Marketing Psychology: Social Proof

Psychology: Social Proof

Welcome to my second post covering an aspect of psychology in the selling process. This time, we’ll take a closer look at social proof, undoubtedly one of the most crucial and most powerful principles, underlying many methods of persuasion.

Read on to see what social proof is all about and how it’s used in marketing to make people buy, buy, buy…

What is Social Proof?

First, the basics: As you’ve probably heard many times before, humans are very social animals and many theories state that pre-historic life in small, tightly-knit tribes has formed our behaviours and minds in such a way that we always seek out like-minded company, care greatly for the approval of others etc.

To put it more cynically, we are all genetically inclined to be sheeple and instinctively want to follow the herd. Here’s a simple example of social proof you’ve almost certainly experienced yourself:

When someone asks for a show of hands in order to assess an audience’s opinion, be it during a speech or presentation, in school or anywhere else, you’ll often see a peculiar pattern in the audience’s response. At first, only a few people in the audience will raise their hands, but within seconds, a few more will join. As others in the audience are glancing around and seeing more hands going up, more and more hands will be raised and the more hands are raised, the more likely it is that further people will jump on what has now become the “band-wagon”.

This effect is most often seen when the question asked is slightly controversial or about a complex topic. A few people in the audience are sure of their opinion and will either raise or not raise their hands accordingly. Many people will be unsure, however. They might have an opinion, but be uncertain whether it’s “okay” to have this opinion or to express it right now. Others might not be sure about the subject and rather not participate, but once they see a majority of people with their hands in the air, they don’t want to be the odd ones out and they may be afraid that it’s “not okay” not to agree with the majority.

That’s social proof in a nutshell. People adapt their actions according to what they see other people do.

The “Just Like Me” Factor

Actually, that last sentence is missing a very important element. People don’t necessarily do what they see many others do. It’s more accurate to say that people tend to do what they see many other people, that they perceive to be similar to themselves, doing.

Everyone has a perceived role or place in society – some way in which they see themselves fit into the greater picture (especially those who insist they don’t fit in anywhere). Additionally to this, everyone has a desired role or place in society – basically the person they wish they were.

These are two very important factors to keep in mind when it comes to using social proof as an instrument of influence and manipulation. In order to use social proof to persuade someone to buy, you want them to think: “Lot’s of other people who are just like me have bought this.”

This “just like me” element makes social proof more powerful, however, it still works even without it.

Finally, a message can be made even more appealing if the social proof is provided by people who represent what the target audience would like to think of themselves as. As an example, if you are targeting men in general, you don’t want to show that “average men have bought this”, instead you want to show that “men who are a bit more attractive and manly than your average guy have bought this”. Why? Because every guy likes to think of himself and wants to be a bit more attractive and manly than average.

How Social Proof is Used in Marketing

Let’s look at some examples of how this psychological principle is used and exploited in marketing and advertising messages:

  • Operators Are Busy 

    Some bright guy involved in TV infomercials once had the idea of changing the classic “our phone operators are awaiting your call” to “if you cannot reach us immediately, please try again” and had immense success with this. The reason is simple: The first statement evokes an image of phone operators patiently waiting for you to call. The second one evokes an image of phone operators frantically working, trying to process all the calls and orders that are coming in. Guess which one activates social proof?

  • Most Successful / Bestselling / Sold Out 

    Whenever any product achieves any kind of status or award that implies many people have bought it, you can be sure that this will be mentioned in the advertising material for that product. Bestselling books are always labelled as bestseller and you’ll often see references stating something like “Version 1 sold out in just X hours!”. These message clearly imply that lots and lots of people decided to purchase the product.

  • Server Crash 

    In the online marketing world, a classic example of the use of social proof is the “server crash” e-mail sent out during a big product launch. Shortly after the launch of a product, an e-mail is sent out to the list of prospect that basically states “if you tried to purchase recently and couldn’t, we are really, really sorry. So many people flooded to our site that our servers crashed. Fortunately, everything is back up and running.”Again, this statement simply evokes an image of thousands of people swarming to the site and ordering the product.

  • Testimonials 

    Testimonials push several psychological buttons, one of which is the social proof one. With testimonials, you demonstrate that others have bought (and you get the best chance to make use of the “just like me” factor) and you also demonstrate that those people were satisfied.

  • Crowds 

    Finally, next time you see some ads on TV, simply pay attention to how often groups of people or large crowds are shown. When this is the case, it’s almost always an attempt to make use of social proof.

Are you making use of social proof in your sales-process? If not, I recommend you start with a split-test of one of your pages where you test no social proof vs. explicit social proof vs. implied social proof and see what kind of results you get. I’m sure you’ll be surprised with the results!



About the Author Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better marketer and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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