'I've got one just like it' — using social proof on websites

Have you ever been swayed by a salesperson saying 'I've got one just like it' when making a purchasing decision? Social proof, or the influence of other people's behaviour on your own, can be used on websites to support the real-life activity and credibility of your organisation. But don't over promise and under deliver.

'I've got one just like it' — sales technique 101

Winter is here so I recently headed into town to buy something to keep me warm. I was pretty sure what I wanted, as I'd looked through a brochure delivered to my letterbox, but was umming and ahhing over the particular style and colour. Then the sales person swooped in and said those persuasive words 'I've got one just like it...'.

Now, I've heard that a few times before and every time, at the time, it provides the reassurance I'm looking for when making a purchase decision. Then, every time, after the time, I wonder and realise that they probably do not, in fact, have 'one just like it' and they are using a technique they probably learnt at a 'Sales technique 101' course. But do I think to question them by saying 'Do you really have one just like it? Or are you told to say that to persuade me to buy it?'. That would probably sound rude!

But let's explore why those six words are so powerful ... and how it's relevant to website usability.

Social proof

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people reference the behavior of others to guide their own behavior.
— Jennifer Cardello, Nielson Norman Group

The best social proof for a product, service or cause is word of mouth. Nothing will influence you more than getting a recommendation from someone you know and trust. This can be encouraged by focusing on the quality and quantity of your  'real world' activity and interactions.

The next best thing would be having a recommendation from someone you admire and aspire to be like. This explains why celebrities can command huge amounts of money for endorsements.

When thinking about not-for-profit organisations, websites (and social media) support the real world activity. Social proof can be used on a website to provide further reassurance to those who are already interested in what you do. Kind of like my coat purchasing experience. I wouldn't buy something I don't need because the sales person says they have one. 

Examples of social proof on a website

So the context and deliverer makes a difference. What about the delivery?

Examples of social proof on a website are:

  • testimonials
  • ratings and reviews
  • case studies
  • client lists. 

Notice I haven't included video content. You may think this could simulate a face-to-face experience but I'm not convinced of its use in this context. Visitors to websites are task focused and time poor.  It's easier, and more accessible, to scan text for information rather than click on a video link, wait for it to load, and watch the content. 

Every now and then I see a 'live chat' option on retail sites which could simulate a face-to-face, in-store experience. I wonder how popular this option is and if it will become a convention for online retailers in the future. Perhaps it would be useful if you could ask 'Where are the mens undies?' or 'What's on sale?' in a live chat with staff, but then, if the website is user friendly, those items should already be easy to find!

Where it can go wrong

When social proof and aspiration mix it can go pear shaped. Once I was influenced by the sales person in a designer clothing store purely because she was wearing the outfit I was interested in. It looked great on her, but not as good on me. I bought it anyway, perhaps thinking that a bit of her glamour would rub off on me, and of course the item stayed in my wardrobe. In this case, social proof did not help me get what was best for me. So the lesson is to use social proof wisely to support your real-world activity and reputation, not over promise and under deliver.

Related information

Social proof in the User Experience - Jennifer Cardello, Nielsen Norman Group (www.nngroup.com)