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Social proof: The psychology of influencer marketing

Social proof: The psychology of influencer marketing

To properly explain the relationship between a marketing psychology principle and modern technology, one would have to start at the beginning.

We brought in James Pardoe, CEO of Grow Digital Services, a strategic agency based out of the UAE that specializes in neuromarketing, to help us do that with social proof. He explained the history behind social proof, how it comes through in today's influencer culture and what happens when things go wrong. 

Here are the highlights of our conversation: 

The story behind social proof

“Social proof is not really something that arose,” said Pardoe. “It's something that we've evolved to use.”

A term used to describe one of the brain’s methods of making decisions, based on what others are doing, social proof in terms of marketing psychology is most often tied to things like testimonials and referrals. But it goes deeper than that — all the way to self-preservation. 

“Essentially, social proof is an efficiency tactic that increases our chances of survival, and hence evolution has played a big role. It's about learning from the mistakes of others, to efficiently know what is good and bad, without having to experience it first-hand,” Pardoe explained.

Pardoe says this ancient psychology principle can be approached in two different ways:

  • First, is knowing something is dangerous because others have told us so
  • Second, is knowing that something is safe because other people trust it

“Imagine if we had to try every dangerous thing for ourselves before knowing that it's dangerous. There would be far fewer humans, that's for sure,” joked Pardoe.  “It would be highly inefficient, causing us to waste precious time that could otherwise be spent on survival activities. It would essentially mean we hadn't evolved the ability to trust other humans.”

Social proof comes through today in social media and influencer culture 

It’s safe to say that social proof has evolved to meet the current needs of the world. Vast improvements in technology have given new meaning to how humans interact with one another. The introduction of social media platforms has completely transformed digital marketing, and influencers play a big role in social proof’s modern look. 

“Influencer marketing definitely has a base, because people see the emotions of those people talking about that product or service and it’s very hard to fake that sort of thing, and so, it’s very, very believable,” said Pardoe. “And of course, you’ve got the added advantage of emotion, and the rich media is much more engaging than standard reviews online; if you’ve got the right influencer who has the right market and they believe in your product, then it can really work.” 

Pardoe says this newest form of digital marketing is a grey area, noting that some of these high-figure celebrities are being financially incentivized to speak well of the products that they’re backing. In the case that they are discussing your brand on social media with no added help from you, Pardoe says it poses a risk because they could dislike your product and share their dissatisfaction with the world.

“It’s a funny one with influencer culture and people not always mentioning that a sponsored post is an ad, so that kind of runs into a question of ethics,” said Pardoe. “It hardly ever happens that an influencer says they don’t like a product and I think that just shows how biased this sort of marketing strategy can be.” 

“When you are genuine and you’re authentic to the brand, that’s when you’re going to get the resonance you’re looking for,” said Pardoe. “The architecture of your brand, the tone of voice, the personality, the human behind it really, once that’s set to really resonate with your target audience, if your marketing message follows that, you can’t really go wrong.” 

Trust is the backbone of social proof

So, how can a brand really make this influencer culture, or any other form of social proof work? Trust. 

“If you take social proof all the way back to its roots, the foundation of our society, social proof wouldn’t work if trust didn’t exist, ” said Pardoe. “I don’t see how we ever would’ve survived as a social group if we didn’t have trust.” (Read more about social proof and trust here.

Pardoe says that we give a lot of our emotional currency to those we’re in close proximity to. Social media has given us the opportunity to instantly connect with people from across the globe on a daily basis. With this much access to a person’s life, it comes as no surprise that we’d categorize them as a monumental figure.

“The people that you’re following, you really do trust and respect them. They are one of the key authorities in your life, potentially,” said Pardoe.

Despite the many shifts society has undergone over the years, the impact trust has on our relationships and survival rate has not changed. 

“Imagine if we go back to the hunter and gatherer times where you are in this village and the most senior, respected person who’s the head of that village tells you something… you’re going to believe them,” said Pardoe. “Imagine that what they said was dishonest and they lied to you, the whole structure of society would crumble if that happened on a regular basis.”

The same line of thinking can be translated into marketing efforts and business practices. While Pardoe says that this is an extreme way of looking at the role trust plays in our society, it does show the importance of authenticity and having regulation around what influencers can do. 

Being human and humble when that trust gets broken

So, what could marketers do in a situation where trust had been broken between brands and consumers as a result of faulty products or mishaps with influencers?

“You’re going to have to show that you can listen to your consumers,” said Pardoe. “Don’t be afraid to fall on your sword and say, ‘we’ve made a mistake.’ ”

For those of you who believe that words without action behind them are futile, don’t be dismayed. Pardoe was generous enough to include tangible examples of how this sort of issue could be rectified. 

“You could show some of the negative reviews you’ve gotten, pick out some of the features that need to be improved upon, and say, ‘look, you’ve said this, you’ve said that, we’ve listened, and this is the new, glorious product we’ve made that solves all of those problems,” said Pardoe.

And if you do make a mistake and want to communicate around it? Influencers might not be your best communication channel. 

"...if you’ve made a mistake with the masses, I think you should actually use them to back up what you’re saying about the new product and to add credibility," said Pardoe.

He added that bringing together a group of people who would actually use and review the product for a marketing campaign would do a greater job of swaying doubt in the minds of consumers. 

“It’s very hard for companies to admit to their faults, but everyone already knows about it. If you’re saying something everyone already knows, you’re not creating more damage — you’re healing it,” said Pardoe. “Admitting to the damage shows that you’re human and that humans make mistakes.”

It’s in your ability to be vulnerable and honest that your audience will be able to see themselves in your business. 

“That goes back to the idea of humanizing brands because humans don’t trust brands, they trust humans,” said Pardoe. “So, if you make your company human and you admit that you are fallible and that you make mistakes, then you can really use it to your advantage and connect with people to build that all important trust.”

While the days of fighting for basic necessities as a society are long behind us, our need for trust in everyday connections remains ingrained in our societal makeup. The brands who understand this social-proof psychology — and how it works in both social media and influencer marketing — can best serve their audience. 


Picture of Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener is a brand journalist for Quikly. She covers stories that help to inform and educate consumer-facing marketers.

Picture of Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener is a brand journalist for Quikly. She covers stories that help to inform and educate consumer-facing marketers.