Human beings are super influential. When we’re in an unknown setting, we look to others to decide how to act. Psychologists call this phenomenon “social proof theory.”
And it doesn’t just apply when you’re the new guy at the office party. Social proof can have a drastic positive impact on how your site’s visitors make purchasing decisions.
Today, we’re going to hold social proof under the microscope to see:
- What social proof is
- Three hidden examples of social proof we encounter every day
- How you can use social proof to your advantage as a business owner
- All the different types of social proof that exist for eCommerce stores
- How to build social proof when starting out
By the end of this in-depth article, you’ll be on your way to boosting conversions up to 15% with a simple, effective tool.
But let’s start with the basics.
What Is Social Proof?
Social proof marketing is a technique that suggests consumers are more likely to take a positive action toward your business when they see that other consumers have already done the same.
While there are loads of social proof definitions online, there’s no need to overcomplicate it. Social proof in the marketing world boils down to the same core concept it did in kindergarten:
Monkey see, monkey do.
It truly is as simple as that.
When humans are on the fence about making a decision, we have the tendency to look around our environment for direction. If we see lots of people taking action, we follow suit.
The reverse is true, as well. If we see people avoid doing something, we tend to avoid it as well.
And the idea of social proof isn’t some “get-rich” technique developed by an online marketing guru, either. It’s a clinically proven phenomenon in psychology.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini first used the term “social proof” in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, over 30 years ago. In his work, Cialdini reaches the conclusion that “we view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.”
But he was far from the first researcher to study social proof, even if he did coin the term. Before him, countless other psychologists reached similar conclusions about how people rely on their social groups to make decisions.
As far back as 1935, psychologist Muzafar Sherif conducted a study where subjects sat in a dark room. There was a small light around 15 feet away from each subject, and due to the autokinetic effect, the light appeared to move even though it was stationary.
Sherif then asked his subjects how much the small dot of light had moved in inches.
The next day, the same participants were put in small groups of 3, where they would share how far the light had moved out loud. Though the initial estimations were different, the group would ultimately reach the same conclusion.
Then when subjects saw the light in the darkroom again, they maintained the group’s estimation over their own.
Nearly 100 years after Sherif’s famous study, digital marketers have realized the importance of social proof for their online marketing strategy. By showing (rather than telling) that their product is respected, loved, and used by other customers, companies are able to boost their conversions.
And you’ve likely been influenced by social proof, even if you don’t know it. Let’s check out some ways clever marketers have harnessed the power of social proof to persuade consumers over the years.
Three Social Proof Examples You’ve Never Even Noticed
We chose the following three examples of companies using social proof because they highlight two aspects of the concept.
First, good social proof leads to tangible conversions. Second, a solid social proof strategy is incredibly subtle. Sometimes, you may not even notice it’s happening.
Consider these examples:
1. If Our Lines Are Busy, Please Stay on the Line
If you’ve ever found yourself flipping through channels on late-night television, you’ve likely seen some pretty interesting infomercials. At the end of the advertisement, you see a big number on the screen to call if you want to place an order.
Originally, the call to action for most of these infomercials had been something along the lines of, “Call now! Operators are standing by.”
However, research shows that when this phrase changes to “If the lines are busy, please hold,” the infomercials have a lot more success.
The first phrase implies that if operators have time to “stand by,” the phone lines must not be ringing too much. But the second phrase does the opposite: if the lines are busy, that means tons of other people must be trying to call.
Then, fear of missing out (FOMO) kicked in, and more consumers started picking up their phones.
2. Reduce, Re-Use, and Recycle Your Towels, Please
This is a famous example of social proof in action from a study conducted by Robert Cialdini (mentioned earlier) and his colleagues.
When hotels were trying to get people to re-use their room towels, they tested out a few different methods. At the time, one of the most common ways of inspiring people to re-use their towels was by appealing to benefits for the environment.
Then, the researchers introduced a new phrase to the hotel’s campaign: “75% of other guests help by re-using their towels more than once.”
What happened? Appealing to the environment led to around 35% of guests re-using their towels. But roughly 45% of people re-used towels when they were told other hotel guests had done the same.
What’s more, is when the researches added a detail that “guests who stayed in this very room re-used their towels,” even more people changed their behavior (around 50%).
3. LOL With Laugh Tracks
This is an example of social proof that we’ve all seen before. Or, to put more accurately, we’ve all heard before.
If you’ve ever watched a sitcom and heard a laugh track in the background, it’s no coincidence. The show is using social proof theory to encourage the audience to laugh.
At first, the laugh track is super noticeable and often annoying.
But as time moves on, the laugh track blends into the show and is hardly noticeable at all. In time, it acts as a subconscious social cue to laugh. And even though you may hate them, they definitely work.
Researchers subjected 72 participants to what they considered as bad jokes. Participants who heard the jokes with a laugh track immediately after rated them 10-20% funnier than participants who heard the jokes followed by silence.
In the end, the reason is simple: humans are social beings who rely on others to guide their decision-making. Even if that decision is something as simple as whether or not to laugh at a bad joke.
And while these examples are all well and good, is social proof really that powerful for your digital marketing strategy?
How Social Proof Improves Conversions
We just looked at a few examples of social proof in the real world. Many times, we make decisions based on social proof without even realizing it. But how powerful of a tool is social proof for businesses?
Though we’ve already written a comprehensive guide on social proof statistics, here’s a quick glance at some of the most shocking findings:
- 83% of people trust reviews over advertising
- More than half of consumers won’t use a business if it has less than a 4-star rating
- 97% of consumers look at reviews before purchasing
- Testimonials can increase conversion rates on sales pages by 34%
- Fear of missing out (FOMO)can boost your conversions by 40%-200%
The fact is that every statistic on social proof leads to one conclusion: if you’re not leveraging this scientifically-proven marketing technique in some way, you’re leaving lots of money on the table.
And one of the most interesting aspects of social proof for consumers is that it works like a fly-wheel: it takes a lot of effort to get started, but the more social proof you have, the easier it is to get even more.
This is what a lot of people in marketing refer to as “creating a buzz” around a product or idea. As people start talking about it, more people feel the need to join the conversation.
And even if we think we’re immune to these old marketing tricks, we’re usually as impressionable as everybody else. The Farnam Street website put it well when they said:
“No matter how individual we think we are, we all have an inherent desire to conform. Psychologists call this the bandwagon effect—ideas, beliefs, trends, and concepts are spread between people. The more people adopt them, the more people are influenced to do so” (emphasis added).
At the end of this article, we’re going to look at how to build social proof when you’re starting from scratch. But, for now, let’s look at the types of social proof you can add to your website to increase conversion rates.
What Are the Types of Online Social Proof?
There are eight types of social proof a website can have:
- Social media signals
- Displays of current customers
- Active counters for participants
- Case studies
- Positive action notifications
Let’s quickly break down each type to understand how they can work for you.
Most of us are already familiar with testimonials. These are a small quote from a past or current customer that puts your brand in a positive light. In other words, this is when someone vouches for your company.
Even though most of your site’s visitors won’t know the person giving the testimonial, it doesn’t matter. 91% of Millennials trust reviews as much as recommendations from friends and family.
However, to really boost conversions, add a small photo of the person giving the testimonial. This makes their recommendation feel more personal and lends it more credibility.
Here is an excellent example of a testimonial for SEMrush:
There is a photo of the speaker, a great testimonial, and the added benefit of a recognizable company name.
Want to add some testimonials to your site? Check out this resource on 9 customer testimonial examples you can use.
These are super important for all businesses, but particularly for restaurants, brick-and-mortar shops, or businesses selling through 3rd party sites like Amazon. When it comes to reviews, there are two types that can work in your favor: influencer reviews and customer reviews.
Celebrity and influencer reviews are incredibly powerful. In fact, if you get a popular review from someone with a large audience, you likely want to turn that into a testimonial or perhaps even a case study (which we’ll talk about below).
Customer reviews can be just as powerful, but you need more of them to be effective. The average consumer reads up to 10 reviews before making a decision to purchase a product.
Reviews typically have two parts to them: a 5-start rating system followed by some text describing the product. Here’s an example of a review from Transferwise’s homepage:
5-star scales give readers a quick glance at the overall review, but written content provides more detail as to what specifically made the product good or bad. When you have both the quick glimpse (5-star rating) and detailed information about the product, you’ve got a killer review on your hands.
And chances are people will read it.
Research shows that 83% of people prefer reviews over advertising, which makes sense. You can speak highly about your product until you’re blue in the face, but considering your connection to the business, people take your words with a grain of salt.
Seeing a client take the time to write either a positive or negative review about your company inspires other consumers to take a positive or negative action. Again, social proof is still powerful, even if the reviews are from total strangers.
Social Media Signals
When it comes to using social media to boost your social proof, there are three factors to take into consideration:
Number of followers: The more follows you have, the more likely you are to gain more:
Number of likes: Posts with more likes are typically shared more and boost engagement:
Overall interaction: If you’ve struck up a conversation or post online and many people are taking the time to reply, that can encourage more people to throw in their 2 cents on the subject:
Out of those three, which are the most important? None, because they should all work together.
More and more, marketers are realizing that the number of followers isn’t more powerful than the overall interaction taking place. An Instagram influencer, for example, may have 4 million followers, but if none are really engaged with the brand or replying to comments, the brand’s social proof is still pretty weak.
If you want to use social media for social proof, you should really be trying to increase followers, likes, and interactions instead of focusing on only one.
You’ve likely seen this on websites before. Many online companies will list any high-profile clients they are currently working with (or have in the past).
Showing that many well-known brands have worked with you in the past isn’t bragging. It’s simply leveraging the power of social proof in your favor. By displaying established and trusted brands that have worked with you, your own brand can borrow some of their credibility.
Here’s an example from Moz’s homepage showing people who have used their software:
If you’ve ever worked with recognizable companies, don’t be shy! Display them proudly on your website.
A common marketing strategy for building urgency is a countdown timer letting customers know when a promotion will finish. But if you want to use social proof, you need the exact opposite: a counter that goes up rather than down.
More specifically, you need an active participant counter to show how many people have used or are currently using your site.
Kickstarter is a good example of a company that relies on this form of social proof to encourage donations:
The higher that counter becomes, the more effective it is. When people see that thousands of others have donated to a project, they’re much more likely to donate as well.
Here’s another great example from Awesome Motive:
Showing people in real-time how many customers are using your brand is a very powerful social proof strategy.
We already looked at how testimonials and reviews can help boost conversions, but case studies are another great tool. They are like a long-form testimonial that details someone’s success with your product.
Case studies usually take the form of a blog post, newsletter, or video, but you can make and distribute them however you see fit. The point is to take a deep-dive into a customer’s experience with your product and allow them to share it with others through storytelling.
Be as thorough and detailed as you possibly can.
What limitations did you client face, and how did they overcome it? Why did they choose you over the competition? How much success did they have, and can they show concrete data to support it?
By answering questions like these, you’ll build a case study that other consumers can read to sway them into making a purchase with your brand.
They say that your best marketers are your happy customers.
And they’re right.
The power of word-of-mouth shouldn’t be underestimated. Plenty of companies have used word-of-mouth marketing as a way of also harnessing social proof to build their clients. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, Transferwise, and many more offer incentives for signing up new customers:
When you share a company with a friend to get the reward, you’re also vouching for the company with your own reputation.
Since you’re likely only reaching out to friends and family with those kinds of deals, you’re acting as social proof on behalf of the company you’re suggesting.
You can do the same thing with your brand. Offer your customers an incentive for signing up people in their social network, and you’ll be building your brand’s social proof in no time!
Positive Action Notifications
One of the best ways to provide your visitors with social proof is by displaying real-time action notifications in the form of a popup. You’ve likely seen these before:
While your visitors are checking out your site, they’ll be notified whenever someone makes a positive action, like making a purchase or signing up for your newsletter.
This little dose of social proof affects purchase rates in a big way. It can boost conversions by up to 15% and is becoming a more popular marketing strategy every day.
But how can new businesses build any of these types of social proof?
What to Do When You’re Starting Out
If you’re getting started, and you don’t have any social proof yet, don’t worry. There’s a lot you can do to quickly gather reviews, testimonials, and social media followers in no time!
But first, let’s discuss something you should never do: rely on fake social proof.
Some companies try to kickstart their social proof by creating or buying fake testimonials or reviews. Or they buy followers to boost their metrics on social media.
Other businesses even rely on social proof plugins that allow you to display positive action notification popups that aren’t real. So they would show that a person “bought” their product even if the purchase never happened:
There are so many reasons to avoid using fake social proof, but here’s the main one:
It’s so easy to build social proof in an authentic way, there’s simply no excuse not to.
Here are five ways you can quickly build social proof when you’re starting out:
- Host an online contest which gives a prize to the most creative review for your product
- Put a customer review or testimonial form directly on your website and link to it in your email sequences
- Reach out to your favorite or most loyal clients for a testimonial
- Ask your social media followers what they love about your product and get them interacting with your brand online
- Use an honest and genuine software that specializes in positive action notification popups to display when customers subscribe to your site or make a purchase
You’ll notice a common theme among all of these strategies: engaging with your audience.
That’s why it’s so important to avoid fake social proof. You may purchase a large following, but it’s easy for your real audience to notice that no one is actually interacting with your brand.
Having a smaller, highly engaged audience is far better than a large, silent audience.
So don’t cut any corners, take your time, and you’ll have a genuine following of loyal fans to show off before you know it.
And have you read through this entire guide on social proof but still aren’t a part of the TrustPulse family?
Well, that’s just silly.