Victoria Yu is a Business Writer with expertise in Business Organization, Marketing, and Sales, holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of California, Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business.
Sallie, holding a Ph.D. from Walden University, is an experienced writing coach and editor with a background in marketing. She has served roles in corporate communications and taught at institutions like the University of Florida.
Updated on October 26, 2023
What is Social Proof in Sales?
What is Social Proof?
Why is Understanding Social Proof Important?
Three Tips to Leverage Social Proof
Three Successful Examples of Social Proof
When you’re shopping for something new, what sort of factors do you consider before purchasing? No matter how much research you do, you’ll probably still check out a few customer reviews before locking in your purchase.
But why do you do that? Can’t you just trust your own judgment over that of some strangers online?
The answer to this is social proof: the psychological concept that when we’re unsure of a decision, we look to other peoples’ opinions to guide us. Even if it’s irrational, social proof has an important influence on our behavior as potential customers.
And for business owners, this becomes a key opportunity for enticing customers: with tasteful application, you can leverage social proof in your own marketing and sales campaigns to boost sales. If you’re a business owner looking to utilize social proof in your own operations, this guide will teach you everything you need to know about social proof and provide examples to show you how best to leverage social proof marketing to boost your own business.
Social proof is the concept that, when unsure of the correct course of action, a person will choose to follow the decision of a larger group.
In marketing and sales, businesses can apply social proof to guide shoppers to a purchase decision by highlighting the opinions of previous customers.
To start leveraging social proof, a business should ask for reviews, use social media, and pepper social proof into their entire customer journey.
What is Social Proof?
Social proof was coined by social psychologist Robert Cialdini, one of the world’s leading experts on persuasion. “In terms of consensus, people follow the lead of many others and similar others,” he explains in a 2019 keynote presentation in Seattle. “Simply telling people that [the most popular options] are the most popular reduces their uncertainty. They get off the fence, they get off the sidelines, and they get into the game.”
In other words, social proof is when a person’s opinion (and consequential decision) on something is influenced by the opinions of the people around them.
People are convinced that something other people like and enjoy is something they’ll like and enjoy in return.
Very bluntly, social proof is like the herd mentality: humans want to fit in and go with the grain when unsure of what to do, even if there are no actual facts or authority to back up the group’s opinion. Because of this, social proof is also called “informational social influence.”
In marketing, businesses can leverage social proof to entice potential customers to purchase by offering feedback from former satisfied customers. This usually takes the form of customer reviews, but it can be as simple as saying, “This is our most popular option.”
Some ways companies can leverage social proof are through:
Why does a business need social proof? If its product is well-designed and scientifically proven to be useful, does a customer really need the word of a random stranger to confirm it?
In short, yes.
A key part of understanding social proof in marketing is that consumers nowadays don’t see companies as “people” – instead, in a capitalist and consumerist society, companies are perceived as faceless manifestations of corporate money-making strategies that won’t provide honest opinions. They can’t be trusted to have the consumer’s best interests at heart because they don’t have one themselves.
To drive home the point, imagine you’re going out to eat. Would you pick the “Smashburger special” or the “chef’s special”? Unless you’re a Smashburger enthusiast, you’re probably going to pick the chef’s special because it brings to mind an actual human cook behind the grill. On the other hand, the “Smashburger special” just reeks of financially-motivated promotions from a corporate manager downtown.
Social proof means that consumers are more likely to trust the word of other consumers over the voice of a company. That’s why company-based advertising has such a middling impact compared to natural, organic recommendations from other consumers.
In truth, both promotional names —chef’s special and Smashburger special— might have been coined by the same marketing professional at the same company and refer to the same item. But Smashburger Inc. can be sure that, because of social proof, the chef’s special will attract more customers happy to order it.
In your own business, understanding social proof tells you that one natural recommendation or review could generate more sales than a thousand paid advertisements. If done correctly, properly utilizing social proof can draw attention to your brand and create a positive feedback loop of new customers.
Three Tips to Leverage Social Proof
Now that we’ve established exactly what social proof is and why it’s important, you might be chomping at the bit to implement it in your own business model. To that end, here are three tips on how businesses can begin leveraging social proof.
1. Ask for Reviews
The simplest and most reflexive way to start utilizing social proof is to ask your customers for reviews post-purchase and display those reviews in your marketing materials and in your sales journey.
To help you out with this, some email marketing automation platforms such as Mailchimp automatically integrate with review websites such as Yelp, displaying fresh, positive reviews and customer testimonials for potential customers to read in their emails.
Don’t have many reviews yet? Consider offering a reward, such as a discount or promotional code, to customers who leave reviews. If you sell online, Amazon has a program called Amazon Vine, where sellers can send Amazon-vetted reviewers samples of their products in exchange for reviews. You could also give free samples to your friends and family and see what they think.
You could also go a step further and ask customers to personally refer your business to their friends. To learn more about referral marketing, check out our guide on How to Get Referrals.
Finally, if organic reviews don’t work out, you could invest in influencer marketing and pay a trusted social media influencer to promote your business to their audience. Just be sure that their viewer base lines up well with your own target audience, so the impulse to join in with the crowd is strongest.
2. Utilize Social Media Marketing
The easier it is for customers to leave their feedback, the more customers will do it. So, though asking for detailed reviews and personal referrals might get you the highest quality social proof, you’ll likely see a larger quantity of feedback if you ask for low-investment interaction, such as likes, retweets, and comments on social media.
And remember: social proof is based on the concept that people want to fit in and trust the crowd. Building up a large follower base and netting thousands of likes per post uses the law of large numbers to assure potential customers of your veracity. Large followings do much more to build your reputation than a single customer review could, as it’s a well-known practice for companies to buy fake reviews.
3. Implement Social Proof Into Your Customer Journey
The fun doesn’t stop at marketing! For the best effect, social proof should also be integrated into your business’s entire sales process and customer journey, providing customers with guidance every step of the way.
Your sales process might seem simple to you, but a customer new to the industry is bound to have thousands of questions about everything from product details to payment plans if they’ve never bought anything like your product or service before. When you map out your customer journey, identify these places where customers might feel unsure or unconfident in their own judgment, and tactfully offer social proof to guide them along.
For example, though a “thousands of people use our products!” might get a potential customer in the door of your business, once inside, they might then be overwhelmed by the breadth of your product offerings – a single, clear “most popular” option will get the customer past their decision paralysis, moving them closer to a completed sale.
As a general rule, try to have a social proof statistic for every call to action in your sales funnel. This will help raise conversion rates between each stage by gently eliminating uncertainty at those critical points in the sales journey.
Additionally, leading back to our first topic, make a point of asking for reviews and feedback during post-sales follow-up interactions and customer service calls. It’s best to get opinions and comments from all angles, creating a more holistic and well-rounded social proof database to draw your evidence from.
Now, this Twitter user isn’t any sort of authority on novellas: they’re not a famed writer, editor, or book reviewer by any means, and their only claim to fame is being a fan account for the popular anime Trigun.
And it’s exactly because they were a normal person that their passion resonated with viewers: it told casual scrollers that the book was powerful enough to send anyone into a fervid frenzy, and that the recommendation wasn’t borne of paid promotions or any sort of ulterior motive.
Further compounding the effect, several other readers came out of the woodwork underneath the initial post to recommend the book as well. One online review created another until the whole situation spiraled into an international phenomenon, reaching as far as Brazil and Italy.
2. Amazon Daily Deals
Our next social proof example comes from the ecommerce titan itself, Amazon. Here’s a snippet from today’s promotional deals:
Immediately, the scooter’s listing stands out because of the unique little progress bar beneath its name, literally underscoring this particular listing.
Now that Amazon made you look at the listing, it cleverly tells you underneath the progress bar that the deal is “80% claimed,” meaning that many people (it never says how many) have already found the discount to be enticing.
As a shopper, you would be hit with the double whammy of the fear of missing out on a limited-time deal, as well as the social proof that many shoppers consider this to be a worthwhile purchase.
3. Colleen Szot and NordicTrack
Our final example is the one that inspired Robert Cialdini to coin “social proof” in the first place. When writing the script for a NordicTrack exercise equipment advertisement, infomercial writer Colleen Szot famously replaced the call to action “Operators are standing by,” to “If operators are busy, please call back.”
While the first one brings to mind idling phone operators, the second one brings to mind a clamoring call center, full of eager customers. In other words, implying that the NordicTrack equipment will be flying off the shelves.
After hearing that, potential customers were eager to join the stampede and order one themselves – through LinkedIn, Szot herself reports that NordicTrack’s sales increased by 200% following that infomercial!
Can you think of any situations where you relied on social proof from others to guide your purchasing decisions? We stopped at three examples because social proof is such a widespread phenomenon.
But common as it may be, business owners looking to leverage social proof often do so ineffectually because they only focus on one element or another: asking for reviews, utilizing social media, or focusing too hard on the customer journey. Or they may not think of using social proof at all, relying on cold, hard facts to speak to shoppers’ logical decision-making skills.
Social proof is a tried-and-true marketing tactic used by businesses to establish credibility with customers and sway them in favor of a purchase decision. You’ve seen it everywhere: reviews on a website, celebrity endorsements, and use statistics. By following these three steps above, you can harness the power of social proof for your business and watch as your business shines with success.
Social Proof FAQs
What are some best practices for leveraging social proof?
A key assumption underlying social proof marketing is that your product or service is truly as amazing as reviewers extol. No matter how much you solicit reviews, past customers will never honestly recommend you unless they’re truly satisfied with your business, and your social proof campaign will fall short if potential customers learn that you’re lying about your social proof statistics. In other words, before you even begin to leverage social proof, it’d be best to spend some time to ensure your company and product are things truly worth praising.
Another tip is to know when too much persuasion is too much: a 2020 study published in the Decision Support Systems journal found that though social proof and reciprocity (the urge to return favors) individually increased ecommerce sign-ups, they neutralized each other when used together.
So, though Robert Cialdini actually outlined seven principles of persuasion, it’s best to stick to only one, such as social proof, to optimize its results.
What are positive and negative social proof? Which one should I use?
Positive social proof is the idea that you want your listener to join the masses (“Be like these thousands of happy customers and sign up today!”), while negative social proof is the idea that you want your listener to go against the masses (“Don’t be one of those idiots who miss out, and buy our product today!”). This guide was prepared based on the assumption that you’re looking to implement positive social proof.
While some may think that negative social proof is an effective strategy to appeal to individualists, its reliance on insulting or putting down a majority of people is bound to backfire on your company’s brand reputation. As such, we’d recommend avoiding negative social proof and sticking to the guidelines for positive social proof we’ve outlined above.