In 1968 two social psychologists made an experiment. They put various numbers of people, starting with one person and gradually working their way up to 30, on a street corner and had them look up at an empty sky for sixty seconds.
The result of the experiment was that the bigger the crowd of skygazers, the more likely it was for passersby to stop and look up as well to find out what all the commotion was about. Placing a group of thirty upward-looking men on the corner caused more than 80% of pedestrians to stop and tilt their heads.
The study introduced the idea of “social proof,” which is the tendency to assume that if lots of people are doing something, there must be a good reason for it. Since we are social animals, we will often conform to the actions of others assuming that those actions reflect the correct behavior.
How Social Proof is Used for Persuasion
Today social proof is utilized in many different ways in order to influence people’s behavior, especially in the realms of business and marketing. But in real life, for example, social proof is used in the following ways:
- Night clubs and bars make patrons wait in line outside. Seeing others waiting to get in increases the perceived popularity of the venue.
- Comedy shows play laugh tracks to raise the comical perception of scenes and situations. People actually laugh more when they hear other others doing the same.
- In one study, a restaurant increased the sales of specific dishes by 13-20% merely by highlighting them as “our most popular items.”
These social forces also apply online. Opinions and recommendations of other people on the web constantly shape and influence our actions and behavior.
In fact social proof is the main reason why social media became so important for marketing. Just think how often you have visited a website or used a service just because it popped up in your Facebook newsfeed or because somebody you know or trust tweeted about it.
In fact, studies show that 70% of consumers look at product reviews before making a purchase, and reviews from customers invoke more trust than product descriptions from manufacturers by a factor of 12. That’s an impressive number.
Because of this dynamic, social proof can be a great tool to improve your conversions. Showing proof that others liked your product, service, or website will make it much more likely that new visitors will do the same.
Types of Social Proof
Social proof can take many forms and can be provided by different factors and influencers. The most common ones are the following:
- Expert social proof – Recommendations from someone who we consider to have superior knowledge on a certain topic can carry a lot of weight.
- Celebrity social proof – The use of celebrity endorsements is widespread in TV commercials. It is not as common on the web. One of the most well-known examples online is William Shatner’s partnership with Priceline which has paid off well for both sides.
- User social proof – Sharing user success stories is a powerful tool because we can more easily relate to a single person than to the percentage of satisfied customers.
- Wisdom of the crowd social proof – Highlighting popularity or large numbers of users implies that such a big crowd can not be wrong.
- Wisdom of friends social proof – Recommendations from friends are probably the most trusted social proof and the root of all successful viral marketing.
Social Proof – How to Do it Right
When it comes to employing social proof on your site, it’s important to do it in the right way. If done incorrectly, it can also potentially backfire.
For example, if you are trying to position yourself as an authority in your niche but only have two followers on social media, this is probably not the best thing to show off. In that case you should concentrate on collecting amazing reviews from your customers first.
Aside from that it is a good idea to use multiple types of social proof. You have stellar feedback from existing customers? On the site with it! Your social media presence bursts with followers? Show it off! Multiple layers of proof will mutually reinforce each other.
Furthermore, it is important to be authentic and congruent. People have a very fine sense for things that feel phoney. If you make claims about your site or your product which you then can’t back up with actual numbers, potential customers and clients will be turned off quickly.
Lastly, take care that you tell the right things to the right people. There is a time and a place for everything. A professional network such as LinkedIn is probably not the best place to look for social proof if you have a site with funny cat photos.
How to Display Social Proof on Your Website
Now that we know about the importance of social proof, it is time to take a look at how to actually integrate it. In the following list you will find a number of tools to establish trust with your visitors and show them that you are the real deal.
1. A Great Offer
Of course having people rave about your website always starts with having something that is actually worth raving about. Social proof works both ways. If your product or service is mediocre or underwhelming, word will get around just as quickly.
As mentioned above, people trust way more in what other users have to say than claims by the manufacturer. Services such as ebay heavily rely on user feedback, others like Foursquare, Yelp, and Tripadvisor base their entire business model on it.
The best way to get testimonials is to actively ask for them. Make feedback an automatic part of your process. The ability to post reviews is appreciated by most people. A personal follow up asking for opinions is even better.
3. Case Studies
We love case studies. They are very personal and easy to relate to, especially if we can identify with the struggles of the people portrayed in them. If you have helped to improve the life of a customer or user in a big way, tell others about it. One of the best places to highlight these success stories is a detailed blog post.
4. Trust Symbols
Trust symbols are those which visitors will recognize as organizations, companies, or people they deem trustworthy. Think government agencies and well-known brands. If you have customers or clients whose names carry weight in your industry, make it known on your site (obtain permission first). If they trust you, why wouldn’t others do the same?
Other trust symbols are those which give customers a higher sense of security or which appeal to the values of your target group. For example Germany is a very security-conscious market. It is therefore a good idea for a local website to carry logos which prove their security measures have been tested by official authorities.
5. Email Subscribers
Of all the followers you can have, the ones that trusted you with their email address are probably the most important. Everyone these days is careful with giving away their personal email. So if you have a decent amount of subscribers to your newsletter or list, make sure to let your visitors know about it. Those who are on the fence might be swayed by the example of others.
6. Social Media Followers
Providing social proof is one of the main functions social networks fulfill today. Likes and tweets are the virtual equivalent of a group of people all looking in the same direction. The more of them do, the more likely it is that others will stop to take a look themselves.
The numbers of followers someone has on Twitter, Facebook and other such services is a good way to gauge the popularity of a website. The most important sharing options for these networks are listed below. Plugins exist for all of them. If your content is shared regularly, make sure that number is displayed next to the buttons. Otherwise you can use these buttons to gather more followers.
- Twitter Follow Button – Help users follow you on Twitter. Create and customize it on the resources page. Use a plugin if you are not comfortable with editing your theme files.
- Tweet Button – Lets visitors share direct links to your content. Can be configured on the same page as the follow button.
- Facebook Like Box – A great way to show off the number of people who like you on Facebook. To get it, visit the Facebook developer page. Place the code where you want the box displayed on your site.
- Facebook Like Button – Again a case for the developer page. The code needs a few alterations in order share the address of the page it is placed on. Therefore I highly recommend using one of the many plugins out there.
- Facebook Share Button – The predecessor of Facebook’s Like Button. Lets users edit what they are sharing before posting to their wall. Get it here.
- Google +1 – To install Google’s answer to the Like button, visit the +1 webmasters page. One part of the code goes where you want the button to appear, the other part goes in your website’s header.
- LinkedIn – The way to go to get your content in front of a more professional audience. Get their share button via the share plugin generator. No additional code changes are needed as the LinkedIn button will share the page it is displayed upon.
- StumbleUpon – StumbleUpon is an often overlooked social media network which has the potential to rival Facebook as a point of referral. You can get an SU badge here.
How do you show social proof on your site? What has worked well for you? Do you have other recommendations? Let us know in the comments.
Nick Schäferhoff is an entrepreneur and writer/blogger from Germany. He learned WordPress when he needed a website for his first business venture and instantly fell in love. He is passionate about health, productivity, and continuous learning, which he writes about on his lifestyle blog. When not building websites, he likes to travel the world, experience other cultures, and learn new languages.