How to Leverage Social Proof in a World of Cynical Users

Paul Boag

We all know that social proof is an important tool, but why, and how do we make use of it when users are increasingly cynical?

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Social proof is a psychological characteristic that biases us towards the behaviour of others, on the presumption that the actions of others are correct in any given situation. In other words, we tend to copy other people’s behaviour especially when we are unsure about how to respond.

Social proof is a technique that has been used by marketers for years and with good reason. Social proof is shown to be more compelling than even the opportunity to save money.

So why exactly is social proof so powerful?

Why Social Proof Works

The answer to this question lies in the fact that human beings are sociable animals. We operate as part of complex communities and have flourished because of our ability to cooperate with others.

This success has led us to place considerable value on the behaviour of others and conforming with the perceived norm. That has resulted in some powerful social triggers that dictate our response.

For example, in a new or unfamiliar situation, we will assume rightly or wrongly that the behaviour of others is correct. That has an immediate and obvious application when asking people to complete an unfamiliar call to action. If we can show that most people favour completing the action, a user will tend to follow the crowd.

Part of the reason for this is that social proof is a powerful learning tool for us. We learn by comparing our behaviour with the actions of others. We do not just presume that the choices of others are the correct ones, we also conclude they are socially the right thing to do.

Trustpilot is just one example of how we rely heavily on social proof online.

But social proof goes deeper than this. Because of our success operating as part of complex social structures, we have a strong tendency to comply with authority figures within those structures. In other words, if somebody in authority tells us to take a particular action we are more likely to do so. Again, you can easily see how we can apply this to encouraging clicks.

In fact, social proof is so compelling that it can coerce us to change our behaviour. If our personal beliefs and actions are out of line with those around us, we tend to start behaving differently to conform. That is because we desire others to perceive us in a positive light. Essentially, we want to fit in.

All of this raises some interesting ethical dilemmas. When using social proof, you need to be careful to ensure that it is used to reinforce behaviour that will positively impact the user rather than manipulate them into doing something that will ultimately be harmful to them.

That said, most users value social proof feeling that it helps them make a better decision. So how can we practically make use of social proof on our websites?

How to Use Social Proof

Most e-commerce websites make extensive use of social proof in the form of ratings and reviews. The chances are that if you have ever purchased from Amazon, you took a moment to read the reviews by other users. However, you were probably less likely to read the manufacturer’s description. You naturally favoured the opinions of strangers over the manufacturer, perhaps because you feel they will be more objective.

Most users of Amazon rely on product reviews over the manufacturers description.

But there are many more opportunities to utilise social proof beyond ratings and reviews. For example, testimonials can be compelling. Somebody actively endorsing your product or service will encourage others to follow suit.

However, not all testimonials are of equal value. We will favour testimonials from those in a similar position to ourselves and put even more emphasis on the opinions of those we perceive as experts in a related field.

With over 11 million subscribers, YouTubers such as Unboxing Therapy are equal measure experts and celebrity. Unsurprisingly companies line up to have their products featured on this channel.

Interestingly we will also sometimes favour the opinions of people we wish to emulate when making a decision. Because we want to be like them, we seek to mirror their behaviour on a subconscious level, and that is why celebrity endorsements are often desirable.

In a sense, experts and celebrities are those authority figures I referred to earlier. Another example of this kind of authority figure is certification. If a particular organisation endorses a website, then that can go a long way in establishing credibility and trust, principal components in conversion.

Of course, this kind of endorsement works much better if the user is familiar with the certification body, expert or celebrity. That is because most users have a healthy dose of scepticism when it comes to social proof.

Overcoming Social Proof Cynicism

Because social proof has become so well-known and abused, many users have become cynical. They are suspicious of the credibility of any testimonial or review. I’m sure you have felt like that when reading reviews on Amazon. How then do we prove to users that the social proof we are providing is genuine?

Fake reviews and testimonials are so common that there are now sites dedicated to identifying them.
Use a Known Source

Well, ensuring that the user has heard of the source of any social proof is a good starting point. It is even possible in some situations to include endorsements from the user's own friends. For example, you can highlight if the user’s friends on social media have liked your product or service.

Rely on Numbers

However, failing that it is possible to fall back on sheer numbers. That is the advantage that Amazon can offer. We tend to trust large numbers of reviews over a handful as any fake reviews would be crowded out and lost in the noise.

Don’t Remove Negative Reviews

That said, we tend to be suspicious if all reviews of glowingly positive. Therefore be sure to include comments that are less complimentary. Their presence reinforces the authenticity of the positive ones.

Use Social Media

Using testimonials from social media works particularly well because you can link back to the source. That enables the more cynical user the opportunity to check out the reviewer's social media profile and prove to themselves they are a real person.

Content Management System Perch used tweets from customers as testimonials. That allowed site visitors to check that they were genuine.

Using Authentic Video and Photography

Including video testimonials are also compelling. Failing that, at least include a photograph of the person providing the review. Being able to see the person giving the testimonial adds credibility in the minds of many users.

But make sure that any photography or video used is of real customers. When using video ensure customers are speaking in a personal and unscripted way. Users are very good at spotting fake video and photographs. In fact, there is something to be said for not making your photography and video look too professional. Professionally shot video and photography can look staged and therefore insincere. Instead, keep it authentic even if that means compromising the quality slightly.

Hopefully, you can see that social proof is a powerful tool for encouraging users to act. But it is also a tool that marketers have overused and abused, meaning that there is a degree of cynicism to combat. However, this is a battle worth fighting because done right these kinds of testimonials and reviews can add huge credibility to your call to action.

Thanks to pathdoc from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.