In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch told college students to determine which of a given set of lines were equal to a referential line. The answer was pretty obvious given that all but one alternative were vastly different from the referential example.
For each subject session, there were seven people planted in the room, all providing wrong answers. Students were the last to answer, and even though it was an easy answer, 75 percent of respondents trusted the wrong answers and agreed with the group.
This experiment was one of the many that studied the effects of conformity and social pressure on the individual. At the time, Asch called it “the herd mentality,” but the industry was quick to adapt it to marketing and rebrand the concept to “social proof.”
Much like seven people providing wrong answers could influence the unadvised test subject, marketers understood that they could maneuver mass opinion in order to influence the average buyer.
What is social proof, how does it relate to your product strategy, and how much of it is too much? I will answer these questions and more in this blog post.
Remember that time you bought something because a friend told you it was very good? Or that other time when you decided to order delivery from a restaurant that had more reviews despite not having a perfect rating? And what about that piece of clothing you fell in love with because a celebrity used it on the red carpet?
These scenarios highlight how ubiquitous the concept of social proof is in everyday life. For a more academic definition, social proof is the psychological mechanism that influences our decision making based solely on the feedback from others. Objective truths become irrelevant if enough social pressure is exerted.
Why are we like this, though? It looks like a very bad thing. What could be the benefit of being so susceptible to influence?
Since the very beginning of our history, we have built societies based on shared knowledge. The best hunting grounds, the best fruits, the cleanest water. The human race, as many other mammals, started living in communities because we could do much more together than we could if we were alone.
As time went by, sharing information about survival became less of a necessity, but that didn’t mean that the habit of listening to what others had to say died out. We continued to trust each other to make better judgment about things we didn’t know about.
Be it by observing the common ground among a group of people, or by trusting the opinion of individuals we regard as references, social proof is essentially a way to scale up gathered knowledge and rational decision making. We use it for science, education, culture, entertainment, and certainly for spending money.
Trustpilot conducted amazing research on the topic in 2019, and its findings help frame the impact of social proof on purchase behavior. According to its research, an average of 66 percent of buyers from the UK, Europe, and Australia indicated that their purchases were influenced by social trust signals like reviews and star ratings..
When looking at Gen Z respondents specifically, this share grows from 66 to 72 percent, meaning that social proof is not just a relevant influence factor, but that it’s actually gaining momentum among people born in the digital age.
Social Proof can mean a lot of things, there are several techniques one can implement to create “trust signals”. Those are some examples of the most common techniques:
User reviews are by far the most ubiquitous technique available. It has been so much used in fact that we tend to distrust trust signals that are not backed by reliable sources. User reviews create empathy and help to make tangible something that, up until then, was just a sales pitch. In B2B contexts, testimonials and client brand association are more frequent than individual users reviews, but they serve the same purpose.
Similar to user reviews, user ratings are more straightforward for both reviewers and readers. A lot of people might avoid writing or reading reviews because they are long. Condensing the collection of reviews to a simple score system ensures that more people share their buyer impressions and that more potential users will see that.
It is one thing to see reviews and ratings in an app store or ecommerce listing, but it is a whole other thing to see actual content on a product you are considering to acquire. Once you see the YouTuber, the Instagram influencer, and specialized bloggers commenting on a product, you begin second guessing alternatives. Why does no one talk about that other option? Better stick with the one “everybody” is talking about.
This is more common within B2B contexts, but it’s an excellent way to social proof the value your product provides instead of the product itself. When in doubt about acquiring something, a frequent concern is that the product might be amazing, but it won’t quite solve your particular issue. Case studies help to provide context to decision making and prove by example that you are safe by opting for product A over product B.
What is better than a group of users validating a product? A group of specialists validating a product. Committee validation can be anything: awards, approval seals, certifications, anything that demonstrates to potential users that the product has been tested and approved by a group of specialists that probably understand more about the market than regular users.
Our society is heavily influenced by data and science in general, to the point that we usually don’t second guess something that is backed by a graph. Setting aside the dangers of over-trusting pseudo-scientific claims, using gathered data about your product is a very strong technique to develop social proof. Be it by assessing results efficacies, comparing competitors or collecting feedback from unbiased populations, research and data is an argument killer when it comes to decision making about acquiring something or not.
This is the holy grail of social proof techniques. Very hard to pull off, but absurdly powerful when done well. Apple became the biggest company in history by heavily relying on the community it created around its products. A community can be anything from a fan group in reddit to a global brand cult. Either way, harnessing the spontaneous love of your users as a way to social proof your product is the ultimate trust signal achievable.
Generally speaking, having some sort of social proof associated with your strategy is always good practice, but it’s more necessary in some situations than others. More than that, it can become particularly dangerous if you apply too much of it at certain steps of your product life-cycle.
For simplicity sake, let’s break the product life-cycle in four stages:
At the validation step, coming up with social proof can be tricky. You don’t have enough users to pull from a critical mass of people endorsing you, you’re too small to catch the eye of a specialist advocate, and money is short to promote content creation. Worse than all of that, during the validation stage, your product can pivot abruptly, meaning that resources spent on building trust signals might go to waste.
Stick to user reviews and ratings, those are cheap and abundant. Start investing in your community: payback is long and if you don’t start early, it might not be worth it to invest at all.
During the growth stage, social proof is as crucial to your product as air is to your lungs. Startups at growth stage pour so much money in social proofing and ads that most become bankrupt before they can get to the maturity stage.
A product that has been validated and accounts for a small user base has nothing to lose against the rest of the market, meaning that your social proof strategy can only make you go up. When at the growth stage, use all social proof techniques without constraints.
When you have a mature product, you’ve made it to the top, and now everybody is eyeing your place. This new found vulnerability has severe impacts on your strategy, because everybody knows you, and some have already fallen out of love with your proposal. Even worse, competition is actively trying to convince people that they have better products than you, and they have their own trust signals mining your efforts.
At this stage, social proofing is not so much a matter of gaining new ground, but preserving the image you have already built. Be careful with bad reviews, testimonials, adversary research, and hate communities.
Finally, when at sunset, social proof strategy is usually a waste of energy. When the horizon is ever close to your product, leave your strategy behind and let it become 100 percent organic.
Save the money for newer strategies and let people decide the fate of your product. Comebacks are not unusual, especially for products that had a good social impression behind it or strong communities built around.
Born in 1907 in present day Poland, Asch was of jewish ascendancy, meaning that he and his family observed firsthand how social conformity played a huge part in the tumultuous socio-political landscape. His insights serve as a stark reminder of the ethical considerations we must bear in mind when deploying social proof in product strategies.
The most dangerous aspect of social proof is that “truth” plays no part in it. Like the students that picked the wrong answer because they trust the group more than they trust themselves, a good enough social proof strategy can succeed regardless of the underlying facts that it’s built on top of.
The extreme cases of social proof manipulation in product strategy are easy to spot, and few would advocate in favor of it: fake reviews, fake bot followers, undisclosed influencers sponsorship, fake news. The problem lies in more sophisticated manipulations, though. Some of which we are not even fully aware of when applying.
Cherry picking reviews that only compliment your product, asking for user’s opinion before they had enough time to experiment your product, coming up with statistical facts drawn out from biased or too small datasets… Whenever we try to come up with universal truths, lines usually get blurry and it’s hard to pinpoint what is promotion or just manipulation.
As a rule of thumb, given that it’s not always so crystal clear to define what is good practice or not when it comes to social proof strategy, always opt for full disclosure. Provide the source of your numbers, leave the bad reviews as well as the good ones, make sure your sponsored reviews were sponsored. You might not get it right 100 percent of the time, but being accused of being flawed is a hundred times better for you and your product than being accused of fraud.
Social proof is a powerful yet dangerous tool to yield. Its effectiveness is rooted deep in our most primitive instincts, but it must be manipulated with caution and responsibility. We should not exempt ourselves from using social proof techniques though, on the contrary.
Consumers nowadays expect us to provide trust signals. In the age of digital, where we have so much information about everything, the opinion of others is an important compass to guide our decision making. When seeing similar experiences to our own, we can make better, more informed decisions.
If your product can leverage its positive user experiences to help more people find you out, you do it! If your product is good enough, you’ll be able to craft strong and effective social proof strategies without crossing any lines. Invest your time and resources on building the best possible user experience, delivering the best value possible, and your social proof plan will get built almost by itself.
Featured image source: IconScout
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