six people on phones with social proof of unity

What is Social Proof? (and how to get it right)

What is social proof? Learn the answer, how it can help your business, and how to get it right.

There are two types of social proof: positive and negative. Knowing how to respond and maximize the return on both can boost your click-through and conversion rates. Whether you’re starting a business or already have an online store, keep reading to learn more about positive vs. negative social proof and how to get it right.

But let’s back up for a second.

What is social proof?

Growing up, you may have heard your parents ask, ‘If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?’ Though the question was meant to encourage you to decide independently of your peers, it reveals a fundamental truth: social actions influence our choices. We may fight against it at times, but we can’t deny most of us are influenced in some way by the actions of others.

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people take cues from others to make decisions. It can dictate what people are more likely to do if they see others doing it. This herd mentality has been repeatedly proven in everything from scientific studies to marketing campaigns.

One famous example is the Asch conformity experiments conducted in the 1950s. These experiments showed that people are more likely to conform to the majority, even if that majority is clearly wrong.

Why does social proof work?

Humans are naturally social creatures. We learn from each other’s mistakes and successes, persuaded by what we see as a majority opinion. Being ‘part of the crowd’ makes us feel accepted and validates our decisions. A choice made by many others is therefore considered more accepted with less chance of disappointment.

While each customer evaluates the information for themselves, adding social proof allows them to validate or reassess their decision. If visitors aren’t interested, the influence won’t force them to buy anything. However, for those on the brink, the influence can provide an additional way to rationalize the purchase. Think of it as kinder, gentler marketing by persuasion.

Social proof uses that primary influence to encourage a specific behavior based on the experiences of others in a similar situation. Put simply, if you learned that those jumping off that cliff lived through the experience (perhaps it was a safe, short drop into a pool of water!) and enjoyed it, you might seriously consider following them. If your friends bragged about how fun the dive was, you may decide to try it, too.

Likewise, if visitors knew many of your customers were happy with their purchase, they would be more inclined to buy for themselves. Someone just like them made that leap and tested the waters already. In this way, visitors can convert into customers, reassured that your brand will also help them.

Building social proof influences the prospect’s decision to act. For online businesses, this means improved macro and micro conversions. Some types of social proof can widen your brand’s reach, such as user-generated content (UGC) on social media (reviews, comments, positive mentions, etc.). However, using it incorrectly – creating negative social proof – can be worse than using it at all (just think of the power of reviews on sites like Amazon).

How can social proof marketing benefit your business?

Social proof marketing can be a powerful online and offline tool for businesses. Some forms of social proof, such as product reviews and testimonials from satisfied customers, can help improve conversions by reassuring potential customers that your product or service is good. This is called “user-generated content” and happens organically, thanks to the power of your products, services, and customer service.

Other types of social proof, such as social media posts, followings, and influencer endorsements, can help widen your brand’s reach. And still other types of social proof, such as awards and accreditations, can help build trust and credibility.

Social proof can be maximized in several different ways to benefit your business. Here are just a few examples:

  • Include customer testimonials on your website
  • Make sure your products have plenty of positive reviews
  • Get endorsements from social media influencers in your industry
  • Use social networks to showcase your brand
  • Develop case studies and use cases

Let’s not forget there are two sides to social influence: positive and negative. Positive proof is very effective. Negative social proof effectively works against you. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial in successfully using this powerful tactic.

What is positive social proof?

Positive social proof is the warm fuzzy feeling of trust that helps motivate people to buy the product, subscribe to the newsletter, or do what you want them to do. Adding a point of social influence to your copy or CTA’s could be simple, like “Join the 27,000+ people who have done this.” The point behind these proofs is to let visitors know they’re not alone in taking this action.

Adding emotion to any marketing strategy often increases its efficacy. Testimonials take social influence and attach emotional ‘proof’ that the action was beneficial: Jane Doe writes, “I was lost in my struggle before I did this, and now everything worked out!”

What is negative social proof?

Negative social proof influences the reader in the wrong direction. It sends the message that many people do what you don’t want them to do. It doesn’t matter what the consequences are; the focus is on what most people are actually doing. This kind of proof will turn against you quickly and without mercy.

Comments like, “Don’t be like the 97 million that do this and regret it,” or, “Too many people do this; be better than them and do this instead,” reinforce the actions you don’t want them to take. Using them in your marketing strategies can undermine all your previous work for advertising, writing copy, and building followers.

How do you stay away from negative social proof?

So, how do you keep away from using negative social proof? Here are a few guidelines:

  1. Isolate the desired action. Know what you want to influence your readers to do, and focus on examples of them doing that. Watch out for ‘not’ and ‘don’t’ to steer the action toward something instead of away.
  2. Find the diamond in the rough. Use surveys, digital products and platforms, available incentives, and focus groups to encourage customers to leave feedback. Choose a few bloggers or YouTubers your audience can identify with and send them your product in exchange for a review. Look for the examples that inspire the action you’re going for.
  3. Think outside the box. Look for statistics suggesting that many people are already taking the action you want, even indirectly. How often do others buy products like yours worldwide? Use your industry knowledge to show people they are not alone in a general sense, even if you don’t have anything specific to your brand yet.

What considerations should you keep in mind?

Positive social proof can have its own challenges, such as where to use your reviews and testimonials. For example, creating a review or testimonial page is helpful if visitors want to see what everyone says. However, they shouldn’t have to scroll through fifty comments on the landing page before getting to the sale.

Another example is using social media channels. Having proof linked to that platform rather than a third-party logo is more likely to be helpful. Here are six other considerations to keep in mind:

Proof often works best closer to your call to action. With some exceptions, using proof to support your copy tends to work very well.

Pictures are social proof gold. If you can get pictures, it adds to the ‘believability’ of truthful yet unexpected claims. Include pictures, links, or social media to connect comments to real, verifiable people or statistics whenever possible. Use your search engine optimization wisely here, especially if you’re a small business owner.

Keep adding to your “proof collection.” Generally speaking, more proof increases the effect. This is also especially important for outdated reviews and testimonials and gives you a wider selection.

Let prospects choose how many reviews to read. Visitors want concise information, not a book of lengthy comments. Shorten them to the essentials that reference your brand, and maybe highlight a few outstanding examples. Again, consider how Amazon handles its reviews. You can see the number of customers, choose how to see the reviews, how many to see, and in what order.

Sometimes, less isn’t more. Too few reviews, testimonials, or comments can make your brand look less popular rather than more. We suggest removing the comment or review count until there are two or more for improved credibility.

Your social proof should match your audience. You may be marketing to the average John or Jane, but your social proof is filled with high profiles. Dig for the gems that represent your audience.

How do you use social proof in your digital marketing?

Visitors need a little extra motivation to convert into customers. How can you help them make that decision with confidence? Enter the psychology of social proof.

Your business is still just a tiny island in a vast ocean online. Putting your brand on the map takes more than SEO and well-written articles. The missing element is something that will influence your audience. These visitors want proof that your brand is what it claims to be before they buy. 

Here are five ways you can maximize social proof in your digital marketing:

1. Users of your brand

Customers, members, subscribers, and anyone else who has had an experience with your product, brand, or service are all users of your brand. User social proof is one of the most commonly referenced types of social influence in marketing. Yelp, for instance, relies on user reviews of other companies. Testimonials, such as those on infomercials and case studies conducted to analyze your customer base, are other social proof methods involving users.

Outside the box, social media comments made by your customers can also be considered user influences. These may be seen as reviews or testimonials, but they often lack the intentional evaluation typical of other methods. Customer comments can be one of the most genuine forms of proof, making it extremely powerful.

2. Crowd count

Anything that suggests many people are doing the same thing is a crowd count. Counting customers, products sold, and other general statistics show visitors the scale of the crowd. The larger the crowd, the better this type of social proof does to impress upon your potential buyers that you have a good product or service. Some newer methods of counting the crowd include the number of social followers, article shares, and subscribers to your newsletter.

3. Ratings

Ratings are a simple scale stating how your brand compares to others. They come in customer reviews, Trustpilot, and Google reviews. Amazon allows users to rate products and sellers, providing a simple social evaluation for their customers. However, ratings can also be a third-party analysis, like with Google’s “Trusted Store” certification and score.

Other rating methods involve highlighting the top performers, such as best-selling items, high-volume sales, and popular articles. Social media sites encourage interaction by featuring trending topics, for example. Comparing products with similar ratings is an example of adapting this method for more significant influence.

4. Celebrity endorsements

Reviews or testimonials from known figures, like celebrity endorsement (e.g. influencer marketing) is a time-tested type of social proof. The practice of sending a product to leading authorities and other famous figures in your industry is a proven tactic.

Paid endorsements from celebrities, such as cereal companies often do, are a common use of known figures. As a side note, unpaid endorsements or reviews are more effective if available.

Trust seals and certifications from known brands also add social influence. For example, a BBB stamp of approval informs your audience that you are in good standing as a trustworthy business. The better known the certification, the more influence it will have.

5. Referrals

Don’t underestimate the power of customer referrals as a social influence, either. WOM (Word of Mouth) is a powerful pull for our herd mentalities. Embrace your users and their families. For example, when it first started, DropBox used referrals–family, friends, and even coworkers–to grow its user base. It was a great success.

A suggestion from the right person can be as powerful as proof from thousands of strangers. This type of social proof often creates some of the most long-lasting customers.

Final Thoughts

Social proof isn’t just another marketing hoop for you to jump through. It’s a very real psychological phenomenon that many marketers and psychologists have extensively studied under the more scientific name of “informational social influence.” Stop by and look at the reviews to see it in action. It doesn’t matter how much you want a product; if you see negative reviews, you’re much less likely to buy.

As you think about ways that you might garner, build, and display social proof, be careful. There’s a line between no proof and enough proof, where the influence will work against your efforts. For example, a counter of two buyers won’t compel the same as 200 or 2000 will. Until your site gains momentum, err on the side of caution before including social proof in your strategies.

Obviously, the proof must be genuine. Falsifying testimonies or promoting “popular” items that aren’t selling well are tactics that not only don’t work for long, they’re also illegal. Finding reviews can take time initially, but the result will be worth the wait.

If you need guidance with your website and sales, contact us for a consultation. We specialize in finding and removing the weak spots in your marketing efforts.

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What is social proof? Learn the answer, how it can help your business, and how to get it right.

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