We all like to think that we are autonomous beings, going about our lives making conscious decisions based on free will and educated reasoning. So would it surprise you to learn that many of the choices we make are in fact influenced by a phenomenon called social proof?
What is Social Proof?
Social proof has its base in normative social influence, which states that typically, the influence of other people leads us to conform so that we will be to be liked and accepted by society. Social proof is a concept where people follow the behaviours of others because they assume these actions are indicative of correct behaviour.
- Good reviews on Trip Advisor are more likely to influence you into booking a holiday at that particular hotel.
- MacDonald’s restaurants have signs inside showing that they have served ‘billions and billions’ of customers.
There are also different kinds of social proof:
- Wisdom of the crowds
- Wisdom of your friends
EXPERT SOCIAL PROOF
Expert social proof is pretty easy to understand. We all look to experts in their field to educate and enlighten us, so when an expert lends their voice to a particular product or enterprise, we are more likely to follow them. After all, they know what they are talking about.
Expert social proof comes when a product gets an endorsement from an industry leader in that market. They could either blog about the product, tweet about it or post on Facebook. As these experts are already well-known in the media, they bring with them a certain gravitas, an integrity that then gets passed onto the product. You associate the two and this is a powerfully positive connection.
Example of expert social proof:
In the US, Dr. Oz is a well-known expert on all things medical. He often puts his name to products and treatments that promote a healthy lifestyle. Thanks to his expertise, many of these products have become best-sellers, simply because of his endorsement.
CELEBRITY SOCIAL PROOF
Celebrity social proof is similar to expert social proof, but in place of the experts are celebrities. The celebrity will be associated with a company, a product or an enterprise and will be promoting it.
There is robust evidence to suggest why celebrity social proof is so compelling. When we think about ourselves, there is the extended self (me) and our possessions (mine). Subconsciously we view our possessions as extensions of ourselves, and these possessions can help us to belong to a certain group or give us our identities. By buying the same products as a celebrity we are aligning ourselves with that celebrity.
Example of celebrity proof:
Kevin Bacon advertising EE in the UK. We, as consumers, know he probably doesn’t need the money, so if he is recommending it surely it must be good?
USER SOCIAL PROOF
User social proof is where actual users of a product, hotel or company give positive feedback about their experiences. This could be via customer reviews, providing star ratings, or customer testimonials.
Research shows that it is the testimonials that provide the greatest influence, as we as human beings are drawn to story-telling from others. When we read an actual story or account of what happened, we put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist. It is easier for us to relate to these testimonials than rely on our capacity for correctly reading statistics.
Example of user social proof:
Trip Adviser is probably the go-to site when it comes to booking a hotel room. The site has grown because people believe real-life accounts from actual users.
“WISDOM OF THE CROWDS” SOCIAL PROOF
This is connected closely to our Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), where you see a large group of people buying the same product and you do not want to be the only one who doesn’t have one.
It can be seen in many other forms in society as well as product buying. The way certain festivals sell out within minutes is another example or the way waiting lists are created to give a sense of a limited product.
Example of ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ Social proof:
Apple’s iPhone is a perfect example of this kind of social proof. Whenever a new model comes out there are crowds waiting for it, and in a year or so, this model is redundant as we all wait for the next upgrade.
“WISDOM OF YOUR FRIENDS” SOCIAL PROOF
This is where we listen to our friends and people we know and take their lead when it comes to what influences us. There are many different ways we can get to know what or friends like and dislike. On Facebook, we can easily see our friends’ likes, and Twitter will recommend other people depending on the people you already follow.
Evidence suggests that we gravitate naturally to people that share our beliefs and interests, and we value those whose opinions chime with ours.
Examples of ‘Wisdom of Friends’ Social Proof:
Ever got a recommendation from a friend to sign up to a particular site? Some companies actively encourage friend referrals, for example, Sky TV often has offers that reward the customer and their friend if they sign up to contracts.
If all this has left you feeling bewildered and not sure that you have your own free will, don’t worry. Research suggests that although social proof is a growing influence in today’s world, good old-fashioned word-of-mouth is still our favourite way of gathering evidence in order to make a decision.