by Kenneth Rudich
According to Merriam Webster, psychology seeks to understand the human mind and behavior.
Marketing, meanwhile, eagerly employs psychology to ply the human mind and shape behavior.
Social Proof is but one example of this relationship.
What is Social Proof?
The Wikipedia characterizes Social Proof, also known as informational social influence, as a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.
Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, proposes that people are more likely to find actions appropriate when others are doing them.
Others have described this tendency as herd behavior.
Let’s look more closely at this phenomenon.
Social Proof in Action
One of the most famous studies conducted for Social Proof occurred on the streets of New York City in 1969. A man simply stood, looking up into the sky. He went completely unnoticed by passersby until the researchers increased the number of people (all staring upwards) to five, drawing a small crowd.
When the researchers increased the number of participants to 18, the crowd not only grew bigger but actually multiplied in size by 400%!
Can you see how the notion of herd behavior played out in this experiment? If so, that’s psychology.
Can you imagine the potential this dynamic holds for influencing – or perhaps even fueling – consumer behavior? If so, that’s marketing.
Social Proof in Marketing
Prior to 1994, McDonald’s used its golden arch sign to create a similar social dynamic for selling hamburgers. Across the bottom of the sign, they kept a running update on the number of burgers sold.
This graphic shows a break out of the different milestones that occurred across time. For example, the sign read 1 million in 1955, 5 million in 1956, 400 million in 1960 and so on.
Notice how the growth pattern in sales closely mimics the outcome of the New York City experiment. In this instance, the exponential growth in sales coincides with the exponential growth in Social Proof.
In 1994, McDonald’s sales surpassed 99 billion, whereupon Corporate decided the signs should thereafter read “BILLIONS AND BILLIONS SERVED” instead of a specific number as had been done before.
We’ll come back a little later to speculate on why they might have made this change.
Online marketing, with all its variety (and especially Content Marketing and Social Media Marketing), provides fertile ground for potentially harnessing the benefits of Social Proof.
One need only note the seemingly endless array of counters and tabulators for such activities as likes, comments, followers, shares, downloads, retweets, reviews, ratings and more. There’s a counter for nearly everything, except maybe hamburgers anymore.
But there’s a rub, too. Because the opportunity it presents is equal in proportion to the challenge it poses. That challenge, for many an enterprise, suggests it’s one thing to embed a counter on a page and quite another to get a response that’s both favorable and robust, which is key to making Social Proof a bonafide asset.
As many have come to learn, that place where opportunity and challenge intersect is also filled with noise and clutter.
And even when there is a measure of success, such as when an item grows popular or maybe goes viral, the question of consistency then enters the equation. Is it repeatable? Can you do it again and again and again, like McDonald’s was able to do over time?
The truth about having “success coupled with consistency” is that it’s awful difficult to garner in a competitive environment. In fact, people and organizations who achieve consistent success often get held up as being special, like icons or celebrities. Those who can’t or don’t fade into obscurity.
In the final analysis, Social Proof is great and good, but it ain’t easy to acquire…and it’s even harder to retain.
Cultivate and Seize
Capable users of Social Proof often rely on the dual approach of Cultivate and Seize.
In part 2, we’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of taking this approach. Check it out!