Follow the leader - Photo by Pablo Heimplatz

The power of social proof for your online marketing strategy

7 min read

A Dutch saying says “als een schaap over de dam is volgt de rest” (meaning if one sheep gets over the dam, the rest will follow). We are probably not as silly as a sheep (although they are more intelligent than you think). But we also show some kind of herd behaviour.

This ‘sheepish-behaviour’ of our determines a lot of our actions. Dr Robert Cialdini calls this principle Social Proof, and he included it as one of his seven well-known principles of influence. These principles are proven to be useful tools to improve your online marketing strategy!

Socially acceptable behaviour

We have the universal desire to be part of and included in a social group. To secure their in-group position people tend to conform to the believes that dominate in this group. Therefore we base our actions on the actions of others. We determine our behaviour by examining others and seek approval for the actions and choices we make.

The thought that drives social proof is that others know better what the social rules are in an environment. We assume that how our peers behave is the most appropriate way to act. If many follow a statement or action, the validity increases, that way, Social Proof defines what both morally and practically right behaviour is.

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The offline environment

The force of social proof is strong. Seeking Social Proof frequently occurs in offline environments. Even though we find ourselves to be very independent, everyone is affected by the people around us. A cognitive bias called the bystander effect shows this as well. The bystander effect is the phenomenon where people are less likely to assist someone in need if more people are present. Our brains will look at our peers for guidance. If the others don’t act, our brain tells us that there must be a good reason for it. And we decide not to act as well.

Gaze following

One easy experiment that proves how easily we are affected by the action of others you can try yourself. It is based on a phenomenon called gaze follow. Research shows that newborns are already focused on the eyes of others and directly follow the gaze. Marketing strategies use gaze following a lot. Having a person on your flyer or advertisement looking at the part you want to your customer to pay attention to will increase the effectiveness.

Try it yourself

It is a simple experiment; when you walk in the streets and start looking up to the sky. Even though nothing special or remarkable is up there, people around you will glance at the air as well. We show this behaviour because of curiosity and the thought that there must be something worth looking at. Why otherwise would this person look at the sky?

Social proof with gaze following
Gaze follow; try it yourself by looking at the sky and see how others will do the same

The online environment

Social Proof is an obvious driver of our behaviour offline and online. It is a powerful method to improve your online marketing. There are many ways to apply the principle of Social Proof to your marketing strategy.

Likes, pins and tweets

Some of us claim not to care about the likes we get on our new profile picture, this form of approval is essential in online marketing and on social media platforms. Likes, shares, or any other kind of engagement on your posts are a form of social proof. It shows how much your social environment appreciates your photo or thought, and thus appreciates you.

The other way around, we value the opinion of others when we stand for a difficult choice too. If you want to go out for dinner, we look at reviews of the Italian restaurant around the corner that you’ve always wanted to try. Did others not like it? Maybe you should look a bit further. Why not believe people that have actually already been there?

A social boost for your product

Social proof exists in different forms and shapes and mostly without us noticing. What can you do to give your online platform a social boost?

  1. Recommendations;
  2. Reviews;
  3. Celebrity endorsement;
  4. Existing clients;
  5. Bestsellers;

Recommendations

iTunes uses social proof in the form of recommendations. When you’re listening to an album, related music will be displayed simultaneously. If you’re interested in buying Adele’s album, but suddenly see that others also listen to Amy Winehouse, you might think twice about which one to buy. The choice of others – apart from the fact that this might just be a marketing strategy for iTunes – has a major impact on your own.

Library view of iTune uses Social Proof, displaying recommendations
iTunes recommends other albums based on the music you are listening to; this is an effective application of Social Proof

Show reviews with a helpful/not helpful grading system

Netflix created a review platform where watchers can choose if a movie review is ‘helpful or ‘not helpful’. Helpful reviews will eventually appear at the top, and unhelpful reviews will disappear to the bottom. That creates a better and more valuable overview. In our Netflix-analysis we have defined how with a few small adjustments Netflix can apply six different types of social proof.

Use celebrity endorsement when showing your product

George Clooney drinking his Nespresso, Michael Jordan wearing his Nike shoes and Kate Moss putting on her Rimmel lipstick. Adding a familiar face to your page can have tremendous effects on your sales. We want to do what others do, but if George does it, we want to do it even more!

Show your existing clients by displaying their logos in a fun way

Create your own infinite client logo carousel that displays your satisfied customers in a fresh, modern way. It’s also possible to let a specific client (e.g. a CEO) write a little review with their picture, to make it more personal.

Add a best sellers page when showing popular choices

Amazon has a Best Seller Book page, showing books that are already a favourite choice. This page will make them even more popular, resulting in a positive spiral of sales that feeds itself. When you search for the best books on neuromarketing on Amazon, you’ll find the bestselling books on this topic. To save you the trouble, check the Top 20 best Neuromarketing books!

Take away uncertainty

Social proof is an important bias in the process of decision-making in our brain. It takes away uncertainty and protects us from making wrong or immoral decisions. Therefore, we like to follow the actions of our peers. We also like to support the statements of someone we assume is an expert on the topic. Expertise and authority are as important as social proof to reduce the uncertainty in what appropriate behaviour is.

Choose wisely

The main idea behind the principle of Social Proof is that your customers are more likely to engage in your content or buy your product if they see that others do it too. Adding these strategies to your website or online store will not be the most challenging thing to do. Testimonials, displaying the number of likes and shares, and recommendations of peers or experts are all effective ways to apply Social Proof. The difficulty is to choose the right one, so it gives that boost, and it does not backfire.

Avoid the backfiring

Displaying the number of followers when this number is five can have a negative consequence. Think about it: why would you follow this page, if there’s a comparable one with 5000 followers? A Youtube video with 100.000 views is way more impressive than one with ten views. If you run a restaurant, a few negative reviews can kill your online business page. Choose your strategy wisely and experiment with different varieties to see which one is most effective for your context.

Social proof is one of many ways to use the shortcuts in the decision-making process in our brain in your advantage. There are many more ways to improve your online marketing strategy based on our brain illogicalities. With over 200 cognitive biases, there is much more to learn and many different ways to apply this neuropsychological knowledge. Do you want to know more? Don’t hesitate to contact us, or find out more about our Applied Neuromarketing Crash Course or the In-House Workshop we offer.


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Milou Odekerken

A passion for writing combined with fascination for the brain to give you the best neuromarketing content!

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