Social Proof (also known as social influence) is a mental shortcut people use to judge what is the right course of action by determining what others think is correct. People will allow their decision making to be influenced by the behaviour of others, on the basis that they assume this is the right decision.
Social influence has been around for centuries, from creating social and political movements to getting a laugh out of theatre audiences (laughter is contagious, and producers will often plant members of the audience cued to laugh at the right time). More recently social media has enabled a new generation of ‘influencers.’
Psychologists have been conducting experiments since the 1930s to demonstrate the power of social proof on the human thought process.
The power of consensus
Robert Cialdini, a well-respected professor of psychology and marketing, examined the power of “social proof”— One of the most powerful tools of influence is consensus. When an individual sees themselves as similar to the people around them, they are more likely to adopt and observe their behaviour as correct.
Today’s increasingly connected digital world provides more opportunities than ever to share information that can influence how others think and behave. Ever found yourself persuaded to book a restaurant by the number of positive reviews on TripAdvisor or to pick a specific vendor on Amazon? Or perceiving a Twitter user with a million followers as more reputable than one with only a dozen? You’re not imagining this. Social media and mobile technology have created a wide range of new opportunities to build the sphere of influence to gain approval for a project.
The need to belong sits firmly in the centre of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. People like to follow the crowd—it’s the nature of a herd mentality. When people see there are a large group of people doing something, they’re more likely to join in. Especially when they are uncertain, people will look to the actions and behaviours of others to determine their own.
People feel compelled to belong, and we want to be part of a larger crowd. Social proof can be a key way to influence stakeholder approval and goodwill for your programme.
The power of authority
The endurance of the influence model shouldn’t be surprising: powerful forces of human nature underlie it.
Smart organisations seeking to win support for major programmes recognise that key opinion leaders may exert more influence than CEOs. As audiences have become more cynical, audiences have started to trust influencers, earned media and public opinion more than the official messaging channels themselves.
Something important to keep in mind is finding the right match for your audience. If your demographic is senior citizens getting ready for retirement, teaming up with the latest teenage YouTube star might not be the best fit.
The power of storytelling
A recent Harvard Business Review article looked at the power of storytelling to influence audiences. When leaders develop a story that helps all stakeholders understand where the project is headed, it’s purpose, and it is important. Checking in to sense how the story is being received is also useful. These change stories not only help get out the message but also, recent research finds, serve as an effective influencing tool.
The big takeaway in regard to social proof is that people feel safer jumping on board when they see more people have joined in. By establishing the benefits that your project will bring, you can start to build a trusted voice of authority, that will help to influence stakeholder opinion in favour of your project.