Why Testimonials Work: The Psychology of Social Proof

Business.com / Marketing Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

When we understand the psychology behind social proof, we can begin to strategize ways of using it to our advantage. Tips inside!

We all know that social proof, whether you call it testimonials or word of mouth, brings more customers.

However, simply knowing that it works pales in comparison to understanding why it works.

When we understand the psychology behind social proof, we can begin to strategize ways of using it to our advantage and supplement our marketing efforts.

Let’s explore a couple of basic principles of psychology that are related to social proof.

Related Article: Street Cred: The Importance of Social Proof in Web Design

Milgram on Assuming the Behavior of Others

To begin our quest for psychological wisdom, let’s examine a New York City sidewalk in 1969. It was then and there that psychologist Stanley Milgram (of Six Degrees of Separation fame) hired actors to stop and look up toward the sky.

Milgram discovered that the more actors he hired to look up, the more passersby, up to 80 percent of them, copied their behavior and also looked up.

There is some debate as to whether the psychological phenomenon is innate or a learned behavior, but the result remains: people emulate the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation in which they are unsure of how to act.

Customers have been trained to save the time required to thoroughly research topics, services or products by trusting the experience of their peers as their own, and thus, make up their mind or form their opinion.

Kelman on Opinion Change

Even before Milgram and his skyward facing actors, Harvard University’s Herbert Kelman described three types of opinion change, in 1958:

  • Compliance is when a person acts upon a request, but does not internally agree with it, like when a soldier follows orders.
  • Identification happens when we accept and believe the claims made by another without questioning them, as in the case of pop idols.
  • Internalization is full internal acceptance and adoption of a rational idea or belief that is observed when employees accept the corporate culture.

Now that we have discussed these two fundamental aspects of psychology, let’s see how they relate to modern online consumer behavior:

Psychology in Website Testimonials

When it comes to using these principles of psychology in website testimonials, the goal is to find a formula that creates conversions by encouraging visitors to assume the behavior of others and internalizing the beliefs as their own.

Implicit egotism

Implicit egotism is a more recently discovered psych tendency in which people gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble the self, which reflects an unconscious process that is grounded in people's favorable self-associations.

This theory is the psychological support for highlighting reviews and testimonials on your site from people most like your target audience.

Google AdWords target small business owners who are results-oriented and data-driven. The testimonial they highlight uses a member of the target persona, and discusses numbers and results.

The theory of implicit egotism tells us that others who are looking for proven advertising for their small business will gravitate toward this review and internalize it. 

Photo of Lee Rhodes with a quote about AdWords

Related Article: Telling Your Brand Story: How to Engage the Masses

Self-determination theory (SDT)

SDT is a macro theory of human motivation that explains that relatedness or connectedness with others is an influential psychological need that influences people's psychological health. Put simply, “we want what they’re having”. Or said another way, “we don’t want to miss out on what they already have".

Amazon uses this psychological principle expertly with their #1 Best Seller badge. Search for a gaming mouse and find that 3,637 of your gaming peers agree about the #1 Best Selling mouse:

Amazon prime search result for a gaming mouse

This is the modern-day equivalent of looking toward the sky on a New York sidewalk. Whether you knew anything about the Redragon 6 button mouse or not, everyone else is buying it, so...

Narrative Transportation Theory

Narrative transportation theory proposes that when people lose themselves in a story, their attitudes and intentions change to reflect that story. When case studies, reviews, or testimonials convey a story with pain points, fears, and solutions, other relate to them and empathize.

This video case study for Optimizely is a great example of this. In it, the story is built, we empathize with the characters, and we want the same solution they found.

Related Article: How to Build an Effective Executive Social Media Presence

Why Social Proof Works

Social proof works because of the way our minds work: in a word, psychology. Part of being human is looking up toward the sky when we see others are doing it or buying a certain tennis shoe or brand of cereal because our favorite athletes tell us to.

Part of being human is accepting the opinions of others who are just like us as our own. Part of being human is empathizing with others who have struggled and relating to the solution they found for our common pain.

Understanding the humanity that binds us and calls us to act is the first step toward leveraging social proof that influences online consumer motivations and behavior.

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