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.

More Than Words: Visual Content Marketing Beyond Copy

Content marketing is about conveying ideas. Many of us rely almost exclusively on the written word to do the conveying for us even though, for most audiences, a picture really is worth a thousand words. So let’s look at some of the ways we can turn our content into visual content marketing.

Content marketing is about conveying ideas. Many of us rely almost exclusively on the written word to do the conveying for us even though, for most audiences, a picture really is worth a thousand words. So let’s look at some of the ways we can turn our content into visual content marketing.

Clearly, writing is always going to be a part of the process – movies have scripts, cartoons have captions, and so on. But they also have visuals. And those visuals can make all the difference in your ability to capture attention, generate leads, and win business.

Video in Content Marketing

YouTube isn’t the second largest search engine in the world for nothing.

Video adds personality to just about any subject. (Who thought blenders or razors could have personality, and yet those videos were wildly well received.)

What’s interesting here is that even though I can read copy in my head more quickly than a person (on video or not) is likely to read it aloud, the video adds another dimension to the learning experience that makes it more complete. That is, of course, as long as your on-screen talent has some, well, talent, or at least the impossible-to-define quality of being “watchable.”

Many marketers shy away from video because they perceive the cost for high-quality production to be prohibitive. But production values don’t have to be award-worthy. You simply have to connect with your audience. Grainy visuals and inaudible voice-over aren’t going to cut it, but beyond that, the bar is probably lower than you’d think.

Still, short of having a Hollywood hunk or starlet on screen, you’ll probably want to use cut-away shots that illustrate or otherwise support the points you’re making and break up the visual monotony of a talking head. If you can’t create that kind of support material, keep your videos very, very short.

Infographics as Visual Content Marketing

I didn’t select that YouTube link above for nothing … it is, of course, an infographic.

They’re certainly not new, but the are a great way to pack a lot of bite-sized nuggets of knowledge into one larger but still digestible package. Infographics cut out the fluff and focus only on the most essential data points, but they’re much more interesting than slide deck-style bullet points. They provide a visual version of the executive summary, and that’s why people love them.

They don’t always work well for more nuanced content or content that requires more detailed consideration, but even in those cases, infographics can be an excellent gateway to content that offers a deeper dive into a subject.

Animation as Visual Content Marketing

For most marketers, and in most situations, animation is the most expensive option for visual content marketing. So unless you have an animator on your team, you’ll likely reserve it for only the most crucial marketing messages or those situations where you’re confident you can make a big splash. Animation excels at explaining complex processes clearly, particularly mechanical and industrial processes where it’s what’s going on inside the machines that is of interest and a real-world exploded view just isn’t possible.

Unlike video, where audiences are likely to be more forgiving of lower production values, audiences tend to be less forgiving of bad animation. Think of the groans you’ve stifled when looking at poorly executed “animation” effects in Powerpoint and other presentation tools.

Charts and Graphs

Charts and graphs are the bread and butter of your visual content marketing arsenal. They can be incredibly quick to produce if you have basic spreadsheet or presentation tool skills and can relatively quickly be dressed up by even less experienced graphic artists. Use these liberally and build them with an eye toward social media use and email embedding. They can be a real game changer assuming you have some interesting data to present.

Conceptual Imagery

Think of every television commercial or print ad that has made you say, “What does ________ have to do with selling ________?” That’s conceptual imagery.

Floating Lotus Flower

You can insert just about anything into those blanks and wind up with something very close to a recent real-life example:

What does a field of wildflowers have to do with selling prescription drugs?

What does an impossibly diverse and hip-looking group of people have to do with selling computers?

The answer to those questions, and questions like them in advertising for everything from cars to cloud services to consulting firms: Emotion matters.

If you can make use of it, you should, though you really have to feel that your design team is up to the task and your marketing team can guide them appropriately. It’s far easier to wind up looking amateurish here than with just about any other type of visual we’ve discussed.

Your audience doesn’t necessarily have the same expectations of a small tax consultancy, say, as it does of a national consumer brand, and they also won’t expect the same production values in a product-specific explainer video as they do for a commercial during the big game. But because conceptual imagery is nearly entirely an emotional appeal, the terrain is less forgiving and you really do need to be sure your content marketing message is connecting emotionally.

That’s no reason not to make your content more visual. You may want to begin with baby steps and test efforts you’re unsure of in front of smaller groups from whom you can get feedback and guidance. They will let you know whether you’re staying true to your brand promise and whether your visuals are a distraction or, as we hope, an element that further strengthens your content marketing message.