The Social Proof Secrets That Can Grow Your Business

Social Proof

In every training session I conduct, there is an interesting phenomenon that appears at morning tea. After a high energy, high interactive session, I announce the break for morning tea. People can get up, talk and get something to eat. But often they don’t…well not straight away. The participants look to each other to see who will make the first move. When one person moves, the rest take off. This is social proof. The first person to move has sent a signal to the others that it’s socially appropriate to move. The others then follow, feeling more comfortable that someone else took the initial risk.

This is a deep psychological process that marketers and leaders have been using for centuries.

Social Proof

In 1930, Social scientist Muzafer Sherif conducted an insightful experiment. Sherif projected a dot of light onto a wall, and asked his subjects to write down how much they thought it had moved – (it wasn’t moving at all). Most subjects reported that it didn’t move when they were alone, but were certain it had moved a lot when they were with someone else. When they were placed with another person (who was in on the experiment) and that person said the dot moved, the subjects changed their opinion and said that it moved too.

The bottom line: people behave differently in the company of others.

Social proof is more common under certain conditions. For example, people get in situations where they feel nervous and out of place. To combat this feeling they look at someone else for clues on how to act. In that morning tea session, for example, the social need for approval and belonging was heightened. The environment and context are crucial, but these are factors that the leader can’t control.

There are, however, a few important ways social proof can be created by changing your behaviour. For every leader, its something that comes with practice more than any natural gift.

By looking at my own experiences, and observing other people who have mastered social proof, I’ve narrowed it down to some key principles. Here are some ways you can influence others using this psychological technique.

People just like me

People feel more comfortable when they’re observing something or someone familiar. By relating to others, you will immediately become a reference point for their behaviour. This is because people naturally seek examples that are the easiest to follow.

Marketers use this all the time.

Have you noticed that just about every advertisement shows testimonials? People just like you and me who have used the product or service. Even though we know that most people giving the testimonials are being paid for it, they still have a powerful affect on shaping our behaviour. Facebook has become very good at this with sponsored stories. The testimonials are coming from people we know. We see people we know are taking action. This normalises the bahaviour and makes it easier for us to behave in that way too. There is social proof that we should be taking action.

Another way to relate is through conversation. In two-person or small group situations, identify what you have in common, and build on that topic. In larger groups, look for collective traits in the audience and work those topics into your content. As people feel that they can relate to your personality, appearance, or experiences, they’ll become more comfortable around you. As they become more comfortable, they’ll be more likely to follow your lead repeatedly.

Sometimes you’ll have time to think of ways to relate before an event or interaction. Consider the most likely commonalities that you’ll share with others. The more specific, the closer you’ll relate and the more ‘like me’ you’ll be. Relating to others is a powerful part of creating social proof, but be careful not to fake any common ground – that’s the world of the traditional used-car-salesman. Make sure you’re not acting too much out of character just to make people feel comfortable. If they pick up on this, it can have the opposite effect and push others away. Instead, search for genuine areas of your lives and personalities where you can connect in a meaningful way.

Identify the social need

Social proof is most powerful where people feel a strong social need. In the business world that need is often around feeling respected and connected. There is the need to feel justified or ‘right’ in the eyes of others. Social proof usually occurs when people want a sense of belonging.

Social need can also come in the form of symbols of social fulfillment. Status is one of the most powerful manifestations of social accomplishment in the business world. A strong partnership is another symbol for some, while wealth is big for others. Look for the presence or absence of these symbols in each specific situation.

After observing the people around you, try to identify the prevailing social need. By reading into the deeper context, you’ll be more prepared to effectively create social proof.

Take the first step

When you’ve found a way to relate, and you’ve identified the social need, it’s time to create your social cue. This could be as simple as being the first to get up for a break. When people see you move, you become the leader.

Social proof is most useful when you’re the trailblazer. If you’re competing with others for a group’s attention and loyalty social proof builds on itself as you gain the trust of those who follow you. The sooner people see that others are following you the sooner they will get on board.

Make the losses/rewards visible

Show people that if they don’t follow you, they’ll be missing out on something valuable.

This step connects to identifying the social need of a specific context. In most contexts, if you can demonstrate that your decisions make you more socially adapted and likeable, that’s a big step toward influencing others.

First think about the short-term rewards. What difference will it make if you take this action right now? Will speaking up achieve more respect and admiration from your peers? Usually carrying out the action itself makes the short-term reward apparent. By simply creating a sense of respect for you in others, you’re proving that your actions are effective. Think of these rewards in terms of social acceptance – not financial or other type.

Beyond the immediate moment, you should also think about the long-term rewards. How does your way of acting benefit others who follow it? How is it making your own situation better? These benefits include a sense of social purpose and belonging. To demonstrate the long-term rewards you may have to be more obvious. This can be done either verbally or non-verbally. Mentioning your social accomplishments in a subtle manner is one useful technique, but make sure it’s not obvious name-dropping. Try telling a genuine story about when you signed a big client or had a meaningful conversation with someone respected in your field. By illustrating your positive social actions through memory, you communicate that others have socially validated you in the past.

You can also demonstrate social proof to others through more subtle non-verbal signs. For professionals in leadership our performance in front of a crowd becomes the testimony to our methods. It may just be a matter of how you dress, speak or relate to people successfully that makes people want what you have.

Social proof is a powerful tool that you can use in a variety of ways. Study it and apply this psychology to your next social experience.

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