These days, you need more than just a few slices of snappy marketing content to get people to buy into your brand. One of the most effective means of nurturing new business—not to mention a sense of loyalty and trust—is through social proof.
Social proof is a psychological phenomenon in which someone mimics the actions of someone else to reflect what they perceive to be correct behavior for a given situation. It’s Human Nature 101. It’s the reason why we scour Yelp reviews before trying out new restaurants. It’s the driving force behind FOMO.
When applied to marketing, social proof basically translates to: “This product/service worked for these people who are in a similar situation, so it will work for me.”
Social proof is a powerful tool for the modern-day marketer. In fact, given how ubiquitous social media and the “Internet hive mind” have become, positive or negative social proof can make or break a brand.
Let’s dive in.
* * *
Before you can even think about getting started, it’s important to understand what exactly social proof is. And to understand that, you need to know what it is not.
One’s mind might immediately flash to familiar faces promoting household-name products, like an athlete on a Wheaties box or a celebrity in a bizarre-funny SuperBowl commercial. While the psychological effect is the similar (“I like this person and they like X, so I like X too”), there are few people who don’t understand that such endorsements are 100% paid.
The key to effective social proof is that it’s real. Real people, real opinions, no shilling. This can include:
According to Nielsen, 66% of consumers trust customer reviews, making this a highly effective strategy. Excessive negative reviews, however, can have the exact opposite result, leading up to a 70% loss of potential customers.
For many B2C brands, mentioning specific numbers of units sold, subscribers, etc. can be super effective. BarkBox does a great job of this right on their homepage, along with some adorable user-generated content that their customers have shared on social media.
For B2B brands or those that offer a service rather than a tangible product, testimonials and case studies can go a long way. This is especially true when those come in the form of video, as you can see with this testimonial for Marketo from Panasonic.
In fact, the more visual you can make your social proof, the better. Humans are visual creatures, after all, so seeing another human face can make a difference—especially when it comes to believing an opinion.
In a nutshell, it’s all about letting someone else (other than yourself and your marketing team) acknowledge and share how great your product or service is.
* * *
There are many ways to effectively utilize social proof in your marketing campaigns. The trick is to keep it subtle and never sound like you’re bragging.
When you share social proof with your audience, it should be presented as a tool for their benefit—not as a form of ego-stroking or a way to simply prop up the brand.
The benefits of social proof extend far beyond brand awareness and trust. It can also have a positive effect on your search engine ranking, as Google likes to see examples of social proof listed on a company’s website.
Social proof content can also be a beneficial tool for your social media efforts and can be easily shared across a number of platforms.
Remember to showcase instances of social proof as one would a knowledge base. Share the stories and experiences of your customers to educate your prospects and help them make an informed decision about your offerings.
Above all, social proof has to feel authentic to be effective. To do that you have to establish consistency and trust with your audience.
Once that has been accomplished, you can decide what kind of social proof you’re going to be implementing.
According to Nielsen, this is the most effective form of marketing, as 83% of consumers in 60 countries say that they trust recommendations over other forms of advertising.
* * *
The flip side of social proof is that relying too heavily on it can sometimes hurt your sales.
One example of social proof unraveling a large deal comes from Chris Orlob from Gong.io. After telling customer stories and name-dropping large clients led to large sales falling apart spectacularly, Gong’s data science team analyzed over 48,000 sales calls to determine just how effective—or not—social proof was.
The results were pretty surprising.
According to Gong, sales calls using social proof techniques actually had 22% lower closing rates than those without. It's an interesting statistic when compared to how well social proof works in the context of marketing content, but it really boils down to just that—context.
When utilizing social proof, you have to know the audience that you’re trying to attract. Human beings are tribal creatures, and when we see people with whom we share a lot of the same circumstances, there is a bond at some level.
To that end, buyers have to feel as though they belong to the same “tribe” as those you mention, or the social proof backfires. In the case of Orlob's failed sales call, the prospect's response says it all: “I don’t care if Google is your customer. We’re nothing like them.”
If your target audience is made up of, say, stay-at-home-moms or moderately salaried Millennials, they won’t necessarily want to hear what the 1% think of your product. And on the B2B side, if your audience consists of small businesses, they may be intimidated if you start name-dropping huge enterprise clients.
That’s why when you are sharing case studies and testimonials, you should make sure the person giving their opinion is representative of your core demographic. Before choosing who you’re going to feature, ask yourself: “Is this person anything like the kind of buyer I’m looking to attract?”
To that point, social proof should never be overly generic, as that creates friction and does nothing more than alienate large swathes of potential buyers.
* * *
Social proof can be one of the mightiest weapons in your marketing arsenal, but it can also backfire if you’re not careful. Familiarize yourself with the customers you’re reaching and ask yourself what the best form of social proof would be for them.
When it comes to selecting the proper form of social proof for your brand, try to focus on content that actually represents who you’re trying to reach. Help people see themselves using your product or service. Avoid using large brush strokes and strive not to sound overly braggy, as both can alienate potential clients and terminate a sales opportunity.
By creating similarities between your examples and the people you’re looking to woo, you should see success and increased sales over time.