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.
Social Proof, like canned laughter, is used to build the perceived value of something purely because other people like it already. Canned laughter says “this show is funny” and “that was a good joke”, regardless of subjective opinion. In the United States, some of the highest rating sitcoms of the past 70 years have employed laugh tracks. Despite their commercial success, many of these same shows are critically panned, their canned laughter ironically becoming emblematic of the fact they aren’t actually funny. Youtube is littered with fan-made videos that purposely edit out the laugh track from these shows, leaving only pregnant pauses and awkward silences as jokes fail to land and repetitious catchphrases are parrotted by the actors.
Regardless of your opinion on the much-maligned sitcom formula, it serves as a good example of how we’ve come to expect the presence of social proof. So omnipresent is social proof in our everyday evaluations, the pure absence of it can often be interpreted as a negative. After all, a completely empty restaurant at dinner time probably doesn’t give you the impression that the food is great.
The Persuasive Power of Tax Facts
Even in the presence of an existing consequence or reward, social proof has the power to influence purely through our innate desire to belong to a group.
The concept and study of ‘general consensus’ is nothing new, but the term ‘social proof’ is said to have originally been coined by behavioural scientist and marketing professor Robert Cialdini in his seminal 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini outlined Social Proof as one of 6 key psychological tactics that can be employed to influence or persuade a target audience to think or act in a certain way.
Cialdini has since become an authority on this type of behavioural science and persuasion, employing his services for commercial, government and even presidential clients. One such project that Cialdini advised on was for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – the British tax department.
Each year, the department deals with a portion of the population that do not pay their tax on time, if at all. Overdue tax communication typically relies on threatening language and consequence focused messaging in order to prompt payment from those that have missed their due date – referred to by the department as ‘delinquency’. These letters focus on the fines and penalties that will be imposed on the individual, with the goal to prompt them to respond to the department to make a payment or payment plan. This type of ‘threatening’ communication typically averages a 67% positive response rate.
In an effort to improve the outcome of this type of communication, HMRC looked to Robert Cialdini and behavioural science to convince more people to pay their tax on time. By including social proof informed by the statistics and data available to HRMC, the department was able to markedly increase the number of responses. Simply including a sentence like “Nine out of 10 people in the UK pay their tax on time” resulted in the response rate climbing to 73%.
Making the social proof more relevant to the individual yielded even more impressive results – mentioning the number of compliant people in the specific community or town of the recipient increased the response rate another 10 points to 83%.
This phenomenon is the perfect example of ‘similarity’, and its impact on the effect of Social Proof. By increasing the perception that the social proof originates from a group similar to the subject, the social proof becomes more relevant to the individual and increases the likelihood of influence.
Continue Reading Part 3: Quantity vs Quality
Written in collaboration with TrustYou