Lessons in Effective Persuasion and "Social Proof"

Last Updated Jun 18, 2008 7:16 PM EDT

  • Shepherd and flockThe Find: It's not news that popularity breeds popularity and people follow the herd, but social psychology research points out that this principle, known as "social proof," can radically improve results and is often underutilized.
  • The Source: An experiment on hotel guests towel recycling habits related in Yes!, the blog promoting "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive" by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, Robert B. Cialdini.
The Takeaway: Everyone needs to be persuasive. Parents need to persuade their toddlers to eat veggies, managers need to persuade clients to buy and team members to up their productivity, and hotels need to persuade guests to reuse their towels. What can hotels teach managers about persuasion? How to employ the principle of social proof, say the authors of a new book on the social psychology of persuasion.

What's social proof? It's the psychological term for looking for confirmation from the crowd when you're unsure whether to act. See ten people staring up the sky and most likely you'll stop and stare up too. Why? Social proof. Business leaders can harness the principle. A classic example is a recent program written by Colleen Szot that shattered a nearly twenty-year sales record for a home-shopping channel. Szot simply replaced the classic call to action-- "Operators are waiting, please call now"-- with "If operators are busy, please call again." Rather than imagining bored operators filing their nails, home shoppers pictured phones ringing off the hook. The implicit message: others must be buying, so should you.

The researchers behind Yes! set out to see if this principle could work for hotels too. Along with the usual environmental message and images of crystal clear water and rolling green fields on the cards asking patrons to reuse towels, the researchers placed a message indicating that the majority of guests already chose to reuse their towels. Guests whose cards subtly employed the principle of social proof were 26% more likely to recycle their towels than those who saw only the basic environmental protection message. That's a big improvement at no additional cost to the hotel.

The Yes! blog goes into greater depth about the research (though skip the self-promotional bit in the middle) and, of course, the book provides even more insights.

The Question: Are there unused opportunities to put the principle of social proof to work in your business?

(Image of shepherd with his flock by pellaea, CC 2.0)

  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.