Social Proof is a powerful psychological technique that can make or break a business. But social proof is far more than just Facebook or followers – the power of ‘general consensus’ is present in everything from sitcoms to overdue tax reminders. In this 3 part series, we look at the objective value of social proof and how smart marketers can weaponise it to persuade and personalise it to their audiences.
The internet has made it a lot easier to hear what other people think - for better or for worse. Whether we like it or not, the world wide web has provided a platform for anyone and everyone to broadcast their opinion, their favourite movies, and their take on whether pineapple is allowed on pizza. Through platforms like Yelp, Google, Rotten Tomatoes, Trustpilot and UberEats, we have numerous outlets to publically rate, hate and narrate our individual experiences. Everything from movies to meals and cab drivers to airlines are now compared and complemented through pros, cons, stars and thumbs (both up and down).
The reality is that the internet did not invent social proof, and it is far more than a simple aggregate of status updates and star ratings. Social proof and the psychology of the general consensus is far more pervasive than you may realise – this legitimate psychological technique that can be manipulated and manipulating in equal measure.
At its core, social proof can be used to influence behaviour and opinion. Whether it’s a recommendation from a thousand of strangers or the suggestion that there is a specific way to act, social proof removes ambiguity, uncertainty and risk. Social proof assures us: it’s fine to make this choice – you’re not alone.
The Humble Beginnings of a Sitcom Staple
Social proof has applications well beyond marketing, and is far from some masterful technique only orchestrated by psychological puppet masters. Social proof occurs organically amongst groups of people, but is particularly noticeable when looking at public performance. Take clapping or applause as a very simple example. Clapping is a contagious and audible seal of approval, yet the idea of clapping alone or at the wrong time induces anxiety for many. We’ll often clap at the conclusion of a performance purely because others have already started. So what then happens when we’re watching a performance by ourselves, without social proof?
Radio and then television broadcasting fundamentally changed how people consumed performance. Movies had already distanced audience members from the performer, but the cinema still provided a communal space in which to spectate alongside other viewers. Radio and television were the final step in completely isolating the viewer in their consumption of the performance – a one-way, private show delivered to an audience of one. It was weird.
Without a shared response from fellow viewers, radio and television was an uncomfortably direct experience – filled with silence or the awkward self-consciousness of sitting alone in your living room, laughing to yourself.
In the 1950s, an audio technician named Charles Douglass started inserting pre-recorded laughs into television broadcasts to fill these gaps and reassure audiences. This was the birth of one of the most misunderstood and maligned techniques in television and a fascinating example of social proof – ‘canned laughter’.
Continue Reading Part 2: The awkward silence – the necessity of social proof
Written in collaboration with TrustYou