The Effectiveness of Social Proof in Online Sales

By Neil Sniffen
5 minute read | Last Updated: May 14, 2016

What does a line for a crowded restaurant in Portland, Oregon have to do with the effect of social proof on online sales?

Here in Portland, Oregon we have a phenomenon that can seem mind boggling to those from other parts of the country. Portlanders will stand in line (often for hours) just to eat breakfast at a restaurant.

Can a restaurant really be so good that it’s worth suffering in the winter gloom for hours just to get some fried chicken with biscuits and gravy?

Why does this happen?

The answer is social proof.

What is social proof?

Social proof is why we choose to stand in the line, wait for a table, choose a style of clothing, and buy certain products online.

Social proof can be broken into five categories:

1. Proof in numbers

When large groups of people (particularly groups which we identify with) approve of something, this often pushes others towards that same thing.

2. Social following

We value the opinions of people who we think are like us. This is why social media is so powerful.

3. Ratings and reviews

The personal account of an actual user a product or service is one of the most powerful online features a brand can use. This real life storytelling is often the deciding factor in a purchase decision.

4. Expert/celebrity mentions

LeBron James is seen wearing Beats headphones causing everyone rushes out to buy Beats headphones. Using influencers such as athletes, celebrities, and well-known experts in your industry can tap into what is known as the Halo Effect–if a celebrity we like uses the product, we like the product.

5. Testimonials

These more formal and personal accounts of how your brand addressed a specific pain point of your consumer can dramatically increase trust in a brand.

Portlanders (and our wonderful visitors) stand in line for breakfast because of these factors. Often it is a premeditated action because the social proof is so strong.

For example, Pine Street Biscuits was featured on The Food Network. The Expert Mention coupled with the Testimonials provided on the show increased the positive social proof of Pine Street Biscuits. As a result lines formed (Proof in Numbers) further increasing the social proof.

So how do we capture positive social proof online?

What social proof looks like online?

Online social proof is most evident in the use of social media and viral videos. We share and flock to common experiences with our peers and use them to help reinforce who we think of as ourselves.

To maximize your brand’s ability to positively use social proof online you must first know exactly who your customer is.

The more specific your brand can identify its target customer and their persona, the better.

By using the implicit egotism of your customers, you can help your brand better relate to your consumer through brand storytelling that aligns with their lives, testimonials that address specific pain points, and customer reviews.

How to use social proof to increase sales

There are two easy ways to use social proof on your e-commerce or lead gen site to increase sales conversions:

1. Ratings and reviews

63% of customers indicate that they are more likely to purchase from a site that offers product reviews and ratings.

This applies to negative ratings as well. A one star review that explains why the product didn’t work for a consumer can provide context to a potential buyer for why the product may actually work for them. Often negative reviews stem from an issue with size or appropriateness for a particular activity.

If the review is truly negative it also provides an opportunity for a brand’s customer service to respond inline with the customer. This demonstrates further trust and willingness to serve customers (all keys to increasing social proof).

2. Testimonials with pictures

Humans are drawn to faces and when a testimonial appears online, without a face, it is received as inauthentic (and therefore ignored). But put a face to the name and the testimonial becomes truth.

Be careful with testimonials. Stay away from testimonials that use “Great Service” or “Best Ever” language. This is too generic.

Instead use testimonials that describe a particular pain point and how your product or service remedied that pain.The closer you are to the pain points of your brand’s specific consumer personas, the more effective the testimonials will be in converting sales.

Likes, Tweets, +1’s, and Pins

Social media is a powerful influencer, and brands should include link buttons to their social properties on their brand site. But those buttons should be in the footer. Using social buttons elsewhere can slow a site, distract customers from the purchase path, and reduce conversion rates.

Having said that, do not use social counters, especially on product detail pages. If a product has zero likes, this tells the consumer that either no one is buying or no one likes the product (negative social proof). They will move on to choose a different product, or worse, a different brand.

To paraphrase Rand Fishkin, when it comes to social counters, no proof is better than low proof.

Using the power of social proof on your brand’s e-commerce or lead gen site, will tap your brand into the primal instinct of belonging. Humans want to belong and to be a part of what’s happening.

By understanding your specific customer and their very specific personas, your brand can generate more leads, increase conversions, and sell more online. And the best place to start is our Stuck Score™.

Join the dozens of brands (proof in numbers) and find out more about our complimentary Stuck Score™ offering. The brands who have received theirs (social following) have only had positive feedback (ratings and reviews). You’ll be in good company with several of the Fortune 500 (expert/celebrity mentions).