Social Proof: Why We Look to Others to Tell Us How to Behave

Social proof has become the currency of marketing and it plays a powerful role in fundraising, too. But what is it exactly?

Social proof happens when we, unsure of our next step, copy others. For example, at an event we mimic the pace of others when eating. We follow the crowd, assuming that the crowd knows best. Or it might happen with buying decisions when we call friends and family for recommendations. Which roofer did you use? How do you like your internet provider?

A recent article from HubSpot found that 83% of consumers say recommendations from friends and family make them more likely to purchase a product or service. It also found that 88% of consumers trust user reviews as much as personal recommendations.

The takeaway: We care what others think.

The Many Forms of Social Proof

In marketing, social proof can be case studies (yep, Stelter uses these to market our capabilities), testimonials, user reviews, awards or recognitions, a positive news story, social media shares, celebrity endorsements or statistics (number of customers or goods delivered, for example).

In his book, The Storytelling Fundraiser: The Brain, Behavioral Economics and Fundraising Story, Dr. Russell James suggests that we can use social proof, such as donor testimonials, to help the prospective donor identify as “one who gives.”

Dr. James says that testimonials are powerfully persuasive, especially when they (1) tell the story of living donors, (2) focus on how their donations fit in with their life stories and (3) communicate using simple, conversational, family-oriented words.

A note here: We often see testimonials take the form of full-page biographies; those don’t move the needle. See Dr. James’ three qualities, above. It’s possible to cover these in as little space as a pull quote. For example, running a picture of a donor visiting campus with a quote from them that says, “I was able to attend State University thanks to thoughtful donors who provided scholarships for engineering students. Now that I’m in a position to give back, I want to give a leg up to the next generation of University engineers.”

Testimonials can help build a sense of community and belonging among donors. They create a powerful social-emotional connection.

Social Proof and Persuasion

Dr. James also tested a few social-proof phrases and how they impacted response. He found that using social normative statements (giving people a group to follow) had a positive effect on bequest intentions. One of his top-performing priming phrases was “many people like to leave a gift to charity in wills to support causes that have been important in their lives.”

Let’s break it down:

  • “many people” = a crowd to follow
  • “important in their lives” = an invitation for prospects to imagine how a gift will fit in their life story

His study proves the power of social proof in moving donors through their decision journey.

A Final Thought

I’ll add that timeliness increases the value and power of social proof. The more current the story, the testimonial, the activity, the reviews or the outcomes, the more likely your prospect will participate. Recency and relatability help donors feel confident that that people like them do things like this.

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