What is Social Proof?
Social proof is a result of a deeply rooted psychological bias.
It implies trust in other people. The forms of this trust include
the belief that the majority knows better and that the best way to
make a decision is to look at people and see which decision
they’ve made. As
most psychological biases, this one generally makes sense.
Think of your behavior in any new environment: at a new
workplace, or at a party where you don’t know anyone, or in a
foreign country. Every reasonable person will first observe what
others do before making any decisions regarding their own behavior.
In the end, this is how evolution taught us to think. Humans that
would appear in a new tribe and talk and dance without figuring out
the language and rules of politeness were killed first.
And yet, relying on the behavior of others is a mental shortcut.
We’re supposed to take the behavior of other people as a clue as
opposed to a certain proof that the behavior is correct. But often,
we see others and we simply copy their ways, ignoring or devaluing
The bias works best when we’re uncertain in what to do, when
we’re in a happy mood, and when there are a lot of other people
that seem similar to us. The huge effect of social proof has been
shown in a various different activities. From donating money to
charity to engaging in “safe” or “unsafe” behavior, people
would rely on others to show them what’s right, regardless of
their own knowledge.
Social Proof is a Gift for Marketers
social proof is a gift for marketers. And incidentally, this
bias is exactly why word of mouth is such a powerful thing. If
people even copy others’ risks, how could they resist copying
others’ product choices?
Word of Mouth
Imagine you see a well-crafted ad that tells you about the
benefits of the product you’ve always wanted from brand A. The ad
has stats, proof, and a scientific explanation of why it’s a good
product. Basically, it’s not your usual eye-grabbing senseless ad
— it’s a truly good explanation why the product is worth it.
Then, imagine your colleague tells you out of nowhere: “Oh you
know, I just bought product B, it’s so amazing! My hair/knowledge
of Chinese/life has been completely changed since then!”
Which one, do you think, will get stuck in your head? Which
brand, A or B, would you choose?
If you’re not sure, I’ll tell you: brand B.
Word of mouth is extremely powerful. It derives from the
same principle of social proof — you see a real person, someone
you know even, you trust they know what they’re doing. Then
imagine how this is amplified if you hear not one, but a couple of
people you know talking about brand B! Or, alternatively, your
colleague and also a random Instagram user that you follow for no
particular reason. The effect is comparable to a geometric
Employing social proof is a fantastic way to leverage word of
mouth. Let’s see how we can do that.
1. Expert Social Proof
While some believe that “we’ve had enough of experts”,
generally people still trust those who are considered experts more
than those who are not. This sounds reasonable, at least. This is
why you’ll see doctors in healthcare-related ads, sportsmen in
sportswear ads, and all sorts of science-related people in the ads
for electronics, heavy equipment, medicine, and everything in
between. While we might look at the ad and not remember any other
info, we’ll most likely remember that it was backed by an expert
and pass this information along in a relevant context.
2. Celebrity Social Proof
Weirdly enough, people talk a lot about celebrities. They
discuss their love life, lifestyle, fashion, and everything
associated with them. It’s puzzling, but there’s no doubt the
interest of most people in celebrities isn’t decreasing with
There’s a reason celebrities’ posts on social media are
extremely expensive – that’s because a mention of a product
from a celebrity doesn’t only reach a huge amount of people, it
also starts off a discussion where people share with others the
information on which body lotion their favorite model uses. The
reach keeps snowballing, and the social proof grows.
However, I’m sure you see a problem: celebrity marketing is
ridiculously expensive. Luckily, we don’t always need a football
player or an actress doing the job. For most products,
micro-influencers – people that are famous on social media –
will do the trick, as long as they have a substantial following
(10k-100k) and a good engagement rate, with the latter being far
3. User Social Proof
The importance of user social proof becomes clear the moment you
open any trendy website. You might not see product descriptions or
prices, but you will see social proof in all its forms. There will
be a list of companies that have used the product (if it’s B2B),
a list of user testimonials (in all cases), reviews or a proud note
that the product or service has been reviewed on G2 Crowd, or
TripAdvisor, or Yelp. Websites where users can leave reviews and
buy the product have been most successful. Basically, people love
reviews – it’s their online access to word of mouth.
It’s especially interesting that people don’t seem to often
even care which kind of reviews are those.
research shows that when it comes to reviews, it’s the
quantity that counts. How many people have used the product.
The size of the social proof is enough (or too overwhelming?) for
people to look into details. They simply do what others have
already done – buy the product.
User social proof isn’t only in reviews and testimonials,
it’s also in social media following. Buying social followers is a
very arguable practice: the algorithms of social media platforms
are made so that purchasing fake accounts might hurt the reputation
of your social account. However, growing a following is important
in terms of growing social proof: the more people show that they
use the product, the more others accept that the product is a good
one automatically, without giving it another thought, and even
share this information further.
4. Friends’ Social Proof
The most powerful social proof in terms of its effect on the
word of mouth is social proof that comes from friends. We trust
information that’s shared by people we know, we share this
information further with much excitement. And as it usually
happens, it’s hard for marketers to do anything with this
knowledge. Friends’ social proof is very hard to achieve in any
semi-authentic way. You generally just make a good product and hope
people will pass the information along. Some companies, such as
Uber and AirBnB, offer discounts for friends, which is a neat thing
to do as it plays on both social proof and a wish of a usual person
to get a discount.
The other way in which marketers have successfully employed
friends’ social proof is through showing which Facebook friends
or email contacts are using the service. The list is shown to you
when you register at websites like Couchsurfing or LinkedIn. It
also works for online services that show you which ones of your
online friends are using the service. For example, in a
study on online security, it was found that showing the users
that their friends are using the online security feature is the
most effective persuasion method.
Social proof and word of mouth are binded concepts. It’s very
hard to achieve the ever-growing word of mouth without putting some
effort in growing social proof. Go ahead, experiment, work with
influencers, and, most importantly, work on your product being
worth talking about!