14 Keys to Selling with Social Proof (Examples, Mistakes, Secrets + How to Make Your Own)
Like many successful marketers, you might already know that social proof is the fastest way to calm customer fears, build trust, and increase your chances of converting a sale.
Think of it like this…
The other day I was out at a restaurant having dinner with my family. It was early but we were surrounded by empty tables.
Even though I knew the service and food was great since I’d eaten there before, it led me to wonder:
Was something wrong?
Was the restaurant no longer popular?
Had the food changed?
This highlights what is called "negative social proof". I’ll tell you more about it coming up and how it can be hurting your sales (without you even knowing).
Social proof is defined as content that builds trust by showing your brand as popular or credible.
(Note: this is the "nice" definition… The deeper definition is that social proof works on a psychological level because it drives conformity.)
Today, I’m going to break down that definition in finer detail for you so it’s super clear. You'll get why and how it works.
I’m also going to show you 8 amazing, high-converting examples of social proof (using it more than tripled sales for one company!).
We'll cover the 3 kinds of negative social proof, which is often a hidden conversion killer.
Finally, I’ll teach you 3 little-known secrets for literally "making" your own social proof. Most marketers and entrepreneurs don’t know or even use these but it is amazing how well they work...
This is a complete guide which I've made available for you to download here. You can use it as a conversion-boosting reference with your next design or copywriting update.
Receive a copy of this in-depth article to read later
What is social proof? How can it help you?
Before I started to write this article for you, I finished an in-depth study of 313 AB tested conversion case studies.
I did this with the goal of creating a product to help startups and marketers get inspired, improve their websites, and sell more.
It took me over 150 hours to complete and I learned a lot.
I learned how fearful (loss averse) customers can be in making a purchase decision.
Whether it is:
- Something as simple as opting-in for a newsletter
- Or signing up for a free trial
- Or filling out a “free quote” form
None of us want to feel “tricked” or waste our money or time.
And that’s where social proof comes in to “lubricate” a customer’s decision making.
Customers who want what you’re selling, but are skeptical or afraid, naturally want some proof. They want proof that you can provide the benefit you are promising.
And that’s where social proof comes in.
The term was originally coined by Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence.
Social proof is best described as any type of content that shows other people like you, have bought your stuff, and that what you say (i.e. on your landing page) is true.
On a psychological level though, it works because it drives conformity.
“[W]e conform because we believe that others' interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action.”
Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2005). Social Psychology (5th ed.).
That explanation is a bit technical…
So here’s an amusing “No Soap Radio” video example of conformity via social proof.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of a “no soap radio” joke—it’s funny because there is no joke. There is no punchline, but what is funny is that person who doesn’t know that. Instead he / she pretends to “get it” and then laugh (conformity).
(Link to original video on Youtube)
Now that you know what it is, let’s go deeper and learn about the different types of social proof.
Because getting “the theory” without “the actual marketing” will leave you with an incomplete understanding.
The following examples will teach you how to best apply social proof on your website…
Here are all 8 types of social proof (each with proven, high-converting examples)...
Some of the most common forms of social proof are:
- Case studies
- Press logos or company logos
- Vanity stats
- Trust badges along with...
- Security seals
- Honors, awards, & memberships
Here’s a quick overview of each type and how well it can work.
1. Testimonials — These are most often given in written or video form. A testimonial comes from existing customers usually highlighting the experience or benefit they received from buying your product or service.
For example, in this case study — featured in Proven Sales Conversion Pack with original analysis — an ecommerce company added a testimonials widget directly below their add-to-cart button.
The result was a 58% increase in sales (before is on the left, after on the right).
Testimonials are of “moderate” difficulty to obtain, though it can help a lot if:
- You have some personal connection with your customers, and/or...
- A high volume of customers you can reach out to.
When I launched Proven Sales Conversion Pack, many of our customers for the product were brand new. Others were repeat customers who previously invested in one or more of our products and received a positive result.
I also often answer questions for customers to help ensure they get the results they want. This helps to create a personal bond because it shows genuinely I want them to succeed.
For these reasons it was easy to reach out and ask for a testimonial.
Here’s one of the four I received prior to the recent launch of Proven Sales Conversion Pack:
2. Case Studies — This is a much more difficult form of social proof to earn and create.
For that reason, if it is well-done, it is also seen as one of the most credible forms of social proof.
A case study is a detailed write-up of how a customer or client came to you with a problem and was then able to solve it with your product or service.
Most case studies are 2-3 pages in length. They share critical data and details to explain the results and the process for getting those results.
They will often include a quote from the client as well.
For example, here’s an example of an on-page (summarized) case study we used with the launch of our 6-Figure Sales Funnel training.
Although we didn’t AB test it, I knew this particular case study would have a positive impact and work well on our landing page.
I knew this because many of our customers of the training were marketing consultants / agencies, or even software agencies like Russell.
3. Press logos, company logos, & “comfort” logos — Press logos are some of the most recognizable forms of social proof.
They show in which publications a company has been featured in, mentioned in, or guest posted for.
Company logos usually show which companies have bought your products or services.
On our website, I show the logos of companies that subscribe to our newsletter for instance.
Here’s what it looks like:
This along with other tweaks to our homepage, this addition of social proof help grow our email optin rate by 82%, from 5.6% to 10.2%.
Though an 82% increase is a great improvement, I think 10% is still low for our homepage overall considering the growing amount of traffic we get.
After learning a ton from creating our new conversion product, I’m confident we can get that to 30-40% in the near future.
The idea behind “logo proof” is that when you implement it, you’re basically saying:
“These smart / popular companies are doing business with us, so that’s a good reason for you to trust us and give us a try too!”
The final type of logo proof is what’s called “comfort logos” because they aren’t earned, the way you earn a customer or client, or the way you earn press.
Comfort logo are familiar to customers (visually), require near zero-effort to obtain, but can work in many cases to put customers at ease when buying.
The simplest example of comfort logos are credit card company logos:
Do you feel a calm, comforting (digital) breeze flowing over you?
I know I do. Whoooooshh.
4. Vanity Stats — These are statistics (sometimes called “vanity metrics”) that don’t mean much in terms of getting results for your customers.
However, for a significant portion of your potential customers, they show how many people “like” you or your content.
They create a feeling of “established reputation”, and implied social pressure (“All these other people like / buy from us, why aren’t you?”).
Here are some examples of vanity stats:
- Facebook “Like” count
- Twitter follower count
- Email subscriber count
- Monthly traffic / visitors numbers
- Google Ranking
- Youtube subscribers
- Years you’ve been in business
- Number of customers or clients helped to date
Vanity stats are a quick way to show you’re popular because other people like and know you — even if a potential customer visiting your site does not.
McDonald’s is famous for advertising the vanity metric of how many people bought its food over the years:
“Over 100 Million Hamburgers Sold”
You might wonder as I did just how effective adding something as simple as a vanity stat be for your conversion rate...
The answer: more than you think.
While creating my Proven Sales Conversion Pack product, I found numerous AB-tested examples showing this.
Here are two companies that used super-simple vanity stats in the form of social media followers to dramatically grow their leads and sales…
In this case, by simply adding a count for the number of Twitter followers (yes, Twitter followers) to the navigation bar of the site, the company’s conversion rate increased by 72%.
Here’s another, even more eye-popping case study example:
In this case, the conversion rate on this lead generation form increased 22% by tweaking a line of text and adding the Facebook follower count!
And like all the case studies in my Conversion Pack, these examples had a statistical confidence level at, or above, 95%.
5. & 6. Trust badges & Security Seals — We’ll combine these two since they are similar, though there are important differences.
Trust badges and seals are (usually) 3rd party logos or icons that help customers to feel more comfortable on your site.
(Note: I say “usually” because you can actually make your own social proof in this case… more on that in the final section of this guide.)
It makes them feel like “your brand has been vetted” in some way, or that you’re not going to do something irresponsible their contact or credit card info.
Some of the most recognizable examples of trust badges include:
- The Better Business Bureau (BBB)
- Norton security seal
- McAfee security seal
I found a ton of examples of the power of trust badges from creating my Conversion Pack product.
Here’s one from a company that tweaked their website design near checkout and saw an increase in sales of 76.2%:
And yes, that increase is all from adding the that small McAfee security seal.
7. Ratings (and Reviews) — This one is pretty self-explanatory but there are some key details you need to understand.
A rating / review is different from a testimonial because it often comes from a third-party website.
Take for example the screenshot below of the Amazon reviews of this awesome sci-fi book “Infinite” that I just finished reading:
Reviews are authentic, and therefore uncensored. This means the review is usually detailed and often includes what people did not like, specific minor details, and their “total experience.”
Ratings / reviews are also different from other forms of social proof because they provide a numeric rating, e.g. 437 customers 4.4 out 5 stars.
In other cases the rating might be out of 10.
In the conversion case study below, an ecommerce company grew sales 7.5% by embedding a widget on their site that displayed the ratings / reviews of recent customers.
Here’s a funny thing about using star ratings as social proof...
According to numerous AB tests and a university study, displaying star ratings that are anything less than perfect can hurt your sales (maybe).
Yes, this is a case where instead of increasing your conversion rate, social proof can hurt it. BUT...
It’s all in how you deploy it.
I’ll explain more on this coming up in the section on “negative social proof”…
8. Honors, awards, accreditations, & memberships — You’ve undoubtedly seen this type of social proof before.
Many popular companies will promote their Inc 500 award for being a fastest-growing company.
Local business will put stickers on their windows or icons on their websites indicating they are a member of their local Chamber of Commerce for instance.
Many marketers and agencies are earning certifications for their knowledge of Google Adwords or Facebook Ads.
They then advertise that accreditation on their websites and LinkedIn Profiles. Here’s how Wordstream does it below in the footer of their site:
This form of social proof is persuasive because it shows that a group of people or another organization has recognized you in some way.
“Congrats, you are legit!”
Now as I hinted at in some of the examples above, social proof works—but not if used incorrectly…
In fact, many companies (yours?) will deploy social proof in their sales funnel, but not realize the way they did it is actually hurting their sales...
What is negative social proof? (And 3 mistakes that can actually kill your sales…)
Negative social proof is exactly what it sounds like.
It is social proof that has the opposite effect on customers: increasing their fear of buying from you, rather than making it an easier decision.
Here are 3 examples of negative social proof in action:
#1 — Untrustworthy Social Proof.
Sometimes a business will publish social proof on its website that hurts their conversion rate because customers don’t trust it. Without being told the social proof is untrustworthy, it can continue to damage sales opportunities as long as it is on the website.
Here’s an example from my Sales Conversion Pack:
In the before screenshot on the left, the headshot images used with the testimonials are actually stock photos. One looks awkward the way it is edited.
In addition, a username is displayed with the testimonial. Why would you do that?
Also, the testimonials (translated) feel stiff, formal, and not authentic.
I asked my wife who speaks Spanish to read these. She confirmed they seem fake which is why removing them grew the conversion rate substantially in this case.
Bottom-line here: if your social proof is untrustworthy, people won’t convert.
#2 — “Perfect” Proof.
Customers don’t trust a “perfect” 5-star average rating, apparently. On the internet, when we’re not familiar with a company or brand, we need to understand how the product or service isn’t perfect—because no product / service is!
This is why negative reviews should be embraced, according to a research study from Northwestern University.
In the study the authors concluded:
It seems fairly intuitive that higher ratings would lead to higher sales. Our research found that this is true—but only up to a point.
Across product categories, we found that purchase likelihood typically peaks at ratings in the 4.0 - 4.7 range, and then begins to decrease as ratings approach 5.0. Put differently, products with an average star rating in the 4.7 - 5.0 range are less likely to be purchased than those in the 4.2 - 4.7 range.
Here’s a visualization of their data. The conversion rate is on the Y axis:
But, there’s still more to the story.
This is an example of how best practices “on average” may not be best in the case of your business...
#3 — “Imperfect” Social Proof.
Imperfect social proof is negative social proof that is usually subtle and can often only be detected by doing a user test or talking with customers.
Here’s a simple example of that from my Sales Conversion Pack product…
This company (see below) used to display the social media share buttons at on its product landing pages by default.
As you can see the share count numbers were low, showing “0” people shared the product.
It’s a small thing, right?
Everyone knows it’s not normal to share products on social media anyway, right?
Conversions increased 11.9% when this negative social proof was removed.
Here’s one more example...
As #2 above showed, you don’t want to display a perfect 5-star rating because people won’t trust it, right?
It’s better to display a rating slightly under 5 stars, yes?
The right answer is: it actually depends, and here’s why…
In the case of the ecommerce AB test from my Proven Sales Conversion Pack product pictured below, sales actually increased when the 9.3 out of 10 rating was removed from the website’s header.
Why did this happen?
As the graphs show above in #2, the perfect rating or “goldilocks” rating (not too high, not too low) is unique to each market and product type.
For this business, 9.3 out of 10 was distracting because it made people wonder:
“What about that 7% of customers who didn’t give it 5 stars?”
By removing this, sales revenue grew 41%.
The bottom-line here is this: you need to AB test to know the best way to present social proof for your audience and market.
At this point, you know that social proof works to convert more customers.
You also now know that depending on the quality or presentation of your social proof, you’ll grow your sales (or hurt them, if the quality is low).
So, how do you “make” your own social proof?
Well, here are...
3 Little-known secrets to “making” and using social proof to grow your sales
When I first got started, I never knew you could actually “make” your own social proof.
But that’s actually what it is.
The best social proof requires some initial effort on your. Because, unless it’s a truly unique product or service that WOWs customers (which should be your goal anyway), you need to make it easy to find or attract social proof from customers.
You need to build it into your marketing systems.
So while more advanced marketers may not be blown away by the following tips, I state them because even those who know of these insights don’t take action on them.
And that’s your opportunity!
Secret #1 — Most customers’ reviews / testimonials come from email follow-up
It was a face-palm moment for me when I read the research on this from Northwestern University in preparation for this article.
I’m going to fix that soon (and you should too).
To do it, simply set up an automated email to send to customers (or clients) about a week after they’ve received the product and had time to go through it.
In the case of services, I recommend surveying clients in the middle of the project, and then also after the work is completed.
I used to do this when we were an agency and earned great testimonials as a result.
I also used to build it into our contract that clients needed to fill out a sign-off form before a project could be marked as complete.
This ensured we received honest feedback that could be converted into testimonials—as well as feedback, if any, for how to improve our service.
It sounds “easy” or obvious to automatically ask customers via email for a testimonial about a week after buying. It’s not “fancy” or “sexy”— but it works, so I recommend you do it because it can grow your sales.
I know I will!
Secret #2 — Mine your own stats and content for hidden social proof
One of the most underrated types of social proof is vanity stats, which I talked about above.
Vanity stats are underrated because like secret #1 it seems “too easy” so people ignore it. They convince themselves that growth has to be more difficult.
Again, vanity stats can be as simple as the number of Facebook or Twitter followers you have, assuming it’s at least 2,000. Anything less may work against you.
Secret #3 — Display real reviews with a “verified buyer” badge for increased credibility and conversions
If you’re a customer of my new Proven Sales Conversion Pack, you probably know just how powerful “trust badges” can be.
But this conversion boosting idea can be extended to reviews.
According to research from the University of Northwestern (same study I linked to in the previous section), reviews from verified buyers increase sales conversion rates an average of 15%.
Amazon includes a “verified buyer” status on reviews, for example.
And you should do it on your site too, right next to each review or testimonial from an actual customer. It increases the perceived credibility of this social proof.
Of course, don’t cut corners on this.
Be honest and consistent in how you apply this.
BONUS Secret #4 — Give people an incentive to provide you with an honest review
Thanks for reading this far, you’re awesome.
As a reward, here’s one more little-known, actionable tip to help you get going with social proof...
When you follow-up with customers, give them a reason to provide you with a review.
- Offer free entry into a sweepstakes or raffle
- Discount on the current or an existing product
- Free one-on-one coaching session
Adagio Teas for example has a loyal program and gives customers points as a reward for providing a product review.
You want to offer this ethical incentive NOT as a way to get positive reviews.
You want to earn honest reviews.
That’s because this is your opportunity to get info from customers that will be featured on your website. But it is also an opportunity for customer development, by learning what you can improve on.
And of course, using customer feedback to make your product or service better makes everyone happier—and ultimately grows your profits.
Remember: incentivize customers to send you authentic reviews (i.e. you can tell us stuff you don’t like and we’ll still give you the “free thing”).
Because other customers are SMART. They can tell when they’re being sold and also when they’re reading the uncensored words of real customers.
In fact, from the same university study cited above, customers actually look for negative reviews.
For many, it actually makes them more comfortable (see point #2 above under the section about “negative social proof”).
Whether you read it from start to finish, or you skimmed this detailed guide — to defining, understanding, and selling with social proof — you probably know a lot more than when you first arrived here.
- We went over the “nice” definition of social proof (as well as the deeper, psychological reason for why it works).
- I taught you the 8 types of social proof (with high-converting case studies and examples), like vanity stats, press, trust badges, testimonials, and more.
- Then we went over the concept of “negative social proof” and how many businesses make this mistake of using it without even knowing it’s on their site.
- I taught you the 3 types of negative social proof to watch out for.
- Finally, we wrapped up with 3 little-known secrets to “making” and using social proof in your sales funnel.
You’d probably agree that this a pretty comprehensive guide to marketing with social proof. That’s why I put it into a downloadable PDF eBook for you.
If you want to refer to it offline, at any time, click here and pop-in your email to grab a copy of it.
I plan to keep this article updated so let me know your feedback on how this guide works for you.
What did you find to be most interesting about social proof that you didn’t already know?
Do you have any lingering questions?
Leave a comment below and tell me!
Sharing it on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest to help other marketers and entrepreneurs is also appreciated.
Keep convertin’, stay focused,