The Social Proof Is In The Pudding


If I have to make a big purchase, the first thing I do is conduct my own version of Market Research. I chat to friends and family, find out what they know about said purchase and use their advice to make an informed decision.

But why do we look to others in order to help us to decide how to act? Copying other people helps us decide what the “right” behaviour is in any given situation. We all have indecisive moments, but when it comes to the crunch, we really are capable of making our own decisions… but boy, can it be difficult. Once you start weighing up all your choices, considering the facts and juggling the pros and cons of each decision, your head’s full of ‘what ifs?’, and you’ve been staring at the same pair of boots for 20 minutes and the shop assistants are starting to whisper.

There are varying degrees of Social Proof and they will affect visitors to your site in different ways:

The number of other people behaving in a certain way will influence the degree to which a person will consider copying the behaviour

Milgram, Bickman & Berkowitz (1969) conducted a study to investigate this very phenomenon. They planted people on the street to look up at the sky, to see if they would influence passers-by enough to also look up at the sky. They found that the more people they had looking up, the more likely passers-by were to also look up. Having one person look up meant 40% of by-passers also looked up, and increasing this to five meant 80% of passers-by did indeed look up.

How can I use this online?

There are a couple of effective ways to do this. ebay have a good example using previous behaviour, showing how many other people have bought an item:

“15 people have already bought one? I am totally going to buy one!”

The degree to which your visitor identifies themselves with these other people will influence the degree to which a person will consider copying the behaviour

Bandura & Menlove (1968) found that by showing dog-phobic children footage of other children of a similar age playing happily with dogs, that their avoidance behaviour was significantly reduced. The children were then more likely to allow themselves to get into potentially threatening interactions with dogs.

How can I use this online?

Amazon display their customer ratings and links to reviews right under the product title so users can’t miss them. Visitors to the site identify with the customers as they appear to have similar tastes in music:

“I can absolutely believe these reviews, these customers are on my wave length, we’re into the same band!”

The perceived level of difficulty each visitor associates with the decision they’re making will influence the degree to which a person will consider copying behaviour

When confederates were planted in a group of participants tasked with identifying a supposed criminal from a line-up, Baron, Vandello & Brunsman (1996) found that participants were more likely to copy the confederates’ (incorrect) answers if the task was perceived to be more difficult. By reducing the amount of time each group were allowed to view the line-up, the task was made more difficult.

How can I use this online?

The best way to make an online task appear less difficult is to explain the choices thoroughly and inform visitors as much as possible. Presenting social proof in a simple way will make the gathering of this information easier too:

Pretty stars, green circles and up-to-date reviews, what’s not to love? employ several methods of social proof to help its visitors make an informed decision. As well as the star rating by the name of each hotel, there’s a mark out of 5 based on the reviews by people who’ve previously stayed at the hotel AND snippets of the latest reviews too. Finally, there’s a link you can use to access photos uploaded by those people who’ve visited the hotel (adding to the level of truthiness) – and that’s just on the results page!

Um, so we’re DEFINITELY staying here, right?

Ok, when’s the best time to use this social proof?

Use your conversion and tracking data to identify where your visitors are dropping out. Are they presented with unfamiliar information at that point? Have you clearly explained each of the choices you’re asking them to make before they get there? Are they fully informed of the ramifications of their decision at each stage?

Social Proof is a well-practised but testable form of persuasion. By identifying the point at which your visitors might start to find the decision process difficult, you can introduce a Social Proof strategy which shows how many others have made the same journey. The more information you can provide, from like-minded people, the more likely your visitors are to believe your claims of being the right choice for them.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *