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Social proof: the sixth principle of persuasion

Social proof: the sixth principle of persuasion

In our final article on the six principles of persuasion (as outlined by Robert Cialdini) we’re looking at the concept of social proof.

Read the previous articles in this series:

What is social proof?

We all want to make good decisions.

And nobody wants to make a mistake – or suffer the shame or consequences of making a bad choice.

But conversely, few of us have the time to analyse each decision thoroughly.

Not when you consider that an average adult makes 35,000 decisions every day.

While many of those are small, inconsequential decisions (e.g. will I reply to this email now, or later?), we all have to make larger decisions on a regular basis, such as which fridge to buy, or where to invest our savings, or which school is best for our children.

The solution to this decision overload is to look for shortcuts. And one of the most popular shortcuts is to follow the herd.

The thinking is simple, logical and sound: if this choice has worked well for others like me, then I can trust it will be good for me too.

Most companies instinctively know this - and many organisations use social proof to persuade customers that they represent a safe choice.

Social proof runs the web

Large swathes of the internet are effectively social proof hubs – or at least depend on the power of this principle for their existence.

Online businesses rely more on social proof because they have to overcome the disadvantage of being virtual; we can’t convince people with our sales patter, charming demeanour or flashy office – so we must use other tactics to convince people that we’re authentic and trustworthy.

Here are a few examples of social proof in action:

Checkatrade – leverages social proof to help tradespeople find work and customers find reliable contractors.

Amazon – relies on user reviews to help customers choose one product out of the millions available.

Twitter and Facebook – follower counts, likes and retweets help demonstrate the popularity of companies, individuals and the ideas they share.

LinkedIn – helps people use their professional network to build new connections (we’re more likely to trust someone that is connected to our peer group, or who has a large network).

Companies – use things like case studies to show that their clients have trusted them to deliver work. Displaying client logos is another common tactic for leveraging this principle.

TripAdvisor – uses reviews to help tourists judge which attractions are most worth their time.

Booking.com – adds notes to their search results so you can see that other people are looking at the same hotel (this also adds a sense of scarcity).

Using social proof in customer communications

How can your organisation use social proof to reassure customers?

Add customer reviews. Testimonials and reviews are powerful sales tools, and they can take many forms. You might include a short quote alongside a product description, or add a short video of customers talking about their experiences. You could also use star ratings to demonstrate the popularity of different products.

Mention sales figures. Help customers understand which product or service is most popular by discussing sales figures. You don’t have to give away commercial secrets, but you might say something like “60% of our customers in Manchester choose the Premium package”, or “16 customers chose this insurance in the last hour”.

Include customer pictures. Rather than simply talking about your customers, why not involve them in your communications, and include pictures to make them feel more real?

A common mistake that organisations make with social proof is to dump it in a separate section of the website, or to expect customers to go looking for it. It's far better to sprinkle traces of social proof into the customer journey, so that customers see the evidence as they go. 

Whatever you do, don't be tempted to fabricate customer testimonials or reviews - as these will inevitably feel inauthentic and will only put people off.