My son is nine years old and crazy about baseball.
I attempted to brainwash him into rooting for my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers. Given the Tigers record the past four years, this could be considered child abuse.
I can’t overcome that most of his school friends root for the local team, the Washington Nationals. The Nats also happen to be incredibly competitive, young and exciting to watch. I am asking him to root against the crowd, something I didn’t do growing up in Detroit.
I am conceding that he might want to root for the same team as his buddies. So, I bought two tickets to see the Nationals clinch the series that sent them to the World Series.
At the game, I struck up a conversation with the couple seated next to me. After a few innings, they admitted that they weren’t baseball fans. They were tired of seeing friends on social media at Nationals games. They felt pressure to say they went to at least one playoff game, just in case the Nationals won it all.
My new friends and I spent big money to keep up with the crowd. My son and I enjoyed the game, and he gained bragging rights at recess the next day at school.
The couple who sat next to us hung around for seven innings, looking uninterested. They did ask me to take pictures where they posed like they were having the time of their lives.
In both cases, social proof drove the purchase decision of those tickets.
Keeping Up With The Joneses
Few selling approaches are more compelling than subtly suggesting that someone is falling behind the crowd.
Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) isn’t just a cute tagline. A study by Credit Karma found that 39% of people admitted to spending money they didn’t have to keep up with their friends. Another 27% admitted to not feeling comfortable turning down a friend suggesting an activity that they can’t afford.
Everyone is influenced in some way by the purchasing decisions of the crowd.
The field of psychology coined the term “Involuntary Defeat Syndrome,” an evolutionary-based cognition in which low social rank opens people up to anxiety and depression. For example, a married couple who earns $200,000 annually will likely feel inadequate if they live in a neighborhood where the average couple earns $500,000.
Their immediate surroundings will remind them of what they don’t have. If that same couple moved to a neighborhood where they are slightly ahead of everyone, their relative happiness might increase dramatically.
Humans are hard-wired to follow a crowd, which represents safety. Going alone thousands of years ago led to being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Those who stayed with the crowd survived and passed down a genetic code that was wired to do the same.
For example, see how long you can remain seated the next time you are part of a crowd that gives a standing ovation. If you feel the ovation isn’t warranted, you might stay seated a little longer than most.
When the crowd gets to 30% standing, you feel awkward. Once half the crowd stands, anxiety overtakes you, and you begrudgingly stand up and start clapping. Does anyone in the room stay seated?
Marketers Understand The Power Of Social Proof
Since 1955, McDonald’s has leveraged the influence of crowds. This is the year McDonald’s started posting how many hamburgers they sold, starting with one million. That number grew every decade and today they proudly boast “Over 99 Billion Served.”
Beer companies have long understood the marketing power of popularity. Adolphus Busch understood the importance of becoming a beer for the masses, nicknaming his pilsner “The King of Beers” shortly after introducing Budweiser Lager in 1876. Market share fluctuated after prohibition ended with Budweiser and Schlitz trading the title of America’s best-selling beer through most of the 50s. Beer marketing during that period leaned heavily on social proof and still does today.
Television comedies have employed laugh tracks for decades. This decision is backed by empirical evidence from studies that audiences laugh more frequently at shows aired with canned audience laughter.
Marketers in all industries understand that the brain is triggered when the masses are engaging in something. Our perception of risk associated with a purchase is greatly reduced, as we inherently trust in the wisdom of crowds.
Where Are You On The Adoption Curve?
We live in a neighborhood with nearly zero crime. I rarely lock the doors on my truck when I park in the driveway. My kids left the garage door open overnight at least a dozen times in the last year. Nothing was stolen.
This didn’t stop us from buying a Ring doorbell. Video-enabled with a slick app, the Ring is one of the fastest-growing tech products on the market. If safety is something we rarely worry about, why do we have a web-enabled doorbell? Social FOMO, of course.
It starts with a friend sending a hilarious video of a neighborhood woman emptying an entire Halloween candy bowl into a bag before running off.
Our interest is piqued, and we feel a tinge of jealousy that someone is ahead of us on the technology curve. Months later, another friend posts a funny Ring video of a kid getting hit in the head with a football in the front yard. We started to feel like the only people in our town without a Ring doorbell.
We were pushed over the edge when another friend told us how they can look at their phone before having to answer the doorbell. In a neighborhood with 20 young kids ringing my doorbell all weekend, that was the clincher. Someone else was selectively ignoring their doorbell! I needed to get in on this.
We purchased one and within a week, we had our first opportunity to share its brilliance: A video of neighborhood kids dancing on our porch with Amazon’s Alexa playing the role of DJ.
We shared the video with three of our neighbors, and within a month, every house on our block had a Ring doorbell.
Why Sales Beget More Sales
Inexperienced salespeople are often encouraged by veterans to “get that first sale under your belt, and the rest will come easier.” This advice is accurate for several reasons.
First, you spend months making phone calls and pile up a long list of prospects. The second sale might have more to do with timing than the first sale materializing. Picture setting up 20-30 fishing poles along a river. The setup takes you all morning but it is only a matter of time before fish start biting. The second fish isn’t related to the first, but both are related to the setup effort.
Alternatively, one customer might be the proof further customers need to sign up. This was my experience as a rookie salesperson.
I sold a monitoring service for power generation equipment. I worked on a prospect for nine months, providing every feature and benefit I could dream up. After every sales call, I felt like he was on the verge of buying. He always left me with an assignment to provide one more reason to help him justify the purchase. He was blowing me off.
My break came when another customer purchased. This customer’s power plant had an issue over a weekend and suffered costly downtime. Had he purchased the monitoring service prior, this disruption could have been avoided.
Armed with new confidence, I visited my stubborn prospect and casually mentioned that one of his competitors purchased the monitoring service. I shared this customer’s justification for the purchase along with the story of the power outage. Fortunately, this customer knew the manager who bought from me and called him after I left.
I had a purchase order two days later.
This customer initially blew me off because he didn’t want to be first. Once someone he respected spent tens of thousands of dollars on the service, he felt comfortable doing the same.
I spent the next three months telling every prospect in Chicago about my first customer, in his words.
- How he made the decision to purchase.
- The value he received in the service after the purchase.
- How our offering made his job easier.
That first customer sold more monitoring for me than I ever did for myself.
Ring understands the power of “word of mouth.” Ring’s website is filled with testimonials for multiple product lines, touting their products for different purposes.
They could take this up a notch with video testimonials from actual customers. Create an objective forum where customers explain how they use the product, similar to how word traveled around my neighborhood.
I glanced at five websites of companies I have worked with in the past year. Two had examples of customer testimonials, both of which were stale.
- Do you have testimonials displayed where prospective customers can see them?
- Do you have a list of satisfied customers who would be willing to share their experience with a new prospect?
- How often do you recommend that your prospects reach out to happy customers?
Google your company’s name and look at the results. Try it again with your company’s name and “customer reviews.” What comes up?
This is what your prospects see when they are determining whether to call you. I recently searched for a realtor on Google. He sells over 200 homes annually and only had 15 reviews on Google Reviews.
The reviews were a mixed bag, and his average rating was 2.6 out of 5. The first thing his prospects see when they search his business is that average score, skewed by a few unhappy customers. This introduces doubt before they even get started.
In his book, Science of Selling, David Hoffield notes that “60% of the buying cycle is completed before a salesperson is able to engage with a potential client.” How many prospects are not getting to you because of what they see in an initial internet search?
Improving your “internet first impression” is as simple as asking for testimonials and following up.
My family took a vacation to Italy this past summer. We interacted with dozens of small businesses, all focused on tourism and consumers. Most told me that they derive a large share of their business from the internet, largely from review sites like Google Reviews or Yelp.
Some asked me if I would write them a review and I said yes. But I was in Italy for several weeks and by the time I was back in America, I forgot most of their names, companies or websites.
Only one of those small businesses, a winery, followed up with me in an email with a link to a site where I might provide a testimonial. This is the only business that received a review from me because this business made it easy.
Find a way to incorporate testimonial requests into your customer process. There is no better marketing than an objective testimonial from a satisfied customer. Ask once, make it simple, but don’t bother them incessantly if it doesn’t happen.
This Works For Large And Small Companies
You don’t have to be Budweiser to make this work.
I started writing one year ago, with zero experience. I set a goal to write for Forbes, though I had no idea how to accomplish something like that.
I wrote often and everywhere. I wrote for my blog, on LinkedIn, Quora, Medium, and said yes to any publication that asked me to write an article as a guest.
At one point, I published a new article every day for over three months. This helped to build over 12,000 followers and 10,000,000+ views of my articles.
On a cold call, I got to the right person at Forbes. Forbes is interested in viewership, and my pitch to Forbes led with how many followers I had, and how many times my articles were read.
I led with social proof that could be verified. I did not ask that they take my word for it. I asked that they take notice of others who found my writing interesting.
I did not have a writing background, degree or training. I did not have a published book, nor did I have years of writing experience and contacts in the industry. I had social proof, or at least enough to get the attention of Forbes.
- Do you work for a startup? Lean on the small group of clients that trust you already.
- Do you know why your small group of customers chose you over a large company? Share that reasoning with new prospects.
- Are you doing well in a particular geographic area or market demographic? Brag about it. Prospects care more about what their immediate neighbors are doing.
You don’t need eye-popping numbers either. Let’s say you sell new homes and you are interested in selling more upgrades. Your company offers a $30,000 upgraded morning room package to the base model.
You could lean on colorful images and detailed explanations of how the morning room complements the kitchen and great room. Or, you could objectively share with your customer that, “Seven of the last ten customers who purchased in this community chose the morning room upgrade.”
In the latter example, you introduce doubt by sharing relevant information about your customer’s future neighbors.
- “Why did only three decide not to upgrade?”
- “When we visit our neighbor’s homes, will we wish we had upgraded?”
- “Do I want to be in the minority that didn’t pull the trigger on the upgrade?”
In his book, “Influence,” Robert Cialdini explains social proof as “the tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it.” He goes on to note that the less certain we are, the more we tend to lean on social proof as a guiding compass.
Would you rather take a salesperson’s word for it or make your decision based on a collection of customers who are like you?
Who Can You Trust?
Customers are hard-wired to harbor a certain amount of distrust in a salesperson.
There are enough bad examples out there who ruin it for the rest (I’m looking at you, timeshare salesman.) Customers understand that a salesperson has a vested, financial interest in closing the deal.
For this reason, uncertainty and distrust will always be obstacles for sales professionals. The opinions of paying customers far outweigh the opinions of a salesperson with a financial incentive.
Effective salespeople describe features and benefits from a third-person perspective.
- “Most businesses in your market find our product helped them with . . . “
- “A customer who purchased yesterday told me this was the main driver . . .”
- “We signed up 12 new accounts last month and each one stated this as the reason for leaving their current provider . . .”
- “This customer chose to invest with me on the last deal, and here is what she liked about the opportunity . . . “
Customers face uncertainty in most purchases. The simplest way to help them feel more confident is to enlist your most satisfied clients. Use social proof.
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