5 Essential Types of Social Proof (and the Psychology Behind Them)
You’re walking along a busy sidewalk, dodging passersby, when a small group of people catches your eye. They’re standing in the middle of the path, heads tilted back in unison, staring at the sky.
You look, but you can’t see anything. Still, the crowd stares. You stand with them, searching for the source of their fixation. The crowd grows around you, and soon dozens of people are staring wordlessly into the sky.
Believe it or not, this is a real-life study conducted in 1969 by psychologist Stanley Milgram. A small group of people staring silently into an empty sky was influential enough to cause 80% of passersby to copy their actions, without any reason for doing so.
The Power of Social Proof
This is the power of social proof: our innate psychological tendency to use the wisdom of the crowd to influence our own decisions.
In a world full of millions of competing choices, our subconscious is trained to take shortcuts in the decision-making process. Instead of wasting hours researching each and every minute decision, we trust the decisions of our peers and social networks.
As marketers, this affords us some powerful tools in the struggle to earn consumer trust—from customer testimonials to social media signals.
The customer testimonial is the most commonly used form of social proof, offering a direct and reassuring response to every customer’s key question: “Will I be happy with my purchase?”
However, with so many businesses leveraging testimonials and an increasing number flat-out falsifying them, you need to take extra steps to improve their efficacy:
- Ditch generic stock photos and include real images of your customers.
- Prove the authenticity of your testimonials by providing an email address or link to the author’s website.
- Choose testimonials that are representative of your target audience. Testimonials are most effective when consumers can empathize with the author—a phenomenon known as implicit egotism. If you’re targeting CFOs of enterprise organizations, feature a testimonial from a CFO.
- Avoid bundling your social proof into a separate testimonials page: instead, incorporate it into crucial areas of your sales funnel.
Endorsements combine the social proof of a testimonial with the wide-reaching exposure and authority of an industry leader. Earning a glowing review from a respected thought leader can be worth a hundred individual testimonials, and can offer you a huge platform for showcasing your brand.
Expert referrals also convert at a much higher rate than other channels—sometimes generating up to 200% more conversions than paid search.
3. Social Media Signals
Social media combines two forms of powerful social proof: customer testimonials and the feedback of trusted peers. This can be a powerful combo for improving sales, with customers referred by friends on social media generating a lifetime value up to 100% greater than customers coming in from other channels.
Social-share bars are also a great way to demonstrate the popularity of your content and encourage further sharing. However, be careful of publicizing unpopular or unsuccessful content. Emphasizing that your latest whitepaper has zero likes or shares can function as negative social proof.
4. Badges and Logos
Badges and logos function as endorsements from prominent brands. They offer a visual way of associating your company with other reputable businesses, and allow you to easily highlight relevant skills and expertise. To improve social proof, your business can feature:
- Industry accreditations and awards
- Websites that feature your content
- Business partners
- Past clients
- Security certifications
However, the benefits of logos aren’t guaranteed, and security badges in particular can actually decrease conversion rates. It’s theorized that badges may instill anxiety in visitors who weren’t initially concerned about security, so if you have the resources, be sure to A/B test this type of social proof.
While testimonials are perfectly suited to service-focused businesses, reviews are a more effective medium for product-based enterprises. They compile the social proof of hundreds (even thousands) of past customers, and allow consumers to judge the quality of products across a huge number of purchases.
It’s important to remember, however, that while a large number of positive reviews will improve sales, businesses shouldn’t try to hide negative feedback. An apparent whitewash of five-star reviews can actually reduce consumer trust and generate suspicion in the legitimacy of your social proof.
The polarizing effect of negative reviews can also help to weed-out inappropriate customers—those that buy products through misunderstanding, or without the level of qualification required to effectively use them. In the short-term, this will slightly reduce overall conversion rates, but brand loyalty and customer churn will both improve in the long-term.