The Power of Social Proof

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 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 behavior 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.’

So 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.

This post is part of the 2015 IFC Series. 101fundraising is proud to be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress for the 4th year!


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