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The Power of Social Proof

The Management Centre

Omar Mahmoud, Chief of Market Knowledge at UNICEF International, and I are running a Big Room session at IFC on The Science of Decision Making and Behavioural Economics. We’d love to see you there.

The Psychology Influence of PersuasionThe session will share some of the very latest thinking from the field of Behavioural Economics
– as applied to fundraising by charities such as MSF, Red Cross, and UNICEF. But as we prepare the session we’ve realised that many useful insights
in the world of decision science come from the past – and specifically from the pen of Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Cialdini developed the concept of social proof as key issue in fundraising. Social Proof is the idea that we can influence the beliefs or behaviours of
others by showing that individuals with authority, or that they can relate to, hold this belief or adopt that behaviour. This premise goes back to
a simple experiment that took place in New York almost 50 years ago. A researcher, posing as a regular bystander, stopped in the street and looked
skyward for 60 seconds. Almost everyone simply walked past the man without even noticing that he was there, far less glancing up to see what he was
looking at. The experiment was tried with a number of individuals stopping and pointing. The result was the same – indifference. However when a group
of four or more researchers, posing as ‘normal’ pedestrians, stopped and looked up there was a different impact. The number of passers-by who joined
in, looking to see what was happening, by 400%.

In the example above the reason people stop to stare is because ‘enough’ others were doing it. We can see the same phenomenon when people queue patiently
for at a busy restaurant when there are other nearby restaurants which are almost empty.

They are all obeying the Rule of Social Proof. Our minds say ‘if others are doing it, it must be the right thing to do.’

We see this approach being consciously used by agencies we interact with:

  • If you go into a Café Nero or Costa, even when it has just opened for the day, on the counter will be a jar with some money in it marked ‘tips’. The
    money has of course been placed there by the staff before any customer has actually left a tip to encourage you to think that tipping is normal
    and something others do. And by implication so should you. 
  • Watch a telethon and you’ll see that the hosts read out the names of others who are giving and mentioning the amount they gave. And of course they
    will indicate celebrities we know are doing it too. (You may remember the number of celebrities who stepped forward at the Commonwealth Games opening
    to make a text donation to UNICEF.) 
  • If you go into a restaurant the maître d’ will normally place you in the window even if the rest of the restaurant is empty. Why is s/he doing this?
    Well to make the restaurant appear popular. Some restaurants or nightclubs also keep a queue at the door when they don’t really need to. They will
    do anything to create sense of popularity and scarcity- measures of social proof.

Putting Social Proof to Work  

If you’re keen to show social proof at work for your organisation or cause then you should try some or all of the following.


When to use Social Proof 

Social Proof works best under two main conditions, uncertainty and similarity. These are discussed below:

Uncertainty: so, Social Proof will have most impact when the group or individual you’re trying to engage is unaware or uncertain about
your proposition, brand or agency. If you’re a completely unknown or brand new charity, for example, Social Proof could help you secure new donors.
But if you’re already a well-known brand name, such as Red Cross, it’s unlikely Social Proof would have an effect of engaging supporters. Where it
might help is if you have new offering that people don’t associate with you like a corporate sponsorship of refugee camps and are trying to introduce
your target audience to it. (“You might not think that we do ABC… but I’m delighted to announce that we’re launching a new scheme in 2016, following
a trial with these great partners…XYZ”)

Similarity: the principle of Social Proof, according to Cialdini, “operates most powerfully when we are observing the behaviour of
people just like us.” This accounts for the number of endorsements by “ordinary” people in press, TV and radio ads. Sometimes these people are real.
Often they are actors playing the role of being ‘an ordinary mother looking to feed he family quickly,’ ‘a young man keen to be attractive so using
a particular shampoo,’ ‘a couple looking to save for retirement so choosing this pension scheme.’

Social ProofSo the audience should be able to say, “Yes, those people are like me and they are using that product or service.
Therefore, I’m the type of person who would use it.” You can see the power of this in the explosive growth of websites where consumers can report on
their experience. So Amazon and Trip Advisor offer you the opportunity to comment on and rate experiences or products. Both these agencies exert enormous
power over subsequent purchases by recording the most popular choice of hotel or the most highly reviewed model of headphones. I’ve often wondered
what would happen if someone set up a Trip Advisor for NGOs, where beneficiaries could feed back on their experience. Certainly we can see how the
recent burst of support for Syrian refugees has been fuelled by stronger messages about how the refuges are more like us than not like us – not simply
generic refuges but mothers, fathers, doctors, teachers etc.

If you’re keen to find out about some brand new ideas meet us at 09.00 on 22nd Oct in IFC… and if you can’t make it, try thinking about how Social
Proof can help you do more and better fundraising.

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