All your friends are doing it, so you join in. You choose the product with the most reviews. You try to fit in with the crowd. This is known as Social Proof, which is part of the Persuasion technique of Consensus. Social proof is based on the principle of normative social influence. This states that people will change their behavior or even their thoughts, conforming in order to be liked and accepted by the influencer, or society. This is part of the old idea of “safety in numbers.” People feel better when they know everyone else is buying the same product, and has been satisfied with it. The idea is that the number of people and number of opinions will likely end up with the majority of them being similar and right. Demonstrating and quantifying how many other people have done the thing you’re asking the person to do makes the request normal, and influences people to choose your request over another.
During childhood, the principle of consensus plays out in the form of “peer pressure.” Children look to other children to know how they are supposed to look, dress, talk, and act. Most teenagers end up acting very similarly, though very different from their parents. The human desire is to fit in, not to stand out and attract a lot of potentially negative attention. The social proof can be such a powerful motivator that it is difficult for children in groups to be who they really are, and say what they really think. Sometimes it is hard to even think for oneself. The idea of how to act comes from how everyone else is already acting. This changes and evolves over time, as culture changes, and the next generation tries to distance themselves from those who came before them. People most often look to the actions that others have taken when they need to make a decision. This is both because people want to make the best decision, and because if the decision turns out to be wrong, there is room to place the blame on another person or group.
A worrisome effect that comes from social proof is what is known as the “bystander effect.” The more people that are present in an emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will help or call for help. If no one else calls for help, the person that does will stand out more. People act based mostly on how other people act, even when, if they considered it, their actions would be in conflict with their ethics and morals. When no one else is moving, it’s hard to call oneself into action. During adulthood, peer pressure plays out differently than it does during childhood. It comes in the form of the social proof, which may determine anything from what a person will buy, to how they will clean their house. It is a logical strategy. If it works for most other people, it will most likely work for you. However, there is a lot of potential to use the social proof as a persuasion technique.
Social proof is a major tactic for businesses, especially websites and different services. In this age of information, a person can access a massive amount of information about any business or organization before having any contact with the business or organization. The more positive reviews a person is exposed to, the more likely they are to use the service. With the Internet, it has become possible to access the opinions of hundreds, or even thousands and hundreds of thousands of people. For businesses, this has become a major factor to take into consideration. Controlling what people see from a third party on the Internet, and advertising the positive aspects of the business, as well as how many people it helps, and positive reviews, is, in this day, one of the biggest marketing fields. And it’s still growing. Websites often show names of people who have signed up or donated, or the numbers of how many people have joined, because it normalizes the request they are making.
The major detractor to the social proof technique is that social proof works both directions. Negative social proof is terrible for persuasion. Psychologists Steve Martin and Noah Goldstein performed an experiment wherein they observed the effects of three different signs in the Petrified Forest of Arizona. One of the signs included negative social proof. The findings of the study were shocking. The sign with the negative social proof did not reduce theft at all. In fact, the negative social proof increased the likelihood of theft of the petrified wood. The sign read: “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, destroying the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” This sign encouraged stealing, tripling the amount of theft in the forest. Why? This sign made it evident that many other people were already stealing the petrified wood from the forest. The sign didn’t discourage people. Rather, it “proved” that stealing was “okay” according to the social norm. The claim is that the activity is wrong. However, by making it obvious that many other people are already doing it, the social proof is negative. These campaigns cite “wrong” activities, but claim that many many people have already done them. This is negative social proof. Normalizing wrong deeds only encourages them. Thus, positive social proof is the best tactic.
In a study published by the Washington Post, researchers studied different signs and how effective they were on persuading customers. The signs tried to persuade customers to use less energy in the summer by using fans rather than air conditioning. The four types of signs they used were as follows:
Sign 1: Informed the customer that they could be saving $54/month on their utility bill.
Sign 2: Told customers that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gasses every month.
Sign 3: Encouraged customers that saving energy was a socially responsible thing to do.
Sign 4: Let customers know that 77 percent of their neighbors were already actively using fans to save energy.
The most effective sign out of the four was sign number four, which used the positive social proof. Social proof turned out to be more effective than making responsible choices, saving money, or protecting the environment. None of these positives were able to beat the social influence.
There are several different ways to use the social proof on a website or in a business.
- The first method is through case studies. These are analyses of the service provided to another customer, and are usually more about the data than the good feelings.
- The second method is through positive reviews. Reviews feel the same to a potential buyer as a recommendation from a friend. Flaunt your best and simplest reviews.
- The third method for using the social proof is through testimonials. Testimonials are like reviews, but are simple, short recommendations from current customers. Give your testimonials credibility, because they will be used to give your service credibility. Research shows that people respond better to social proofs when there is a picture of another person to accompany it. Use a photograph in a testimonial to give it the authenticity it needs.
- The fourth method is social media. Display positive things others have said about you via social media on your website. If a person is willing to say something positive about you on social media, it represents commitment. People respond well to the commitment of other people.
- The fifth method for using social proof is known as ‘trust icons.’ Displaying a logo and a portion of a review on your website will encourage people to respond similarly, especially if it is a review from a trusted company. Many movies and books use this, in trailers or on back covers of books. They will display a logo or name of a trusted company, accompanied by a quote or a portion of a quote; always positive.
- The sixth and final way to use social proof is through data and numbers.