A Primer on Social Proof

By Daniel A, published on

Part 1 of 2 - What it is, what it does

A marketing term that you’ll often hear thrown around these days, without being explicitly defined, is ‘social proof’. While the terminology is pretty self-explanatory, there’s a lot more to this concept than meets the eye. There's a reason why, in one form or another, it’s an integral part of part of almost every marketing strategy that's out there.

In this article, we’re going to dig a little deeper into social proof; what it is, why it works, and how it helps your business.

In part two of the article, yet to come, we’ll be laying out some of the different forms of social proof, considerations on when and how to use them, as well as a couple do’s and don’ts of best practice, so stay tuned!

A Primer

Given that ‘social proof’ pretty much seems to define itself, most people probably have a rough idea of what it is and what it does already. But for those of you who may be out of the loop, social proof is a common way of bolstering the desirability and legitimacy of your offer by demonstrating to your audience that others also find your product or service to be, well, desirable and legitimate.

Customer reviews and product endorsements number among the most common, but queues at bars and restaurants are actually a form of social proof too.

Now, the above is a perfectly workable definition, but it’s always possible to dive a little deeper. How and why does it work? Why is it so effective? The answer lies in human psychology.

Digging Deeper

Another term for social proof is ‘informational social influence’, and it stems from our tendency to draw social and psychological cues from our environment in situations of ambiguity or uncertainty.

Put differently, when we feel we’re lacking information in a given setting we tend to look to the people we associate with or respect to inform our own beliefs or behavior.

Sometimes this is done consciously; like choosing a role model and intentionally deciding to emulate them. But often it’s an unconscious decision that we’re not really aware of, like adapting to the company culture at our new job, voting along the same lines as our closest friends and family, or letting TV and movies form our expectations about what relationships are supposed to be like.

This is as old as political organization itself. It's why rhetoric and public speaking were so important to the ancient Greek and Roman democracies. If you could get enough popular support for an idea or policy, the rest of the population would take that as a cue and fall in line, even if it was only a small percentage that actually heard or understood the speech in the first place.

As you can imagine, this human tendency would have been a huge benefit to our survival throughout history. Before the medical revolution, child mortality was pretty high, and people could count themselves lucky to make it to adulthood.

By imitating the behavior of the grown-ups around them; eating the same foods they ate, avoiding the same things they avoided, kids had much better chances of making it to adulthood themselves and passing on their genes to the next generation.

This is the instinct that people are tapping into when they talk about social proof; relying on the consensus of our peers to inform our own decisionmaking.

Social Proof in the Marketing Context

In the modern context, social proof is a sword that can cut both ways. Just as it can help people make sense of ambiguity, it can also lead people to do things that aren’t in their best interest, like watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi based on it’s 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes. This tends to happen most when people are incentivized to falsify their preferences, which skews the calculus of those taking these supposed preferences into account. The more false opinions people are exposed to, the worse the impact on their decisionmaking process.

So, what should you do to keep from being taken advantage of? There are actually a few things you can do to guard yourself against the unscrupulous. If you’re made it this far in the article, you’ve actually already achieved one: awareness of the dynamic.

Second, you can learn as much as possible about something before fully settling on your opinion. Failing that, try to draw your cues from relevant authorities on a topic – people who actually know what they’re talking about, or people who’ve actually tried and enjoyed the product or service in question, and aren’t just endorsing it because they were paid millions do so (sorry Taylor).

The good news for businesses is that there are ethical and effective applications of social proof, and they basically revolve around honesty of preference. Real, authentic reviews help people make informed decisions, and are a useful way to demonstrate to prospective customers that you actually have something valuable on offer.

Making Decisions with Full Information

When all the cards are on the table, people have the option to take it or leave it based on their own judgment. It’s when people hide or lie about their preference that things start to break down, which is why Google flags and take down fake reviews, to ensure that companies trying to fool consumers exit stage left, maintaining people’s faith in the review system.

So, long story short, go ahead and include social proof on your website and in your ads. It helps buyers feel more confident about their decision, that they’re part of a larger community or movement, and is statistically shown to increase conversions, helping to ease doubt, and bridge the gap between catching their attention and getting their interest.

Just don’t fake it. If you’re being honest in your communication with customers, solid social proof represents a win-win for the both of you.


In the next article, we’ll be discussing some of the specific kinds of social proof people commonly use, considerations on when to use them, and some general do’s and don’ts that’ll help you stick to best practices.

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