Social Proof: How Online Reviews Influence Customers

January 25, 2019

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Consumers are influenced by other people more than they realize — or are willing to admit.

This is what makes the concept of social proof a powerful one.

First coined by Robert Cialdini in Influence, social proof (sometimes called informational social influence) is often described as a psychological and social phenomenon in which people assume the actions of others in order to best reflect what is considered correct behavior for any given situation.

We’ve traditionally turned to a variety of useful sources as social proof. These include credible experts, thought leaders, celebrities and influencers, friends, and the wisdom of the crowd — all of whom, in one situation or another, can influence people’s decisions on how to behave.

Like it or not, even canned laughter used in TV shows serves as social proof: studio executives use it to effectively increase the perceived “funniness” of a show.

Online Reviews as Social Proof

In today’s social media age, online reviews have emerged as one of the most potent forms of social proof.

At a time when diners rarely visit a restaurant without first checking Yelp, and travelers seldom book a room without first going to TripAdvisor, and shoppers rarely make a purchase without first reading what previous verified buyers had to say on Amazon, for example, or Google, reviews have a significant effect on consumers’ decision-making process, guiding purchase behavior and even impacting overall brand perceptions.

Reviews guide purchase behavior.

  • According to YouGov, 78 percent of consumers in the U.S. rely on reading reviews before making a purchase decision — reinforcing the findings of a previous study that found that 87 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as friends and family.
  • According to the 2018 Online Reviews Survey, 94 percent of consumers say an online review has convinced them to avoid a business.

Simply put: negative reviews and low ratings drive customers away. And people take positive reviews and high ratings as social proof that a product or service is worth the purchase. “This has great reviews, so I’m buying it.”

Reviews shape consumer perception and brand reputation.

More than convincing people what is worth buying versus what isn’t, reviews also serve as social proof for determining what to think about a certain business, product, or service.

According to a study by Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, the average rating for a hotel with 11 to 20 reviews is 3.5 out of 5 stars, with “terrible” reviews (with a rating of 1 star) at close to 12 percent.

But as a hotel sees 101 reviews or more, its average star rating increases to 3.9. The pattern, it seems, is that the more reviews you have, the more likely it is that your business will have higher ratings.

So apart from providing social proof for customers looking to make a purchase decision, reviews also provide social proof for how people perceive and what they should say about a given product or service.

A customer’s opinion about, say, a TripAdvisor-listed restaurant with 200 reviews and an average rating of 4.5 stars is therefore less likely to go against the grain and differ from those who shared positive feedback. “This has great reviews, so I’m going to say the same about it.”

Leverage Online Reviews as Social Proof

An increasing number of marketers are learning to harness online reviews in order to provide compelling social proof and foster shopper confidence. Here are some of the ways you can leverage reviews of your business:

Use review widgets to add customer testimonials to your website. Remember: when choosing a business, 94 percent of consumers rely on online reviews.

Adding them to your website through the use of review widgets can help you inspire confidence in website visitors.

While you certainly have the option of copying and pasting your customers’ online reviews to your website, it may not seem as compelling or trustworthy as when you use a widget and embed reviews directly from third-party sources. The copy-and-paste approach might also take away some of the legitimacy of your reviews, especially if they’re not linked to a third-party review source or platform.

Here’s an example of how a review widget transforms the voice of the customer into powerful social proof:

Use Google review stickers. Are you running a local business? The Small Thanks with Google website lets you create, download, and print personalized marketing materials and turn your reviews and business information into ready-to-use social posts, stickers, posters, and more.

The messaging in these materials centers around promoting your business using customer testimonials, or requesting customers to find your business on Google and share their photos and reviews on the site. Again, it’s a great example of harnessing reviews as a form of social proof for your potential customers to see.

Utilize review schema. You know those star-based ratings that are sometimes found under individual search engine results?

Regardless of whether a search user is conscious of it or not, those ratings can move users to click on one particular result instead of another.

These ratings are a result of review schema markup. Without going into overly technical detail, review schema markup is best described as additional lines of code that annotate the review text on your site, making it more readable for search engines.

With this markup in your code, search engine robots that crawl your website can easily find multiple points of information, including text reviews left by customers and the average rating for your reviews.

Tagging your reviews and ratings with schema markup tells Google that those reviews should be showcased when your site appears in search engine results pages.

You’ll eventually see an overall star rating and the number of reviews received underneath the page title and URL, a subtle cue (and form of social proof) for search users to click on results about your business instead of results about your competitor.

Be savvy when responding to reviews. Say thank you. If customers took the time to present social proof for other potential customers to see, expressing your gratitude is the very least you can do.

Also, be sure to reinforce the things that customers loved the most about their experience. In your response, explain that the delicious red velvet cupcakes they loved so much are actually homemade, let them in on how you grow your own rocket lettuce, and tell them that others have also commented on the amazing views from the cliffside swimming pool.

Don’t forget to respond in a reasonable amount of time: 7 days or less is the ideal time frame to start with.

Customers who are vocal online can influence other consumers’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. While there is no way to control what people say about your business (online or offline), you do have the power to change the conversation and leverage the kind of social proof where the positive opinions of your happiest customers are accounted for.

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