Imagine that you are in a new city and you need to find a place to eat. You notice two diners next to one another. Neither are familiar to you, but you quickly notice that there is one big difference. One is jam-packed with people, while the other has no customers.
Which restaurant would you choose?
If you are like most people I have posed that question to, an answer immediately comes to mind. You intuitively know that the busy diner is the better option. Yet why is eating at a full restaurant superior to dining at an empty one?
Social Proof 101
The reason your brain was able to quickly evaluate both restaurants and make a confident decision is because of a mental heuristic called social proof.
Social proof is one of the most powerful psychological heuristics, because it connects the persuasiveness of an idea or behavior to how others are responding to it. Additionally, when many other people are engaging in something, it triggers the brain to reduce the perception of risk associated with an idea or activity. It is the reason we are all drawn to best-selling books, blockbuster movies, crowded restaurants, and businesses that have many satisfied customers.
Social proof also creates strong social norms, which are expected standards of behavior. It is very hard for most people to go against these behavioral expectations. One of my favorite examples of this is a standing ovation. How many times have you been in an audience when a few people give the performers a standing ovation, then more audience members quickly follow? Soon it seems that everyone around you is standing up and applauding. In spite of the fact that you had not planned on doing so, you find yourself rising to your feet and joining in.
How to Use Social Proof in Sales
When you utilize social proof successfully, you convey to potential customers that buying your product or service is the safe thing to do. Doing this is central to the success of the sale because people are risk-averse. The higher the perceived risk associated with purchasing a product or service, the less likely it is that the buyer will make a positive buying decision.
Many businesses are already using social proof to increase their audience’s desire for their product or service. For example, Ford Motor Company gave away Ford Focus cars to some key influencers so they would be seen driving the car. The marketing firm that promotes Red Bull attempted to market the energy drink by filling up popular sidewalk trash cans with empty Red Bull cans. The impact that social proof has on changing consumer behaviors is so significant that researcher Steve Martin said, “Organizations are getting good results from these techniques; in fact, some have begun realizing billions, not just millions, in added revenues and efficiencies.”
But social proof is not just for big businesses; you can also use it to boost desire for your products or services. To activate social proof, you can reference your past customers by using phrases such as “so many people ... ” “most businesses in your situation,” or by offering customers’ names or organizations.
Another way to apply social proof is to tell buyers about your customer success stories. These types of stories demonstrate the widespread acceptance of your product or service.
When a lot of people are enjoying something you also want to try it, and when you do, because your expectation is positive, you are more likely to enjoy it as well. When you share how your customers are benefiting from your products or services, you will motivate others to purchase and experience the benefits for themselves.
When it comes to harnessing the positive power of social proof, remember that similarity matters. A significant amount of research has disclosed that the impact of social proof is amplified when people from one’s own peer group have embraced the idea or behavior. So if you show buyers how others similar to them have purchased your product or service and experienced positive results, they are much more likely to buy it as well.
How do you use social proof in your sales process? Share your strategies in the comments.
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the book The Science of Selling and has been published here with permission.