Influence and Persuasion: The Rule of Social Proof
by Dean Rieck
This is part of a series of articles on the science of influence and persuasion. It is based in large part on a book by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
A few years ago, my wife invited her family over for Thanksgiving, totaling 12 adults, two babies, a five-year-old, and a clowder of cats.
Around day three, after one of the babies peed on our new sofa, the refrigerator broke down, and every square inch of our house was covered with food, diapers, and suitcases, I suddenly became interested in getting out of the house to see a hockey game, even though I'm not a big sports fan.
Along with another family member who needed to escape for a few hours, I drove downtown to see the local minor league hockey team, the Chill, play a regional rival, the Louisville River Frogs.
The first two periods saw our team down by three points. Then, in the third period, in a burst of explosive energy, our boys started fighting their way back.
The crowd began screaming. Clapping their hands. Stomping their feet. Taunting the opposing team's goalie. Thousands of people were suddenly functioning as one. And oddly enough, though I'm generally not given to such displays, I found myself screaming and clapping and stomping right along with everyone else.
The Rule of Social Proof
Why did I begin acting that way when it's clearly not in my nature to do so? Simple. Because everyone else was doing it. So many others were doing it, in fact, and doing it so loudly, I found it impossible to just sit there.
That's the Rule of Social Proof in a nutshell.
All of us look to others to help us decide how to act, to guide our behavior, to determine whether something is right or wrong. The more people doing it, the more correct it seems.
We do it on the highway: We merge right when we see cars ahead of us merging right. We do it at the office: We use the same inane jargon and laugh at the same lame jokes. We do it at parties: We dress like everyone else and have a drink in hand if others do.
We're all driven in so many ways to conform. But, as with all the principles of influence, this isn't a bad thing, because as a smart marketer, you can use this knowledge to your advantage.
After all, why do you think bartenders salt their tip jar, telethon hosts read the names of those who call in a pledge, and bar owners keep people waiting in long lines outside?
Because of the Rule of Social Proof. If others are doing it, it must be the right thing to do. And because it works!
Why does Social Proof work like this? Because Social Proof is what psychologists call a "decision heuristic" a shortcut for making decisions. Life is too complicated to carefully evaluate every element of every situation, so we learn to take shortcuts to help us make what are usually reasonable and reliable decisions.
It's a sound, logical adaptive behavior, after all. It's mathematically justified: The more people who do something, the more likely it is correct or at least relatively safe. Not always, but for most things it works with a high degree of reliability.
And when you understand the rule, you can trigger it at will to generate a "yes" response to your offers and requests.
Putting Social Proof to Work
Now for the nuts and bolts. To put the rule to work for you, just follow this logic: Most people are imitators. So, if you want someone to do something, show others doing it.
Here are a few specific applications of this idea:
- List testimonials of satisfied customers and clients. (Tried and true.)
- Feature testimonials by those who have been "converted" from another product or service. (Converts are always more believable than typical customers.)
- Show pictures of people using your product or service. (Seeing is believing.)
- Relay case histories of some of your best customers or clients. (Studies show that tangible case histories can be more effective than impressive statistics.)
- Show people similar to your prospect using your product or service. (The more similar the more effective.)
- Show the general excitement of others who have discovered your product or service. (Popularity and enthusiasm: an unbeatable emotional wallop.)
- Mention how long your company has been around. (A subtle indication of popularity.)
- Tout the number of products sold. (Ditto.)
- Display the number of customers or clients you serve. (McDonald's built an empire by displaying on their signs a running count of burgers served.)
- Warn customers about limited products due to demand. (Popularity plus scarcity, another powerful influence principle.)
- Announce the speed of your sales due to demand. (Adds urgency.)
- Say how long your product or service has been a best-seller. (Says popularity and quality.)
- Cite information on your market leadership. (Being first or tops in your market is unbeatable.)
- Indicate the seasonal demand of your product or service. (Encourages early orders.)
- Show important or well-known people using your product or service. (Invokes the "halo effect," borrowing the good feeling people have toward the celebrity.)
- Display a seal of approval by a rating organization. (Puts an official stamp on public approval.)
- Cite favorable reviews. (Third-party information is always powerful.)
- Cite mentions in the media. (Newsworthy products and services are more trusted.)
- Associate your product or service with respected magazines: "As seen in XYZ Magazine." (A very public approval of your product or service.)
- Associate your product or service with respected media: "As seen on TV." (Ditto.)
You don't have to memorize a list like this. Just remember to ask yourself, "What is the most tangible and relevant way to show how my product or service is popular?"
A Caveat for Marketers
The Rule of Social Proof works best under two conditions: Uncertainty and Similarity.
First, Social Proof will have the greatest effect when your prospect is uncertain about your offer, your product, your company, or some aspect of your message. If you're a completely unknown or new magazine, for example, Social Proof could help you sell subscriptions. But if you're already a brand name, such as Time, it's unlikely that any form of Social Proof would have an effect.
Second, Social Proof works best when your prospect sees similar others using the product or service. They should be able to say, "Yes, those people are like me and they are using it. So, I'm the type of person who would use it, too." If the others you show are not similar, the Social Proof will have little effect.
A Caveat for Non-Profits
The Rule of Social Proof works directly and simply when you're selling something, because most transactions involve personal gain or clear benefits. You trigger the "yes" response by showing others who have said, "Yes."
However, when you're asking a prospect to help others as in charitable fundraising or cause-related marketing you may run into "The Diffusion of Responsibility Effect." This effect works counter to the Rule of Social Proof in certain group situations, causing prospects to reason: There are lots of others helping. My help is not needed.
Getting around this is tricky. I suggest you first determine the basic psychology of the situation.
For highly public situations, as in a telethon or event, emphasize the number of others helping while secondarily pointing out how important each person's contribution is.
For private situations, as in a personal direct mail solicitation, emphasize the importance of that one person's help while secondarily pointing out how many others are helping. For personal appeals, saying nothing about the number of others helping may be best. It's more important to single out someone for help. "Only you ..." See my article "Tapping the Irresistible Urge to Help."
Note: I am indebted to Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. for his personal advice and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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