Social proof

We look to others to validate our buying decisions

/ 7 min read

What is social proof?


Social proof, is the idea that when faced with a decision we are unsure about, we will look to others to help guide our actions. It is based on the psychological principles of normative social influence which shows how we generally conform with larger society trends in order to be accepted.

In other words, we do what other people are doing, because we want to either be like them or be liked by them.

This manifests in a number of ways, for instance:

  • We copy the actions of others in social situations
  • We look to the crowd to help validate our choices
  • We use what others tell us to help make purchase decisions

We look for social proof, when we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. We assume (rightly or wrongly) that other people around us have more or better information than we do and use this as justification on all sorts of things from buying a new brand of toothpaste to deciding where to live or work for the next 10 years.

There are a number of sources that social proof can originate from:

  • A user - typically someone you don’t know but believe to be a real person. Product reviews, comments, shares on social media can all provide some element of social proof.
  • A friend - word of mouth testimonials are some of the most convincing forms of persuasion available. We trust our friends over just about anyone else.
  • An expert - When an expert in a particular field adds their recommendation to a product, it helps alleviate our fears and objections (if an expert uses it, it should be fine for me).
  • A celebrity - Celebrity endorsements have an emotional impact where experts cannot. This is because we tend to think of celebrities we are fond of more as friends than strangers.
  • A crowd - there is real strength in numbers (if all those people are doing it, it must be good… right?)
  • A certified source - Sources of social proof don’t have to be actual people. A badge or stamp of approval can also add weight to our choice validation.

Whilst there are a number of sources social proof can originate from, there’s one thing that ties them all together - similarity. If we perceive ourselves to be similar to those offering suggestions, we are more likely to follow what they are advocating.


The origins of social proof

Its likely that humans have been relying on some form of social proof to help guide our decision making since we learnt to wield fire. In modern psychology though, the term was first popularised by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book ‘Influence’.

Cialdini presents social proof as one of his 6 principles of persuasion, along with reciprocity, commitment, authority, liking and scarcity.

Much has been written about the subject since and now its generally accepted there are 4 main principles that contribute to social proof:

  • Uncertainty - first we must be unsure of something to warrant looking for social proof.
  • Similarity - we look to align ourselves with those we feel similar to.
  • Expertise - we look for expert opinion to validate our judgment.
  • Numbers - we look for strength in numbers to reassure ourselves.

Where to look for social proof

Social proof can be found all around us and once you appreciate what it is and hows its used, it becomes one of those things that starts to appear everywhere. You can think of it as a form of conformity. Us humans are much more like sheep than we’ll ever be wolves (but really we secretly quite like it that way). Its just easier to look to others to show us how to behave.

Ever walk into a shop or bank and become unsure of which counter to approach? Isn’t it comforting when theres a queue of people already lined up that we can join the back of, safe in the knowledge we’re on the right track.

An example Cialdini gave was that of canned laughter tracks on TV shows. Even though people claim they find the addition of laughter annoying, studies have shown they do actually make shows appear funnier than they would do without it.

Product reviews are a classic example. Studies have shown that when considering a product for purchase, consumers were more likely to take onboard the opinions of others if they are unsure about their own opinions. And remember these can come from a variety of sources:

  • We trust user reviews because they have experienced the product and we haven’t
  • We listen to experts because they have a higher knowledge on the subject than we do
  • We buy products endorsed by celebrities because we want to emulate their lifestyles.

Today, social media provides all kinds of social proof indicators. The amount of followers someone has, views on their content, likes, comments and favourites all contribute to our opinion of a person. The higher the numbers, the more value we perceive them to hold and the more likely we are to add to that engagement. That then leads to the compounding of social proof - getting involved because we can see a large group has already committed. This is known as the heard behaviour (baa), groups becoming ever larger, gaining more and more power to influence those they come into contact with.

The heard, is really quite a powerful force of nature…


How to use social proof

Now you know what it is, how can you go about using it to your advantage?

First, a word of caution. You are dealing with psychology here and the human mind which can be manipulated. Used too much and you could quickly fall into the trap of creating dark patterns around your content (which is just not a nice way to treat people). Since though, social proof is so ingrained in just about all forms of modern marketing, it is worth pointing out where it can be used and you can judge for yourself how best to implement it in your own way.

Put simply, social proof helps users feel confident about the decisions they are considering. So, you can:

  • Use it to support the arguments you make in your story telling
  • Use it near pain points like pricing
  • Use it near action points to help prompt positive steps forward
  • Use it to reduce friction
  • Use it to add a human element to otherwise faceless content

Social proof can come in a lot of different forms, but here are some of the most commonly used:

  • Testimonials - provide endorsements of a product or service from someone who’s used it (the higher status the better), experts or celebrities win unless the user has a personal connection to someone offering the testimonial, ie they are a trusted friend.
  • Reviews - product reviews are our go to source for validation on new product purchases. Authenticity is important though, consumers have an evolving ability to sniff out fake reviews.
  • Case studies - Showing who you’ve worked with before can be a great way to validate a service offering.
  • Numbers - Show how many people have already made the decision the user is considering.
  • Social engagement - Display the likes, comments, shares etc a product, page or article has received.
  • Trust icons - show which companies you’ve worked with or where you’ve been featured.
  • Influencers - Use the people in a position of influence over your target groups to endorse items.

Use it wisely

There’s no doubt social proof is a powerful tool for influence and persuasion. Its is commonplace in just about every buying situation we are faced with, from the very small stuff to the life changing purchases. We’ve become familiar with its comforting nature over thousands of years of evolution and marketeers have become adept at using that need for comfort to help nudge us towards making choices in their direction over their competitors.

The humans are fighting back though! We’re starting to recognise fake news, alternate facts and misrepresented information. Our BS detectors are becoming acutely honed for todays modern world. So yes, backup your claims with relevant social proof, but be authentic, be relevant and be true.

Richard Silk

I'm a digital designer with 15 years experience in the creative sector. Having previously designed award winning products and held several Creative Director roles, I'm now working on a new project exploring how the psychology of human behavioural characteristics can play a role in user experience design.

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