Bar staff and subway buskers will routinely ‘seed’ their tips jars and guitar cases with some change so that passers by think that contributing is what is expected and are then compelled to do so themselves.

Can online marketers tap into this same psychology?

Advertising and consumer psychology

Advertising once needed to do little more than display the product that was being promoted and essentially raise awareness of its existence. That was the only real objective, with no major perceived need to persuade or position with any degree of complexity.

Then on the heels of the golden age of advertising, campaigns became smarter, and the most effective advertising campaigns were those that were underpinned by an acute understanding of human psychology and by extension, a more insightful appreciation of people’s values and what drives them to action, i.e. consumer psychology.

With this keener understanding of behavioural psychology, advertisers began to actually try and talk to their prospects, as opposed to talking at them, an evolution that we can see immediate parallels with today with the growth in the importance of social media and its signals.

In light of this, taking a look at the role of the behavioural sciences and consumer psychology within the context of online marketing is valuable.

Invariably an entire book could be written on the topic, but the initial focus should be on ‘social proof’, one of the most powerful phenomena in the field, and how your key channels could and should take advantage of them. 

What is social proof?

Social proof is a phenomenon whereby people’s actions in ambiguous social situations are guided by the assumption that other people are better informed about a situation than they are.

The offline world offers the best examples of social proof in action:

  • Bar staff and buskers will routinely ‘seed’ their tips jars etc with some change so that passersby think that contributing is what is expected and are compelled to do so themselves.
  • Whilst most people claim to hate canned laughter in TV sitcoms, research shows that a show using it is perceived by the audience as being funnier than the same programme without the canned laughter.
  • A man gazed up at the sky while passersby ignored him in one famous experiment. When four more ‘sky-gazers’ were hired to join him other pedestrians stopped and looked at the sky too. The experiment had to be aborted when the crowd of sky-gazers swelled to traffic-halting numbers! 

This surrendering of personal will and the inclination towards herd behaviour is demonstrably incredibly powerful.

Social proof online

Formal social proof

In the online world, this social proof can be split into two categories. The compelling things you say about your business and your products that can be formally substantiated we would call the administration of yourformal social proof.

That’s because people can’t argue with social proofing statements that fall into this category – you’re the biggest, the most award winning, the most popular, etc – these are all social proof statements that make people believe you are worthy of their attention, time, and commercial consideration. They are facts that deliver social proof.

Informal social proof

Informal social proof has the same effect as formal but cannot be formally substantiated. People consider you important and worthy of their consideration even though a formal body has not recognised your value and even though you cannot commandeer the label of biggest, most award winning, etc.

Informal social proof is most often instigated by third party publishers and people, from review sites, blogs and newspapers and people contributing to our pooled knowledge through their engagement in social media sites.

Often both types of social proof work together to drive consumer engagement and action. For example, if you were trying to decide whether a particular restaurant was appropriate for a special romantic dinner date, you might look at the restaurateur’s site and discover that it has a number of awards to its name.

However, to confirm you are making the right decision you might also take a look at third party sites such as and, and find that the restaurant has plenty of positive reviews.

So taking this a step further – how can you impact on your formal and informal social proof as an online marketer?

Formal social proof

Formal social proof is what you communicate to the outside world to position you as a brand worthy of the consumers consideration, and you do so by creating the perception that you are popular and credible in the eyes of others and therefore for every next potential consumer. You do this by stating a fact that can be substantiated.

So saying you are ‘the best’ doesn’t qualify as it isn’t measurable or based on fact. Attributes that do qualify include the following, again assuming you can actually substantiate them with evidence:

  • You are the winner of the most awards or the most important awards.
  • You are a member of an important and relevant club or group.
  • You are the fastest-growing organisation in your sector. 
  • You are endorsed by famous celebrities or by experts. 
  • You are the most subscribed-to organisation (if you were an online magazine or discount code site for example). 
  • You are the most positively reviewed by consumers or consumer bodies.
  • You are the manufacturer of a bestselling product.

Stating these facts to demonstrate your social proof happens first and foremost within your website.

All of the above examples of formal social proof affirms to the visitor that you are the real deal, that you are a leader in your field, and that there is limited risk to them of being cheated, serviced badly etc as so many more people came before them and had a great experience or received a great deal.

Formal social proof statements should therefore inform decisions such as on-page content and content prominence.

Auditing your homepage for the presence and effectiveness of these social proof statements is a good place to start. You should be aiming for at least 20% of all the initial visible space on your homepage (i.e. above the scroll line) to be dominated by text and images that reinforce the selected social proof statements you feel are the most powerful.

Using social proof in search

It doesn’t stop at the front door though, you need to take your social proof statements and use them to power the messaging in your other marketing channels. Using search as an example:

When a consumer conducts a search in Google the action is by its very nature ambiguous. After all, if the consumer knew what and where they were looking for it’s more likely they’d have taken the direct route to a particular vendor’s site, and skipped the visit to the search engine.

With the initial search the consumer demonstrates their need for more information before making a commitment. They are at a stage in the buying cycle where they have questions and need answers, and are therefore both susceptible and welcoming of persuasion.

At this point, everything your brand and site communicates to that searcher either moves them closer to or further away from choosing to buy from you. ‘Choosing’ in this context refers to a searcher selecting and clicking on your listing in a search engine results page (SERP) and then parting with whatever you are asking from them, be it money, their contact details, or even just their attention.

Let’s take the car insurance sector as an example of how formal social proof can be used in search marketing to alleviate this ambiguity and compel a searcher to choose you.

The paid search ad copy below (figure 1) is taken from a real insurer and a real campaign. I’ve censored their name and URL. As you can see the ad copy focuses on a 10% cost saving which is pretty good as cost savings go.

Fig 1 Paid search ad


However, this isn’t as compelling as you might immediately think; it simply states that the insurer is 10% cheaper than they themselves used to be, which only prompts people to compare prices elsewhere. They’ve made it about price and price alone.

The copy in their natural search listing (figure 2 below) is even worse, saying nothing about why you should consider them for your insurance needs. Neither the paid search ad nor the natural search listing make a consumer think this insurance provider is worthy of their time, attention, consideration and/or money. 

Fig 2 Natural search ad

SEO listing

This insurer would do well to explore alternative ad copy using formal social proof as the seed. Remember, people assume other people in the same situation have more knowledge than they do about areas they aren’t experts in so demonstrating that this car insurer is incredibly popular would work extremely well, as would focusing on quantitative evidence of price competitiveness.

By way of example uses the fact that 97% of its customers save up to £643 on their car insurance in their paid search ads.

The implied cognition here is that you should use to save that much money because lots of people before you have also done so, and therefore it’s a no-brainer.

A particular direct player uses the fact that they were voted UK car insurer of the year in their PPC ads. The implied cognition here would be that if other people seem to think that they are the best for car insurance I should really check them out. Very simple but very powerful.

Given the character limits, you should use no more than two statements aimed at harnessing social proof in your search ad copy.

So, select the two most powerful examples and make them central to your ads’ messaging. However, you need to include as many social proof angles as possible within your actual website (and its core landing pages specifically) to lead the potential consumer reassuringly to the point of conversion.

Informal social proof and social media

Informal social proof is the social proof gained by you through what other people are saying about you, sentiment that cannot be turned into nicely packaged facts that can be easily substantiated.

There are three main areas where this informal social proof exists and can be cultivated, providing signals that act as proxies for you level of importance, trustworthiness, and credibility – these are within social networks, within reviews, and pure advocacy.

Social networks

There are a number of attributes you will have within social networking sites that act as indicators of your level of social proof, giving you social proof by extension. For instance:

  • Your number of Twitter follows.
  • The relative importance of specific people that follow you on Twitter.
  • The number of tweets of your content.
  • The number of tweets/re-tweets for the content you post.
  • The comments people add to their re-tweets of your content.
  • Your number of Facebook friends.
  • Your number of Facebook update ‘likes’.
  • The number of responses to your public Facebook posts.
  • The relative popularity of your specific Facebook friends, their credibility, fame, etc.

And so on. Essentially, a brand or person’s number of Twitter followers, Facebook likes or other quantitative or qualitative social signal becomes a proxy for positive popularity and therefore act as social proof for others considering you, your brand, or your products. They will consider you or your content more highly if others have done so before them.

On that basis, it’s important to ensure that you allow people to show their support for you and your products or content with clear social media engagement mechanisms.

Furthermore, many sites have a Facebook like button on their sites but fewer integrate this in a way that shows their total number of accumulated likers and puts this clearly on display. I’m far more likely to buy from a company that can demonstrate in one glance that they have many happy customers willing to put their vote forward in support of them.


User generated content (UGC), particularly in the form of reviews represents an important source of informal social proof.

People in ambiguous situations often require quantitative reassurance and this doesn’t get much more effective than an overwhelming quantity of positive reviews from people who were in the same position, faced with the same decisions to make and were happy they chose you. 

If we’re assuming that you market a good product or service then reviews should not be something to fear. You should however ensure that you are encouraging happy clients and customers to share their happiness by writing reviews, and not be afraid to incentivise that behaviour (assuming you remain within the guidelines of the relevant advertising codes, laws and regulations of course).


If reviews have quantitative power to produce social proof, advocacy is its qualitative sibling. In simple terms an advocate is someone or something of influence that promotes you positively, and is active and visible in doing so.

Examples might include the unsolicited endorsement of you or your product by a celebrity, or public acknowledgement of you by a thought leader. Finding and nurturing these proponents is an increasingly important endeavour.

Final thoughts

Take a piece of paper, title it ‘Demonstrations of my social proof’. Beneath this create two columns. In the first list any facts that give you, your brand or firm formal social proof. In the other column list the activities, contacts, positioning, and social media performance you enjoy that provides you with informal social proof. Put a tick next to each item that you showcase on your website, in your email marketing, in your search and display adverts. Now consider the following:

  • Did you manage to list more than three things in each column?
  • Is one list much longer than the other?
  • Are there ticks against at least 70% of those items?

From these answers you can build a clear, actionable, measurable social proof strategy to improve all your marketing efforts. Then don’t forget, as with everything – TEST, FEEDBACK, REVISE.