

If you’re going to develop a social proof strategy for your marketing efforts, start with these elements. Specifically, you should try some of the following techniques:

1. Use Hard Numbers

There are plenty of ways you can go about inserting social proof into your marketing and engagement strategies, but in today’s climate, people respond best to facts and statistics. The more hard numbers you can use, the more persuasive your efforts will be.

2. Insert Visuals

The human brain is hardwired to like visuals. If you want to take your efforts to the next level, you should incorporate as much visual information into your marketing as possible. When it comes to your website, for example, including headshots of your customers next to their testimonials and reviews will pay dividends.

3. Tap Into Social Media

Social media is the perfect medium for maximizing social proof. If you can get your most satisfied customers to be organic advocates for your products – sharing, liking, promoting – you’ll see your results skyrocket. You can make it easy for your customers to share on social media by providing them with shareworthy content and chances to engage with your brand on their favorite platforms (Facebook and Instagram, in particular).

Are You Utilizing Social Proof?

Social proof isn’t something that you can control with 100 percent accuracy. There will always be some element of social proof that naturally arises in the marketplace. However, you have much more influence than you realize.

As you develop and hone your marketing strategy, be on the lookout for ways to leverage social proof and tap into the sense of collectivism that humans, like sheep, are naturally drawn to. Ultimately, this will strengthen your brand message and energize your marketing efforts.

Turducken With a Side of Trust

Turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s the most traditional, trusted meal of the year. What could convince me to entrust this sacred meal to a little-known direct marketer’s website? Here’s the story of Dr. Strangebird: How Cajun Grocer got me to stop worrying and trust the turducken.

Turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s the most traditional, trusted meal of the year. What could convince me to entrust this sacred meal to a little-known direct marketer’s website? Here’s the story of Dr. Strangebird: How Cajun Grocer got me to stop worrying and trust the turducken.

It was no small feet to get me to do it. Our first chance to host the family Thanksgiving came in 2011. My mom and her brother had swapped hosting the holiday for my entire life. This was the first time my mom tapped out and asked my wife and me to host.

It was a big deal. I’m not someone who plays things too traditional, so my first thought was “Ooh! We can get one of those turduckens John Madden is always talking about!”

Hold on, that’s not John Madden talking about turducken. This is John Madden talking about Turducken. (The fact that I can find roughly 2 million videos of Frank Caliendo making fun of John Madden, and not one of the nationally televised event he’s spoofing, tells you half of what you need to know about the Internet.)

So a turducken is a deboned chicken, stuffed inside a deboned duck, stuffed inside a deboned turkey, and there’s Cajun cornbread and sausage stuffing between all those layers. It’s like a big, delicious, flavor-filled meat roll.

Turducken: It's Like Meat Inception.
Or like “Meat Inception,” if you prefer.

When I tried to find a turducken, I was out of luck — I had no idea where to get one of those in Levittown (we live in the one outside Philadelphia). Then I looked online, and there was this site, Cajun Grocer, that promised to sell me an authentic Cajun turducken, shipped up from Louisiana in a Styrofoam box packed with dry ice. …

I don’t know how that plan would sound to you hosting your first big family Thanksgiving, but you could say I was skeptical.

SkepticalDog
My online shopping mascot.

So what did Cajun Grocer do to convince me to trust them with our Thanksgiving?

1.They Dealt Openly With the Questions
This is classic catalog-style direct marketing. Cajun Grocer clearly realizes that trust is one of its biggest hurdles. It’s a niche company operating via direct order, and the website isn’t exactly the height of sophistication (although it’s a lot better today than it was in 2011). They need to convince visitors that the company is both honest and competent enough to get the order there by Thanksgiving, still frozen.

So Cajun Grocer spends a lot of space on its website describing who they are, how they handle your turducken, shipping methods, EXACTLY when you should order to get it by Thanksgiving, and more. The dedicated Turducken landing page is essentially a point-by-point take down of your buying objections.

2. Social and Media Proof
There are no less than 10 seals on the Cajun Grocer homepage showing me it’s a website I can trust. They have a graphic and link for an article where their turducken was voted best overall value in The Wallstreet Journal.

Cajun Grocer's Turducken Featured Image
It’s even got a blue ribbon!

They also have a video segment from Good Morning America about ordering your Thanksgiving turkey online. Not only does the video include the Cajun Grocer turducken being shown on good Morning America, but the guest specifically says that, yes, you can buy a turducken online and it will be delicious.

In addition, Cajun Grocer links to over 4,000 Bizrate reviews on Google, the vast majority of which give it five stars. That’s a good way to show me they’re not stuffing their own review box.

3. Content Proves Competence
Interestingly, Cajun Grocer does not try to convince me it’s a mom and pop chasing their life-long dreams. There’s no owner shown on the site. And you know, if that’s not part of your DNA, I appreciate not pretending it is. There’s nothing wrong with just being a good merchant and showing me you care about your products and service. Professionalism earns trust too.

But Cajun Grocer still provides a lot of content to show they know Cajun cooking. There are recipes, the 1-888-Crawfish helpline, and special sections for a lot of well-known Cajun dishes (at least well-known to a Yankee like me). And beyond that, they have a blog from Marcelle Bienvenu, “The Queen of Cajun Cooking” exploring more Cajun recipes.

You come away from the website convinced of two things: This is a real Louisiana Cajun food shop, and they know exactly how to get you a turkey/duck/chicken thing by Thanksgiving.

And I have trusted them to do that twice now. The first time was culinary fireworks. The second turducken is thawing now to be the star of our meal tomorrow.

The Turducken has Landed
The turducken has landed! Perfectly frozen and in time for Thanksgiving.

17 Principles of Persuasion, Direct Marketing Style

So you’ve created your campaign and attended to all the details of identifying your audience, created your offer, and toiled for hours and hours, honing copywriting and design. But in the end, the tipping point for your success likely stems from the degree to which you emotionally persuade an individual to take action.

So you’ve created your campaign and attended to all the details of identifying your audience, created your offer, and toiled for hours and hours, honing copywriting and design. But in the end, the tipping point for your success likely stems from the degree to which you emotionally persuade an individual to take action.

Persuasion builds. It doesn’t just pop up and present itself. By the time you’ve engaged your audience and you’re moving toward the close, you should already have stimulated and calmed emotions, presented your USP, told a story, and walked your prospective customer or donor through logical reasons to purchase.

But to seal the deal, you need to return to emotion, and you need to persuade. So today I offer 17 principles of persuasion, direct marketing style.

Persuasion is an art, really, that builds over time. It’s earning trust and leading your prospect to a place where they give themselves permission to act. That permission comes from the individual recognizing that acting is in their interest and that they will feel good about their decision. You want them to say “this is good, this is smart, I’m going to do this!”

A place to start this list of persuasion points is with the six principles from the landmark book, Influence: How and Why People Agree to Things, by Robert Cialdini:

  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment and Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

Expanding on Cialdini’s concepts with additional principles for direct marketers, I offer this checklist for direct marketing persuasion:

  1. Trust and Credibility: Persuasion isn’t coercion or manipulation. Trust is earned. Credibility is built. Without these two foundational elements, most else won’t matter. Begin persuading by building trust and credibility first.
  2. Authority: People respect authority figures. The power of authority commands respect and burrows deep into the mind. Establish your organization, a spokesperson, or an everyday person, relatable to your customer, as having authority.
  3. Express Interest: Your prospects are attracted to organizations that have an interest in them. Use this starter list of the six F’s as central topics to build around so you can persuade by expressing interest: Family, Fun, Food, Fitness, Fashion, or Fido/Felines.
  4. Build Desire for Gain: A major motivation that persuades your prospects and customers is the desire for gain. Give your prospect more of the things they value in life, such as more money, success, health, respect, influence, love and happiness.
  5. Simplify and Clarify: Communicate clearly. Obsess over simplifying the complex. Write to the appropriate grade level of your reader. Your prospects are more easily persuaded when you simplify and clarify.
  6. Expose Deep Truths: Go deeper with your persuasive message by telling your prospects things about themselves that others aren’t saying. Don’t be judgmental. Be respectful.
  7. Commitment and Consistency: When your prospect commits to your idea, they will honor that commitment because the idea was compatible with their self-image. Compatibility opens the door to persuasion.
  8. Social Proof: Even though the first edition of Cialdini’s book was written in 1984, a generation before the explosion of social media, he recognized the power of people behaving with a “safety in numbers” attitude from seeing what other people were doing. Testimonials and an active and positive presence on social media are often a must that leads in trust and persuasion.
  9. Liking: The term “liking” in 1984 was developed in the context of people being persuaded by those they like. People are persuaded and more apt to buy if they like the individual or organization. Still, it’s affirming to be “liked” on social media!
  10. Confidence is Contagious: When you convey your unwavering belief in what your product or organization can do for your prospect, that attitude persuades and will come through loud and clear.
  11. Reciprocity: It is human nature for us to return a favor and treat others as they treat us. Gestures of giving something away as part of your offer can set you up so that your prospects are persuaded and happy to give you something in return: their business.
  12. Infuse Energy: People are drawn toward and persuaded by being invigorated and motivated. Infuse energy in your message.
  13. Remind About Fear of Loss: No matter how much a person already possesses, most want more. People naturally possess the fear of missing out (FOMO). When you include them, they are more easily persuaded.
  14. Guarantee: Your guarantee should transcend more than the usual “satisfaction or your money back.” Your guarantee can persuade through breaking down sales resistance and solidify a relationship.
  15. Scarcity: Human nature desires to possess things that are scarce when we fear losing out on an offer presented with favorable terms. But make sure you honor the any positioning of scarcity in your message. If it’s an offer not to be repeated, don’t repeat it.
  16. Convey Urgency: With scarcity comes urgency. Offering your product or making a special bonus available for a “limited time” with a specific deadline can be a final tipping point to persuade.
  17. Tenacity and Timing: Just because a prospect said “no” the first, second or more times, it doesn’t mean you should give up on someone who is in your audience. It can take multiple points of contact, from multiple channels, before you persuade your prospect to give themselves permission to act.

What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments below.