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What is Social Proof?

December 1, 2020 | Influence and Persuasion

Social proof is third-party validation.

There are many names for social proof these days – internet marketers interested in conversion rate optimization say the best place for social proof is adjacent to your Call To Action (CTA).

Angie Schottmuller - Place the Social Proof close to the CTA
Angie Schottmuller says to place the Social Proof close to the CTA in order to sell more stuff.

Table of Contents

  1. Social Learning Theory
  2. Behavioralism
  3. Mirror Neurons and Social Proof
  4. The Modern Use of Social Proof
  5. Online Social Proof
  6. Data Collection

But, what if you’re not an internet marketer? What if you’re just an ordinary mortal?

A doctor, a parent or a student?  Good news – these techniques are trainable:

Take the Online Influencer Masterclass on our hosted Thinkific page.

  • These techniques, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), are used by therapists to help patients overcome painful disorders.
  • CBT is used by doctors to treat people with anxiety, depression and phobias.
  • CBT is used by psychologists to treat soldiers with PTSD.

Social proof, as a term, was coined by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in 1984.

Social Proof was one of the six ‘weapons of influence’ that salesman used to influence their prospects to buy from them.

Book cover of Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini
A cult classic!
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini

Cialdini’s book influenced subsequent generations of marketers to use the weapons of influence to sell more stuff – his book has become a cult classic.

Cialdini describes bartenders who ‘salt’ their tip jars.

He shares anecdotes of the (in)famous Reverend Billy Graham, an evangelical preacher in the American South.

The Reverend Graham would arrive in a small town the day of his publicized ‘tent revival’ religious service where large crowds of fervent worshipers were already waiting for him. What the ordinary townspeople didn’t know was that the ‘worshipers’ were paid to be there – to generate enthusiasm among the ordinary townspeople. The townspeople would go see what all the fuss was about and get drawn into the worship service.

“Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.”

But, Dr. Cialdini credits earlier thinkers (p.116) with the ideas upon which his ideas of social influence rests – particularly Dr. Albert Bandura, the father of Social Learning Theory.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory holds that, as children, we observe other people – mainly adults. We model their behaviors, especially those of the same gender with whom we identify. Finally, we imitate those behaviors as we grow into adults ourselves.

Bandura’s recognized that we think before we act (most of us) – we are not simply lab rats. Previous to Bandura, the scientific model of human behavior was called Behavioralism.


You probably learned in high school about experiments where lab rats were conditioned to pull levers for a food pellet or trained to avoid an electric shock.

The old Behavioral model assumes humans are like the lab rats – who simply respond to stimuli – food pellets or shocks.

Bandura showed that we humans do more than simply respond to cues around us. We observe other people, we think about their actions, we remember them and we replicate those behaviors as our own.

If you’ve ever heard the discussion about ‘Nature’ (Behavioralism) vs. ‘Nurture’ (Social Learning) then you’ve got a high-level understanding of Bandura’s contribution to the discussion about human behavior.

There is one more key piece to this story.

Mirror Neurons and Social Proof

Mirror neurons are the brain structure that helps us feel empathy – we ‘sense’ the emotional state of another person through our mirror neurons and we respond accordingly. Usually by ‘mirroring’ the other persons’ emotional state.

Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s by Italian scientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in Parma, Italy.

They noticed activity in the brains of monkeys when the monkeys observed human subjects eating ice cream cones – which monkeys liked!

The monkeys perceived the humans’ pleasure eating ice cream and Rizzolatti showed the monkeys also felt pleasure – through their mirror neurons.

According to a colleague of Rizzolatti, Marco Iacoboni:

Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions.


They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions.


Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people.

Marco Iacoboni in Scientific American

The Modern Use of Social Proof

Which brings us back to the modern use of the term social proof – online third party validation of a business, a product or a service.

What makes social proof so important today?

Google Trends chart of the growth in the term 'Social Proof' keyed into the Google Search Box
Google Trends chart of the growth in the term ‘Social Proof’ keyed into the Google Search Box

We, as consumers, want to know the intent, the emotion, and the real, human feeling behind the product or service.

What motivated the buyer to buy? Decisions are made in the gut, not the brain.

What did you feel after you used that service? Would you do it again?

Online Social Proof

Social proof is a powerful emotional tool to help humans connect online.

There are actually two types of social proof – which we describe in extensive detail in this blogpost.

But, internet marketers have developed an almost endless list of examples of social proof which we’ve categorized in this grid:

     What is Social Proof in Marketing   
1Celebrity endorsementsCelebrity endorsementsRaw quantityCase studiesExpert social proofFacebook sponsored storiesExpert social proofPositive reviews
2Expert proofExperts’ stamp of approvalWhere you’ve been featuredTestimonialsCelebrity social proofThe Tim Ferriss EffectCelebrity social proofCustomer testimonials
3Customer reviews and ratingsUser testimonialTestimonials and quotesReviewsUser social proofKloutUser social proofInfluencer or celebrity testimonials
4User Generated ContentWisdom of your friendsCelebrity and expert testimonialsSocial mediaWisdom of crowdsYelp Social media following
5Influencer endorsementBusiness credentialsCertificationsTrust iconsWisdom of your friendsSubscribers Number of users
6Testimonials (from happy customers)Earned mediaReferralsData/numbersCertificationEndorsements Awards or recognition
7BadgesSocial media sharesGazingStorytelling Testimonials Social shares
8Media logosWisdom of the crowdsRatings and reviewsImplied Promoted tweets  
9Subscriber counts Case studies and proof of conceptActivity    
10Social connections FOMO     
11Social shares Social media     
12  Rankings social proof link
Grid of Terms: How today’s experts – conversion rate optimization specialists – describe and define social proof.

Data Collection

Follow the links in the grid – each of these internet marketers lists their above examples of social proof – 64 examples in all!

We have created 4 simple categories of these examples elsewhere. This is what is called a ‘sample of convenience’ – just observing online activity and trying to categorize it, simplify it and make sense of it all.

Use a kiosk to record a customer interview

Gather customer testimonials yourself with the video testimonial kiosk from WOW Promoter Inc.

desktop video testimonial kiosk for patient use

The kiosk sits at the front desk or checkout counter.

The app is installed on a tablet and placed within the kiosk. 

The kiosk is sold separately.