feature

This is guest post by Gregory Ciotti from Help Scout.

Social proof, one of Cialdini's famous six pillars of influence, has become a very important part of selling given the open nature of the web.

More and more often, we look to the opinions of others and additional "signals" to evaluate our potential purchases. Perhaps this is best expressed in the rise of the online review:

  • Over 70% of Americans say they look at product reviews before making a purchase.
  • Nearly 63% of consumers indicate they are more likely to purchase from a site if it has product ratings and reviews.

But social proof isn't as simple as slapping up a 5-star rating system on your website.

There are a few principles for social proof that marketers and entrepreneurs should never forget, and today we'll go over how they can impact your sales.

The Influence Mix of Online Reviews

Despite the growing importance of online reviews, they aren't treated equally across all industries.

According to findings published on the Harvard Business Review, there is an influence mix that applies across product categories, on a sliding 'PMO' scale:

  • P: a consumer's prior preferences, beliefs, and experiences (ex: buying a particular brand of milk over and over)
  • M: the value of information from marketers (ex: you bought a GoPro camera thanks to a compelling marketing campaign)
  • O: the importance of other people's opinions (here are where online reviews matter)

Some products are more dependent on P than O. For instance, you aren't likely to check out reviews before you buy a certain brand of orange juice, you're just going to go off of your prior preferences.

As the author's would put it:

"The greater the reliance on one source, the lower the need for the others. If the impact of O on a purchase decision about a food processor goes up, the influence of M or P, or both, goes down."

Click here to view a larger version of the above image.

Ecommerce store owners need to have a general sense of where their products fall on this scale before they proceed with reviews and ratings.

Let's take luxury clothing - I'm a customer of Viberg Boot, and I can tell you that I don't give a damn about ratings before I make a purchase.

Why? Viberg is a company that bases its entire brand strategy around the quality materials and handmade nature of their footwear. The issue of quality is a non-issue given their reputation, so adding reviews would really be a distraction.

Rather than stars, I'd like to see a personal account of ownership. Maybe a customer interview with someone who's owned the boots for over 10 years. That would fit with what Viberg was selling.

Conversely, in an industry like electronics, where there is very little brand loyalty, reviews would be an important part of the buying experience - I don't know how this or that printer performs, and I'm not buying off of previous experience, I just want to know what others think.

So before you throw up ratings, social widgets, or testimonials, think about what your prospective customers actually care about when it comes to social proof.

Get it While It's Hot

One important way that social proof is used is in convincing people that items are moving fast.

In some sense, it's the most authentic and effective form of urgency that entrepreneurs can us.

Have you ever wondered why some ecommerce stores keep up listings for items that are sold out? If they aren't available for sale, why not just remove them?

In certain instances, like for Stalward's limited number of handmade ties, the "Sold Out" sign serves as a subtle push for prospective customers to jump on a style they've had their eye on - because it's apparent that other items are selling fast.

Site's like ScoreBig show recent purchases on the sidelines (pun intended), reassuring customers that people are buying, and reminding them that the tickets available won't last forever.

GetElastic covered a great example of implementing a live version of this into ecommerce category pages:

Backcountry has built a unique feature into its category pages – “Bubblelicious.” Shoppers can see instant updates when an item has been added to cart or purchased.

Similar to Amazon's famous "Only 2 left" red text, with an added kick of letting customers watch it happen live.

Certainly an effective way to get those on the fence post to make a move, so be sure to investigate how you can use social proof to reassure and nudge customers towards not waiting on a purchase they've had their eye on.

Put a Face to the Name

Talk to any business owner about "appearing trustworthy" and they take it as a personal attack. Trustworthy people assume the world knows that they are trustworthy.

But the truth is that just because you are telling the truth doesn’t mean customers are going to believe you.

The same applies to "too good to be true" social proof.

One way to add legitimacy to the praise your receive is to put a face to the kind words you've received, where applicable.

Research on "truthiness" revealed that adding images (even nonsensical images) increased perceived trustworthiness among all participants. Additional research has shown that putting a face to the name can increase empathy between strangers.

Obviously, there are certain instances where this tactic is best suited.

ModCloth offers an incredible example through their Style Gallery section, which shows real customers in outfits they've assembled:

Sites like Fab will take a simpler approach by simply putting photos for any praise that they'll use. On many pages, they'll add a buyer or designer's comments on a certain selection or collection, which is a great way to increase consumer trust.

This really applies to business of all kinds, as it takes very minimal effort to get permission to use a photo, and the benefits of seeing a friendly face next to kind words are certainly worth the effort.

Lots of people ask me questions regarding how to get images, but it's often as easy as a simple email. If you've ever had a happy customer contact you, send a simple follow-up message stating, "Hey ____, we appreciated your kind words so much that we'd love to feature a quote from you on our site! Would we have permission to share your statements along with a small photo of you?"

Most customers will be happy to oblige.

No Proof is Better than Low Proof

As P.T. Barnum was known for saying:

"Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd."

It's important to remember that the lack of the crowd can often have an inverse effect. In other words, having low signs of social proof can be even worse than not listing social proof at all.

This is especially apparent through the superfluous use of social media buttons.

The folks at Visual Website Optimizer recently published a case study involving these now ubiquitous distractions on an ecommerce purchase page.

Taloon.com, after removing their Twitter and Facebook buttons, found a 11.9% higher "add to cart" conversion rate with a 95% statistical confidence.

These findings have been replicated elsewhere, and it's been argued by Rand Fishkin of Moz that no proof > low proof due to how stagnant social signals can be misinterpreted:

  • Your product or brand may appear untrustworthy.
  • Your business may appear to be too new, and might scare away risk averse customers.
  • Your product pages now look unpopular thanks to a silly Facebook button; is this just because people don't often share product pages, or because your product sucks? Customers won't know.

This creates a very easy choice for you — if you're going to use social proof on certain pages, it either has to be "hell yeah!" or no, meaning it should either wow customers or shouldn't exist at all.


About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible email support software that's perfect for ecommerce store owners who don't want to deal with help desk headaches. Find out why your business will love Help Scout by clicking here.