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The Psychology Behind Social Proof and Why it Works

Social Proof

Posted in Inbound Marketing, and Social Proof. 5 min read

Social proof is one of the most important aspects of marketing in the digital age.

In fact, it’s one of the central elements of any form of persuasion, period.

Marketing has always used social proof, defining it simply as evidence that shows potential buyers your solution is being used and appreciated by others.

Today, however, it’s a bigger piece of the marketing puzzle than ever before. Partly, that’s because we understand it better than ever.

Human beings are social animals. Since the very beginning, we’ve told each other stories about the world and our place in it. Those stories form a major part of our understanding about life.

They’re arguably most important in situations where we’re not quite sure what to do.

In just about every situation we encounter, we can look to other people for cues on how to act. Even when we’re sitting in a room, puzzling out a problem alone, we have a mental picture of how others might handle it (and, of course, we can always check our assumptions online.)

Buying any kind of product is an immensely uncertain undertaking. You’ll have people giving you conflicting advice throughout the whole process. Plus, they’ll do it with total confidence.

That’s where social proof, a sort of crystalized “wisdom of the crowd,” comes in.

Social Proof Theory in a Nutshell

Social proof has always been around in one form or another, but it burst onto the scene in recent times thanks to psychologist Robert Cialdini.

Cialdini’s groundbreaking work, expressed in books like Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has made the topic accessible to all.

Four elements come together to make social proof effective:

Uncertainty

via GIPHY

The human brain hates uncertainty. It’s wired to recognize and act on virtually all ambiguity as a potential threat.

This instinct, carried over from millions of years watching out for predators, still informs all kinds of decision-making – and that includes buying. After all, if there was no uncertainty, you could refer to your accumulated knowledge and make a snap decision.

When uncertainty creeps in, making a decision is literally a relief: Certainty means safety.

Under these conditions, patterning complex decisions after the choices of others who appear to be successful is both cognitively simple and a proven survival strategy – so, it appeals equally to the advanced and more primitive parts of the brain.

Similarity

Similarity is the criteria people use when they ask themselves whether the available social proof is persuasive to them. In general, people are more likely to believe proof founded on a broad consensus of people that they consider similar to them.

Of course, what people think of as similar may seem a little bit superficial at times.

Demographic categories like age, gender, schooling, life experiences, profession, national or regional background, and even appearance factor into each individual’s judgments about who is and isn’t “similar,” so it’s crucial to flesh out buyer personas in precise detail.

Recognized peers also matter: That is, people associated with the same industry, enterprise type, or area of specialization. Readers should be able to imagine themselves in the same place, having the same results, and enjoying the same benefits.

Expertise

If they’re crafted and presented well, the remarks of three CEOs are likely to have more weight than a dozen comments from mid-level managers. On the other hand, if the decision-maker reading the testimonials is a mid-level manager, the opposite might well be true!

Whatever the case, each reader is attuned to the kind of expertise that will address their doubts and, ideally, help you overcome their objections. Each product or service should have its own collection of testimonials and other social touches.

Using smart content personalization, you can even ensure each type of buyer encounters social proof that speaks directly to their needs.

Number

Thousands of people really can be wrong, but in daily life, it’s hard to wrap your mind around that idea. Rather than buck convention and stand all alone against a crowd, most people are likely to assume there’s something they’re simply not seeing.

In general, people don’t make scientific decisions: Their decision-making process is the average of several assumptions balanced against their vision of what outcome they would be satisfied with.

That’s called satisficing, concluding that an option is “good enough” instead of researching forever. And having a big, round number of people in favor of something accelerates satisficing.

Buyers assume that if a solution is good enough for all those people, it’s probably good enough for them. Of course, they balance that with similarity and expertise to be sure: Even if you get a million plumbers to endorse your kitchen gadget, it might not convince a baker.

Number is one of the most impressive aspects of social proof. It’s also the easiest to show off and keep track of. That’s one reason why so many of today’s email subscriber lists are touted with copy like: “Join 100,000 fellow marketers!”

Enhancing Your Marketing with Social Proof

Three major forms of social proof are used in most digital marketing campaigns:

Testimonials

Testimonials are short, powerful statements by a satisfied customer, usually someone with a combination of similarity and expertise.

They can be used anywhere on a website, though they have the most impact on landing pages, followed by homepages and footers.

Case Studies

A good case study is a crisp, yet detailed narrative that shows how one customer selected, implemented, and benefited from an offering. To make the story interesting, the customer should be active and visible as a “character” whose quotes stand out on each page.

Passive Social Proof

Social proof can be integrated almost anywhere on a website. One good example is the classic “100,000 fellow marketers can’t be wrong” CTA mentioned above. No matter where you decide to use social proof, make sure it’s clearly connected to a credible speaker.

That’s the story on social proof and why it works. For more inbound marketing magic, come back to the Bluleadz blog. Thousands of subscribers can’t be wrong! 😉😉

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