Social proof is a powerful tool for marketers that when used effectively, can persuade more customers to convert. Online it takes many forms. An obvious one is the use of consumer reviews. But there are more.
What Is Social Proof?
To paraphrase the Wikipedia entry, social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.
At its worst, it’s a type of herd behavior but in an e-tail context, it can help users make more informed decisions.
To give a real world example, buskers have been known to ‘seed’ their hat or guitar case with money as a subtle suggestion to passersby. In theory, this sends a message that shows people what is expected of them.
Social proof such as customer testimonials has also been used by marketers long before the internet.
A famous example of social proof is Edward Bernays’ ‘Torches of Freedom‘ campaign, which equated smoking with female emancipation to broaden the appeal of cigarettes.
He paid women to smoke as they walked in the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade in New York, thus setting a rebellious example for others to follow. It worked.
In an online context, social proof can influence product choices, reassure people that their decision to make a purchase is the right one, and persuade them to act more quickly.
Here are some examples of social proof in action on e-commerce sites.
Online collaboration tool Basecamp uses social proof effectively on its homepage.
Showing that more than 5,000 companies signed up in the past week creates the impression that this is a successful and valuable business tool.
It takes the social proof further with a graphic showing some of the successful companies that have used Basecamp.
If it has worked for them, there must be something in it. Right?
This site provides a masterclass in the use of social proof. Examples of it are everywhere.
Take this search results page for example. There are so many indicators which suggest how popular the hotels are, including the average review score, the number of people looking at that hotel, and the number of rooms left to book.
These messages, as well as the prediction that the hotel will probably sell out in the next seven hours tell the consumer that they need to act pretty quickly or else they’ll lose out.
A mixture of social proof and urgency which will no doubt push many customers towards a booking.
Amazon is a past master at using social proof, as evidenced by its $2.7 billion question, and its groundbreaking use of consumer reviews.
It uses the mass of consumer data it collects to produce some excellent examples of social proof. One such example is the ‘… other items customers buy after viewing this item’ display.
As consumers, we’re more likely to trust people with similar tastes, and that’s what makes this such effective marketing.
Clothing retailer Modcloth actively encourages its customers to send in pictures of themselves wearing the clothes they purchased on the site.
This has a number of positive benefits:
- It tells new customers that lots of people have bought clothes from the site and are happy with their purchases.
- It provides an opportunity for potential buyers to see the clothes in real life, on real people so they have more information to help them decide on a purchase.
- The level of enthusiasm required to take a photo and upload it to the site is an indication of the quality of the products and the level of customer satisfaction.
- It’s great for customer retention and the promotion of repeat purchases. If customers are actively involved in the community sections, they’re more likely to buy again.
When you’re renting a flat from a complete stranger, you need some reassurance.
On Airbnb it comes in different forms. Accurate and comprehensive photography is one way, user reviews and scores are another. Here, the average review scores are very persuasive.
The review summaries offer key information at a glance, while the individual reviews offer compelling reasons to trust this host.
Of course the host has to earn these positive reviews and this is another key factor behind Airbnb’s success
The hosts know that review scores are displayed like this, which provides a great incentive, if one were needed, to provide a great experience for customers.
In addition to the reviews, there are other trust ratings which help users to decide whether or not to rent.
There’s the host’s response rate and timings, and the trust badges. This one is a superhost, which sounds impressive.
Reviews work and here Sears uses them as part of the product selection process, rather than just on the product pages.
Sears provides the option to use the average review rating as a way to refine the product selection on its site.
This helps customers to find the best rated products, while narrowing the product selection and increasing the likelihood of purchase.
Google’s local listings provide an opportunity for brands to use social proof from the search results page.
Here, if I search for furniture retailers in New York, I can see consumer reviews straight away.
This social proof can have a big impact on the decision to click on the website or head to the store.
On its product pages, Levi’s shows the number of times a product has been liked on Facebook, and offers a ‘Pin It’ button to allow for easy sharing on Pinterest.
This has two benefits:
- It shows new visitors to the page how popular the product is. If it’s that popular, maybe that means it’s good.
- It allows people to share, and creates further social proof. If people see their friends sharing these products on Facebook or Pinterest, then that may tempt them to buy. Sharing is caring after all!
U.K. retailer AO.com uses a lot of social proof. Here, the impressive number of Facebook likes is displayed prominently on the site’s homepage.
It sends a clear message to the visitor that this site is popular and trustworthy.
The retailer has also joined Google’s Certified Shops scheme (the U.K. version of Trusted Stores) to provide further reassurance.
As well as providing the buyer with protection, the scheme also shows reviews from buyers.
Social proof can be a powerful tactic when used well, but it has to be earned. If your product and your service is great, you’ll attract the kind of reviews and recommendations shown in the examples above. You can’t fake it.
If you have them, then use them however you can. Be careful not to overdo it though and make sure your reviews and testimonials are genuine or the benefits of social proof will be lost.
For example, a few negative reviews can actually help, as they make the positive reviews seem more trustworthy.
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