What is social proof?
When you were a kid, your mother probably asked you the following rhetorical question: If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?
Even at the time, the question seemed absurd. Jumping off a bridge is completely irrational, even if all your friends are doing it.
But when you take a closer look at your mother’s question, it turns out there’s some deep, powerful social psychology behind it. Whether she knew it or not, your mother was invoking the principle of social proof. And as we’ll see in today’s article, when you apply it to your marketing efforts, it can be just as powerful as your mother implied (but less dangerous, don’t worry).
So follow us to edge of the metaphorical bridge and take the plunge as we explore what social proof is, what it looks like in the real world, and how you can use it to supercharge your company’s marketing.
Social proof explained
To understand social proof, we need to go back to human prehistory. In a tribal society, it was extremely important to remain in high social standing. To make sure this happened, you didn’t want to do anything socially unacceptable that might get you shunned or kicked out of the tribe (because this was basically a recipe for getting eaten by a lion).
Of course, it’s not always clear what to do in social situations, especially if it’s one you’ve never encountered. So to help deal with this, our brains developed a handy mental shortcut: just look at what everyone else is doing. If the majority of people are doing it, then it’s probably socially acceptable. I.e., it’s probably not going to get you kicked out of the tribe.
This is social proof. When the social norms are ambiguous, we look to other people to decide what’s appropriate. Even though we no longer live in tribal hunter-gatherer societies, the principle of social proof has stuck with us.
And, for the most part, it continues to serve us well. Whether in a family gathering, house party, or a foreign country, following the crowd is a pretty effective strategy.
As social psychologist Robert Cialdini puts it in his book *Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion: *”As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do” (p. 88).
Of particular interest to us in this article is the power of social proof in influencing customer behavior. The consequences of making a purchase aren’t likely to affect our ability to survive as dramatically as pissing off the tribal leader, but they *feel *equally significant to our prehistorically-evolved brains.
So if you want to make customers feel confident in their purchase, or just convince them to try your product to begin with, social proof is an immensely powerful tool.
Now that we’ve defined social proof, let’s break down the part that matters to you: how to use social proof to market your business.
5 principles of using social proof
Depending who you ask, there are around 5 to 6 types of social proof. But instead of getting hung up on how to classify the kinds that exist, we think it’s much more useful to focus on how you can actually *use *social proof in your marketing.
We’ll get into some examples shortly, but first here are some general guidelines for how (and how not) to employ social proof as part of your marketing strategy.
1. Avoid negative social proof
Since most of this article talking about all the positives of social proof, it’s important to include a caveat: social proof can work against you if you use it incorrectly. This is known as “negative social proof,” and you want to avoid it at all costs.
What is negative social proof? It’s anything that demonstrates people think your product is bad. This can take different forms. It could be something obvious such as a 1-star review or something more insidious such as a social share icon. Used correctly, a social share icon can demonstrate your brand’s popularity, but if you only have 10 shares on a post…well, best to remove it.
In summary, no social proof is better than negative social proof. Don’t harm your business’s image in the pursuit of promotion.
2. Combine social proof with authority
Social proof is powerful on its own, but you can boost its power when you combine it with other principles of marketing psychology. One of the most powerful combinations is social proof with the principle of authority. People are more likely to trust and follow someone they view as an expert. So if you can get an expert (or better yet, experts) to endorse or use your product, you massively increase your chances of building trust among customers.
How you use authority will depend on your product and resources, but here are a few common ways:
- Celebrity endorsements
- Industry leader endorsements
- Certification from an influential industry group
- Endorsement from a well-known company
We’ll look at examples of all of the above shortly, but in the meantime just remember that social proof + authority = a massive potential increase in customer trust.
3. Combine social proof with scarcity
Another of Cialdini’s principles of influence is scarcity. Just as with social proof, it goes back to our roots, to a time in which resources were immensely scarce. If you found berries on the prehistoric savannah, it was probably best to eat them all now, as your next meal wasn’t certain.
Consequently, we tend to view scarce resources as more valuable. As a marketer, you can take advantage of this tendency by selling your product in limited quantities or offering limited time discounts. But in addition to just using scarcity on its own, you can also combine it with social proof to really encourage customers to buy, subscribe, or take whatever action you might want.
4. Social proof works best with similar people
We’ve already explored how people are more likely to trust experts, but it’s important to note that they’re also more likely to trust people they view as similar to them. Here’s how Robert Cialdini explains it:
“The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us. It is the conduct of such people that gives us the greatest insight into what constitutes correct behavior for ourselves. Therefore we are more inclined to follow the lead of a similar individual than a dissimilar one. (Cialdini, *Influence, *p. 107)”
There are a lot of ways you can apply the above information in your marketing. Whether it’s including a location or profession as part of customer testimonials or getting an endorsement from an expert who shares something in common with your customers, remember that social proof is all the more effective when it comes from a similar person (even if that similarity is as small as being from the same city or having the same job).
5. Boost social proof with user-generated content
Consider which of the following is more compelling:
- A Tweet saying “People in over 100 countries around the world use our product” (maybe even with a nifty little infographic to accompany it)
- A customer Tweet raving about how your product improved their life (with a photo of your product in their hands)
Hands-down, the second example wins. This is the power of user-generated content (UGC).
Here are some possible types of user-generated content:
- Customer Reviews
- Customer Ratings
- Social Media Content (especially photos and videos)
Besides the fact that it feels more authentic than anything *you *say about your product, UGC also benefits from potential similarity (a user probably has more in common with another user than with you, the product’s creator).
And if you’re paying close attention, you can see that there’s additional massive potential if you can manage to find an expert your customers perceive as similar to generate and share content that involves your product. Which brings us to the next section: examples of how to use social proof in marketing.
Hold on tight, because this is a massive list.
21 examples of how to use social proof in your marketing
Below you’ll find 21 examples of how to use social proof in your marketing.
Here are the 21 examples at a glance:
- Customer Reviews
- Customer Ratings
- Curated Social Media Posts
- Case Studies
- Customer-Generated Q&A
- Build a Community
- Social Media Followers and Shares
- Email Subscriber Counts
- Customer Counts
- Customer Demographics
- Company Financial Information
- Social Media Friends and Followers
- Referral Campaigns
- Real TimeUser Activity
- Media Coverage
- Brand Association
To make this list easier to navigate, we’ve divided it into sections based on the general type of social proof that each falls into.
For your reference, here are the sections (click on the link to jump to each section):
- User Generated Content
- Friends, Family, and Peers
As we mentioned above, user-generated content (UGC) is a very powerful way to get potential customers to trust your brand. UGC draws on the power of similarity, as it shows a “real person like them” using the product in an organic, non-salesy way. It’s far more relatable than anything you could ever say about your product. Consequently, UGC is worth exploring no matter what your business sells.
Here are some ways you can leverage user-generated content in your marketing:
Positive customer reviews are key to success in any business. They provide prospective customers with an unfiltered look at what other people think about your product. Assuming the reviews are generally positive, they can be a powerful form of social proof.
**Example: **Amazon is a powerful reminder of the importance of social proof in ecommerce. Not only do they provide shoppers with a list of reviews, but they also note which reviews were considered most helpful based on reader feedback. This makes it easy for customers to browse the reviews for relevant information:
Additionally, Amazon sorts reviews by recency in the sidebar of each product page. In light of research that shows consumers tend to rate recent reviews as more trustworthy than old ones, this is a very sensible UI design choice.
Finally, each review also notes that the purchase is “Verified,” helping to assuage the common consumer concern that online reviews aren’t necessarily trustworthy.
Even if you aren’t in ecommerce, giving customers a chance to review your product or service via an avenue such as Product Hunt or directly on your site can allow you to use this form of social proof.
Closely related to customer reviews are customer ratings. They provide potential customers with a way to view, at a glance, what people think of your business. Ratings also serve as a “teaser” for reviews, prompting shoppers to dig deep and read more (provided the reviews are generally positive, of course).
Example: Yelp has built their business on ratings and reviews of brick and mortar businesses. Even if your business is located online, you can learn a lot from how Yelp uses ratings on their platform. In particular, note how prominently they display the rating. For each business page, it’s one of the first things you see after the business name.
You can leverage this form of social proof in your business by allowing customers to leave ratings wherever possible, whether that be on a Business Facebook page or directly on your site. If you tools like use Fomo, UseProof you can even display customer ratings in real time and allow users to click on them to learn more, ensuring people know your ratings are current.
Curated Social Media Posts
Properly managed, your customers’ social media activity can be the holy grail of social proof. The only thing better than reading a review from a satisfied customer is seeing someone share their enthusiasm for your business in the most organic possible way: social media. Bonus points if the content includes a photo or video.
Example: The obvious implementation of this would be sharing or retweeting your customers posts and tweets related to their love for your business. While this is certainly a good tactic, we challenge you to explore less conventional platforms to use this powerful form of social proof.
For instance, take a look at this curated Pinterest board from cosmetics company Sephora. By offering customers the chance to have their nail designs featured, the Sephora has created a highly interactive form of social proof that allows prospective and current customers to get inspiration and even more reasons to purchase.
Strictly speaking, case studies aren’t user-generated content, as they involve a good bit of editing and production on the part of your company. Nonetheless, they are a powerful instrument of social proof that can show potential customers what it’s like to work with you or use your product.
Example: Milwaukee-based brand strategy and design studio Grain & Mortar features an extensive set of case studies on their website. Their case study for Google Cardboard, for example, shows how they solved Google’s specific challenges relating to website design and user experience while also highlighting their general approach to solving client problems.
This balance of specificity and broader implications is key to a successful case study, whether it’s for a service-based business like Grain & Mortar, a SaaS company, or whatever problem your business solves. The case study also receives bonus points for using the authoritative social proof that comes from working with an industry leader such as Google.
Case studies are a powerful tool, but they also have the downsides of being time consuming for you to produce and for your potential customers to read. To balance this out, you can use testimonials to give website visitors a quick taste of how your business has helped other customers.
Example: Portable standing desk manufacturer StandStand features testimonials on their homepage from a variety of writers, entrepreneurs, and other customers. These testimonials include links to the customers’ websites, review articles, and businesses where applicable, successfully combining the testimonial tactic with the social proof of influencers and media coverage.
This tactic is less common than some of the others discussed in this article, meaning it can be a great opportunity to outflank the competition if you use it correctly. This form of social proof takes the power of Q&A and FAQ pages but adds the credibility of real customers providing the answers.
Example: The best example we’ve found of this comes from Amazon. Lots of their product pages contain a “Customer questions and answers” section. While this gives the product’s seller the chance to answer customer questions, it also allows other customers to chime in.
This can be a double-edged sword, since there’s a danger of customers providing inaccurate information. But provided the information customers give is correct and positive, this kind of social proof can complement customer reviews and ratings by allowing prospective customers to get reassuring, credible responses to any of their reservations about making a purchase.
Build a Community
What if you could get your existing customers to provide oodles of social proof for you, creating a self-perpetuating social proof ecosystem? This is the power of building a community around your business. This could be anything from creating a community Pinterest board to starting your own subreddit to organizing a local Meetup group.
Example: Automattic, parent company of the blogging platform WordPress, manages to provide immense social proof through their global WordCamp conferences. Not only do these conferences allow users of the product to connect and share their knowledge, but they also serve as powerful social proof to potential WordPress customers about the platform’s ease of use, effectiveness, and global reach.
Correctly used, data about your company can be potent social proof. What’s more, you can automatically pull much of this information from your site’s analytics, allowing you to create a low-maintenance, up to date look at your company’s cachet.
Social Media Followers and Shares
We’ll start with the easiest one to implement. Displaying both of these statistics on your website and blog posts is extremely easy, requiring nothing more than a plugin or widget. In our research for this post, we discovered something interesting: displaying follower counts is very uncommon. In fact, we weren’t able to find an influential blog using the practice (not even on blogs *about *social media). Therefore, we’re going to recommend against this approach.
Displaying social shares, however, is fairly common. If you’re getting high amounts of shares, it can be a way to not only show off your content’s popularity but also encourage others to share it.
Example: Travel blogger Kiersten of The Blonde Abroad prominently displays total and individual channel social shares on every page of her site. Because her follower counts are generally high, this serves as positive social proof and boost her content’s credibility while encouraging further shares.
**Caveat: **Social shares and follower counts are areas with high danger of negative social proof if you use them incorrectly. So if no one’s sharing your posts or you only have 10 Twitter followers, don’t broadcast it on your website. Remember, no social proof is better than negative social proof.
Email Subscriber Counts
Email subscriber counts are closely related to social share and follower counts, but they can be even more useful for your business. After all, the people subscribed to your email list are much stronger leads than those who have simply liked or shared your post (not to mention that they’re easier to contact). So if you’re trying to convince people to sign up for your email list, displaying the number of current subscribers in the sign up call to action can be an effective use of social proof.
Example: Marketing strategy management software CoSchedule prominently displays their subscriber count as part of their email signup form. Their current subscriber base of over 200k is compelling social proof that their newsletter is worth reading.
Marketing copy such as “Join over 1 million satisfied customers” is common for a reason. If your company has a significant number of customers, it’s a good indicator to prospective customers that your business is doing something right. Mind you, you don’t have to have a huge number of customers for this to work–just one that sounds significantly impressive for your industry.
Example: The home page for ecommerce solution Shopify makes a point of letting you know both their number of active users and the number of business that use their platform. This large current user base is compelling social proof for prospective customers.
Early on in the article, we mentioned the power of similarity in social proof. Providing general demographic information on your customers is an effective way to take advantage of this. If prospects can see that people “like them” are buying from your business, they’re going to feel more comfortable purchasing themselves. This tactic works best when you employ it in tandem with testimonials.
The exact info you include is up to you, but the following are common:
- Country, State, City
- Photos (with permission, of course)
Example: Cloud accounting application Xero uses this form of social proof on their homepage, showcasing the diversity of their customer base. Each image also provides a brief testimonial when you mouse over it.
Company Financial Information
Not every business will want to share this publicly, but in certain markets it can serve as a form of potent social proof. You can include information like revenue, number of payments processed, or amount of assets under management.
Example: Investment firm Vanguard lists their assets under management on their “Fast Facts” page. For a prospect, seeing that the company manages around $4 trillion provides the social proof that they’re likely a trustworthy company.
Friends, Family, and Peers
Increasingly, search engines are becoming the primary way of getting recommendations in all areas of life. Nonetheless, the influence of friends, family, and peers remains strong. If your friend tells you a restaurant is great, that recommendation is going to trump anything Yelp says, let alone anything the restaurant might say about themselves. The following are ways you can build this form of social proof into your advertising and products.
Social Media Friends and Followers
If you’ve ever browsed a page on Facebook, you’ve probably noticed the page displays which of your friends like the the page as well. This is a subtle example of social proof at work on social media. The principle is solid (if not always accurate): if your friends like something, odds are you might also. At the least, seeing some of your friends like a particular page will get your attention. Basically every social media platform uses some form of this social proof.
Example: You don’t have to be a social media platform to use this technique. You can use a tool such as Facebook’s Page Plugin to show site visitors which of their friends have liked your page, thus boosting your social proof.
“X out of X people would recommend this product to a friend” is a classic advertising slogan for a reason. With referral campaigns, you take this principle to a whole new level, allowing people to *directly *refer friends, family, or whoever to your product. Used correctly, this form of social proof can massively grow your business.
Example: Ridesharing app Lyft allows customers to refer friends to the app in exchange for free ride credit. This technique combines a financial incentive with the social proof of a personal recommendation. But you don’t need the complex engineering resources of Lyft to make this happen for your business–it can be as simple as offering a referral link through an existing affiliate network.
Real Time User Activity
Back to one of our very first examples: seeing that people are interacting with your site in real time is a very powerful form of social proof. It’s the difference between a business that has customers lined up down the sidewalk and one that barely looks open.
You can display any kind of real time user activity that would website visitors, but here are a few of our favorites:
- Email Subscriptions
- Social Media Follows
- Product Updates
This tactic combines well with customer demographics.
Example: Real Estate event business Real Estate Wealth Expo displays information about purchasing activity in real time, including the customer’s first name, country of origin, and country of booking. This activity increases customer trust through showing that people are using the site right now, as well as creating a feeling urgency through the principle of scarcity.
For our final section, we consider the different ways you can use authority to provide social proof. From experts to celebrities to industry certifications, these are all ways association with an authority can increase trust in your brand.
An expert is a trusted, experienced person in a given field. An expert does not have to be famous (though some are). What matters is that your customers view them as an expert and take their opinion seriously. Showing an expert using or endorsing your product can serve as strong social proof.
Example: Banking and saving app Qapital employs renowned behavioral economist Dan Ariely. They leverage Ariely’s expert status on their About page, including a video that shows him explaining the behavioral psychology principles behind their app. This expertise aims to increase prospective customer trust, ultimately boosting app downloads.
Celebrity social proof is as old as marketing itself. Commercials from massive companies such as P&G, Nike, and Snickers have all used the power of celebrity. Celebrity endorsement associates your business with the wealth, fame, beauty, or other desirable qualities that the celebrity possesses.
If you don’t have the budget to attract big name celebrities, don’t fret. In the age of the internet, the definition of “celebrity” has changed dramatically. Amongst their core group of fans, someone with 1 million subscribers on YouTube is a “celebrity,” for example. The person doesn’t have to be nationally or internationally famous to effectively help market your product–just famous enough among the right demographic.
Example: YouTuber Colin Furze gained his acclaim through creating crazy DIY videos such as the world’s fastest stroller and a flamethrower guitar. Furze may not be Hollywood famous, but his 5,368,369 YouTube subscribers (as of this writing) made him enough of a celebrity to land sponsorships from iconic brands such as Google and Ubisoft. Consider working with YouTubers or other internet celebrities to add social proof to your business…at a fraction of the cost of getting Sofia Vergara to endorse you.
Influencers *can be *experts or celebrities, but not necessarily. If they influence people’s buying decisions in some way (directly or indirectly), then they’re an influencer for our purposes. Like experts, people trust influencers. But even more importantly, influencers are often the ones people look to when making purchase decisions. If you can get an influencer to promote your business, the results can be impressive.
Example: Family Focus Blog is an influential site in the “mom blog” space. In addition to parenting advice, the site also reviews products. Below, you can see a review for a postcard designer app, but the site reviews products of all kinds, so long as they’re relevant to motherhood/parenting.
Getting your business promoted on a site like this can be a great way to leverage the social proof that comes from the influencer’s seal of approval. You can of course pay for such sponsored posts, but you can also experiment with sending influencers free samples or subscriptions to your product in order to encourage a positive review.
Moving away from the influence of individuals and toward the influence of organizations, certifications are an effective way to show your business’s social proof at a glance. Possible certifications include the following:
- “Verified” checks on social media
- Made in USA
- Certified Organic
The above is just a taste, and you should seek out certifications that are relevant to your specific industry.
Example: Clothing company Patagonia features a line of Fair Trade Certified™ products. For socially conscious consumers, the Fair Trade certification is powerful social proof of the company’s commitment to ethical business practices.
Media coverage signals that your business is of a certain level of importance. It can range from mention in a local newspaper to an appearance on a national talk show or write up in the New York Times. Regardless, displaying your media coverage on your site in the form of badges or links on your blog can boost customer trust.
Example: To do list and task manager app Todoist includes a “Praised by the world’s top media” section on their homepage. In addition to publication logos that link to the full articles, they also have short blurbs from each piece for visitors who are skimming. This combines the media coverage tactic with customer testimonials.
Brand association is similar to experts, except instead of an authoritative, respected individual, you use the social proof of a recognized brand. The most common way to display this social proof is through placing the company’s logo in a relevant section of your website, though you could also integrate it into other tactics such as a case study or testimonial.
Example: On their homepage, business messaging app Slack displays a list of recognized brands that use their product, including Airbnb, Ticketmaster, and Harvard University. Note that in addition to all being recognized brand names, the included brands also span a variety of industries. This helps demonstrate the broad potential usage of Slack’s product.
Thanks for coming along with us on this deep dive into the world of social proof. We hope you learned some new tactics that you can apply as part of your marketing strategy.
Just to review, these are the four general categories of social proof we explored:
- User Generated Content
- Friends, Family, and Peers
The persuasive power of social proof is at the core of some of the World’s Finest Software Platforms. No matter which of the tactics in this article you choose to implement, Fomo and UseProof are two Platforms that can Help.