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Social Proof - Relying on others for our actions

What is social proof?

Social Proof is our psychology, where we look for proof of right behavior or action in unfamiliar situations, by following the actions of surrounding people.

When "we conform because we believe that others' interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action", it is informational social influence. This is contrasted with normative social influence wherein a person conforms to be liked or accepted by others.

  • Shopping Online & not sure about the product? Let’s check the reviews

  • Shopping Offline & not sure about the product? Let’s see how crowded it is

  • Brands are even showcasing the numbers on billboards to prove their point

  • Or the childhood days 

The key idea is that in any given situation, and especially when we are confused or under stress, our choices will lean towards following the crowd.

Principles of social proof
  • Uncertainty - When faced with an unfamiliar situation, an unsure individual would feel the need to refer to other people for guidance
  • Similarity - An ambivalent observer is more likely to adopt the behavior and attitudes of people who are perceived to be similar to himself and are therefore people who are easy to relate to
  • Expertise - Social proof becomes more influential when the surrounding people are perceived as particularly knowledgeable about a situation or are even just slightly more familiar with the situation than the observer is
  •  Number - The mechanisms of social proof work best when the proof is provided by the behavior and actions of numerous people

Types of social proof
  • Proof by Subject matter expertise

Suppose Elon Musk become successful in his idea of colonizing Mars and you are the part of the first batch. You will be unsure about the alien conditions and the journey

You can’t take the opinions of the people surrounding you because you are in the first batch
You can’t rely on Mars mission review ratings because it will look like this

or worse

You would be thinking - Should I trust 1 star reviewer or 5 star reviewer? Should I be excited about the ride or nervous?

But you can rely on the views of the person who is familiar with Mars environmental conditions and hold an expertise in the inter-planetary trips.

That’s why we see lot of reviewers tagged as expert user as credibility of their views will be higher than usual ones
  • Proof by Celebrity
I still remember, during my teens, I had an affinity towards certain Soft Drink because David Beckham was the brand ambassador of it
Whenever we see certain endorsements made by celebrity, we start having an affinity towards that product
We feel the person with such stature must have selected the best option available in that product category. Also, he/she will be responsible enough to openly endorsing the particular brand

However, the problem arises when all the brands are roping in the celebrities

  • Proof by Agencies
This social proof is given by authorities to the brand
Common example in this category can be the toothpastes 

  • Proof by User
Existing users play a big hand in success of the brand
The reviews of the product by existing users we saw on the Amazon
Book reviews & star ratings on Goodreads
Google rating for places, products & services

Fake users sometimes misuse the impact by posting a negative review about competitors. To counter such trends, companies like Amazon are assigning tags of verified user besides the reviews

  • Proof by Friends
Here you follow the action, trends, services or products being used by your friends or family members. This one is pretty powerful as you are sure of genuine feedback. Also at times in order to match the status of the friends, we start following their choices. Kind of clothes they wear, stylish shades, new exteriors / interiors of the car etc.

  • Proof by Masses
This is the scenario where lot many people are praising the brand. This makes the positive image in the mind of the user. we think that 4000 people can’t be wrong about the product

Why Social Proof Can be good?

According to Robert Cialdini, social proof is one of the six key principles of persuasion. When combined with reciprocity, consistency, authority, liking, and scarcity, it can be used to influence people’s actions

Study cited by Cialdini concerned charitable donations, finding that showing people a list of their neighbors who had donated to a charity led to a substantial increase in funds raised. The more names on the list, the more people donated.

  • Positive Social Proof is More Influential than Saving Money

In a fascinating environmental study published in the Washington Post, researchers examined the effectiveness of signs (yet again!) on persuading customers to use less energy in the summer by turning on fans instead of air conditioning. Before we get into the results and implications, check out the 4 types of signs they tested:
Sign #1: Informed the customer that they could be saving $54/month on their utility bill.
Sign #2: Told customers that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gasses every month.
Sign #3: Encouraged customers that saving energy was a socially responsible thing to do.
Sign #4: Let customers know that 77 percent of their neighbors were already actively using fans to save energy
  • Another benefit of social proof is that it can help convey trust. Trust is one of the key factors in converting customers online, because providing a credit card number to an unknown business over the web is a large hurdle for customers to overcome

  • Social proof can also be used to convey authority. For example, a buyer may find a testimonial from an expert in the field more convincing than a hundred reviews from average people. Displaying customer logos of big name clients can be another way of demonstrating both social proof and authority.

Why Social Proof Can be bad?

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking

  • We start following the wisdom of the crowd rather than applying our intelligence

We normally avoid to get singled out in that case we have to explain things, everyone will be watching us, what if we are wrong?

  • Negative Social proof normally acts as negative promoter

Cialdini also explains how the use of social proof can backfire. Campaigns to reduce drug and alcohol consumption which cite high rates of abuse can have the opposite effect. People subconsciously seek to comply with the many others who are engaging in this behavior

The theory behind negative social proof is that, if we’re told lots of people did something “bad,” we can be encouraged to do the opposite. One of the best recognized examples of this theory in action is the political slogan, “4 years ago, 22 million single women did not vote,” which was promoted heavily by the Women’s Voices Women Vote campaign before the 2004 presidential election.

However, it turns out this theory doesn’t always hold water. In this particular example, the slogan was intended to use negative social proof to compel others to take positive action. In actuality, researchers have since determined that “messages emphasizing low expected turnout are less effective at motivating voters than messages emphasizing high expected turnout.”

  • Social herding can be misused by religious figures to influence mass religious sentiments which can lead to superstitious practices

  • Low social proof is worse than No social proof.

Imagine you ask people to join your brand’s Fb page by creating social login button and there were only 5 likes on your page

  • Our rational ability will decrease
If we follow social proof too often, we might hesitate questioning the logic and in long run paralyze our thinking abilities

How can you use Social Proof?

Social Proof can be and should be used by anyone, irrespective of the responsibilities they carry

If you are a salesman / blogger / e-commerce entrepreneur –

Social proof can be a big conversion booster. A quick win can be exposure of following data points on your website -

Photos and testimonials from customers
Company names and logos, particularly from recognizable and well-respected brands
Customer case studies
Ratings or feedback from customers
Research or other statistics
Seals of approval from well-respected organizations
Number of followers on social media platforms
Download and purchase counts
Listing the number of customers
Endorsements from celebrities
Testimonials from industry experts

If you are an investor -
·      Try to ditch social proof here as else you will keep buying and selling the equities when thousand others are doing so and thus equity won’t hold the special value

If you are an advertiser - 
·      Use recommendation data or survey stats e.g. recommended by 3 out of 5 doctors, #1 in XYZ survey

If you are a student - 
·      Prepare for those topics which are focused by the expert i.e. your subject teacher

If you are looking for a date –
·      At the event or club or occasion, talk with opposite sex a lot, even if you are not interested in them. Higher the number of conversations better it is. The reason being you will be perceived as popular among the other sex
·      While telling your story, do brag your status or work ethics or intelligence, even for brief amount of time

If you are a traveler - 
·      As a traveler, it’s safe to merge with the crowd in new country to explore the products & services. Although if you are of experiential nature then this might look boring for you

How Can Social Proof be combined with other mental models?

Social Proof + Scarcity
Social proof can be combined with Scarcity to endorse quick sale.

e.g. Travel websites with messages “654 people are looking at this room. We have only 5 rooms left”

Social Proof + Urgency
Merging urgency with social proof can create an impact of FOMO – Fear of Missing out, which can help you create a viral product or service

e.g. Flash sales – Thousands of people already booked our product. Join our waitlist to get a chance to purchase in next flash sale

Social Proof + Familiarity
This one creates a tribe affect which endorse you to purchase the service or product. Compared to previous two combinations, this one is skewed on a positive side.

e.g. “Product X is liked by people who shopped like you”
e.g. Traveling sites using this combination basis traveler type and his location – “This destination is liked by solo travelers based out of India”

Summing it up

Social proof is a very powerful weapon of persuasion and influence. 
Awareness of how its mechanisms work and affect our personal life, consumer choices, education, social interactions, and every other aspect of our daily existence, could be very helpful.

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