The Psychology Behind Social Proof

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The next time you walk down a busy street, stop and look in a specific direction – up, down, toward the street, at a shop window, it doesn’t matter where. Take note of the people around you, and you’ll see that at least a few of them turn their heads to follow your gaze. If you’re looking, then there must be something worth seeing, or so the mirror neurons that note other people’s actions tell them.

You’ve just witnessed social proof in action, and it’s one of your social media content team’s most powerful tools.

Since prehistoric times, people have gathered into societies and looked to the group to decide on a course of action. Social proof is one of the subconscious ways in which we play this eternal game of follow-the-leader. It reassures us that we’re behaving correctly when we laugh along with a comedy’s laugh track or choose the toothpaste that “four out of five dentists recommend.” It’s also vital when implementing a social media strategy.

Seeing that other people have chosen to “like” a company or product on Facebook or given it a +1 in Google+ lends weight to that decision. When your company name appears in tweets and on message boards, you become a more attractive option to potential customers. Social proof tips the balance in your favor, and not just in a linear way. The phenomenon is multiplicative; the more social proof weighs in on your behalf, the stronger its pull.

Remember that experiment of walking down a busy street and looking up? Try it with a friend or two, and you can draw a crowd just by looking in the same direction. Psychologists call this the multiple-source effect. It acts as a force multiplier for social proof, and it’s powerfully persuasive. By seeing repeated social proof from varied sources, people assemble a more trustworthy picture of the company they’re studying. Get multiple customers looking in your direction with a strong social media strategy, and you’ll draw a crowd, too.

The beauty of social media is that you don’t have to be the only one looking in your direction. Engaging in a dialogue with your customers encourages them to weigh in with their own contributions to social proof. That’s why sites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon have become huge – they give readers a chance to become writers. People who contribute their own share of social evidence become invested in it; having shared their positive opinions, they look for others to do likewise.

Social proof isn’t always a positive, as anyone who has read an unwarranted negative review can attest. Crowds can be wrong as easily as individuals, and when it happens on social media, it takes only minutes to traverse huge social networks. A 1960s experiment showed the alarming possibilities of social proof by piping a small amount of smoke into a room that contained one or more college students. Lone students noticed the smoke quickly and left the room, but in a room with other people, they glanced at others to determine a course of action. If others weren’t alarmed, they stayed in place despite smelling smoke. Had these students faced an actual emergency, they would have faced dire consequences from what psychologists term the bystander effect.

Smart social media management minimizes the impact of negative social proof by creating a different narrative and multiple points of view. It’s impossible to control every aspect of your social presence, but by using the principles of social proof in reverse, it’s possible to keep a crowd from forming by directing attention elsewhere instead of focusing potential customers’ gazes on negative input.

A savvy social media content strategy harnesses social proof as a way to build initial buzz, get customers invested in the company and minimize negative impacts through reputation optimization.

© Business Content, Inc. 2013 All Rights Reserved.

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