According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in brands is down. Consumers ranked brand trust as one of the top factors they consider when making a purchase, but just 34 percent of consumers said they trust most of the brands they buy and use.
As the media and marketing industry struggles under the weight of its trust problem, the old adage ‘people buy from people’ rings truer than ever. In order to win back valuable consumer confidence, we need to tap into our very human desire for social bonding and togetherness.
Social proof is a term first coined by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book, Influence. It describes the psychological and social phenomenon where people copy the actions of those around them. It’s the belief that if people around us are behaving in a certain way, we can trust that we should behave that way too.
Over the years, researchers have further defined various types of social proof, from the wisdom of the crowd to celebrity and expert influence. Imagine you’re choosing between two restaurants online: one with 1,000 four-star reviews, and one with two three-star reviews: it’s pretty obvious which one you’ll go for. We put our trust in the crowd and go with the most popular choice.
We’ve also seen a massive rise in peer to peer reviews for a wide variety of industries, including consumer goods, travel and even employee experience. Sites like Whirlpool, Trip Advisor and Glassdoor all feed into consumers’ desire for social proof.
They simultaneously help counter trust issues, since reviews are independent and come from fellow customers. Marketers can build peer to peer reviews into their social proof strategy by listening carefully to feedback, making adjustments and responding publicly to reviews - whether negative or positive.
Social proof can also be built into a brand’s own website through reviews, forums and consumer surveys. In fact, 82% of consumers read online reviews, with 52% of 18-54-year-olds saying they ‘always’ read reviews before making a purchasing decision.
Influencers are another great way to build social proof into a marketing strategy, whether it’s celebrities, social media influencers or experts in their field. The social proof jackpot would be someone who’s an amalgamation of all three; which is why brands are so keen to work with celebrity nutritionists, makeup artists, fitness or fashion experts.
Consumers are more willing to put their trust in these independent influencers than in the brands themselves. However, businesses must ensure they’re working with people who fit authentically with their brand, rather than shooting straight for the most popular person they can find. Micro-influencers are a great avenue to explore since they often have some of the deepest connections with their audience - great for a strong sense of social proof.
Social influencers must have earned their influence the hard way - through consistent, positive interactions with their fans, and high-quality content. Vanity metrics are no longer enough for true social proof, and consumers know it. Instagram’s decision to remove likes entirely is just another sign that the industry is hungry for a more authentic version of social influence.
Brands can also capitalise on the trust of other brands, through partnerships and joint campaigns. The supermarket shelves are filled with examples of these kinds of mutually beneficial partnerships in action: snack giant Arnott’s partnering with Vegemite to create ‘Shapes: Vegemite & Cheese’, Golden Gaytime and Krispy Kreme teaming up to create a revamped ice cream-inspired doughnut, and Messina partnering with Peters Drumstick for the limited-edition Drumstick X Messina.
These FMCG examples are all brands with decades of reliability, consistency and trust behind them. These are brands with a strong sense of social proof: your mum buys them, your friend buys them, your sister buys them. By partnering with one another, brands are able to carry that trust over in new and exciting ways. The consumer thinks: ‘well, if [my favourite trusted brand] is working with them, then they must be great too.’
While these kinds of campaigns were once incredibly difficult to track, advances in automation mean that brand partnerships are no longer a stab in the dark. Whether it’s social influencers or big brand campaigns, advanced tracking and reporting methods means that marketers are now able to put a true value on the power of trust.
While we’re firmly in a post-digital age, social proof remains just as important as ever. All that’s changed are the channels we use to get there, and the advances we’ve made in tracking its progress.