One thing hasn’t changed since the dawn of retail: We feel more confident in our choices when we know people like us have made the same choice before us, and had a good outcome.
Early carpet and spice merchants would pay confederates to act as customers and make their stands look busy. And the attendant at the general store would tell you what products were popular with your neighbors. They didn’t call it social proof, but they understood it to be the cornerstone of selling.
Mass marketing and big box retail took away the one-to-one contact, but not the consumer need for reassurance. Brand names became the shortcuts for quality and acceptance, and the branding lexicon was established. Most marketers still operate from the premise that brand awareness and preference are the driving factors in shopper marketing.
They’re missing the central shift in shopping. Connected consumers with immediate access to perfect information on products don’t rely on brands as proxies. Consider Vizio, which went from unknown to best-selling TV in America in less than five years with little advertising. Social proof propelled the sales. Whereas people used to shop TV departments organized by brand, today they shop by what the geeks in their online circles recommend. Smartphones make it easy to get perfect shopping information, and therefore reduce the value of brand as a shortcut for quality.
Manufacturers and retailer alike need to make that reflex work for them. This starts with online ratings and reviews, which have a dramatic effect on sales. More than 30% of consumers now start product searches on Amazon rather than on Google thanks to the presence of reviews on Amazon. Adding just one review to a product detail page typically boosts conversion by 10% (add 50 reviews and conversion climbs by 30%). Yet more than 100 of the top 500 retail sites don’t have reviews; and many of those that do aren’t following best practices that turn reviews into excellent social proof.
It’s not enough to just post ratings and reviews; it’s how you present them, what you let people do with them, and how you market them, that really count. When merchandising reviews, think volume and variety. A 3.5 rating based on 100 reviews will generate more sales than a 4 rating with 20 reviews. Highlighting negative and positive reviews will lift sales more than strictly positive reviews; it’s more believable and trustworthy.
Allowing shoppers to search reviews entices people to consult more of them, particularly when they can sort by review attributes. And identifiers – user submitted photos, customer affinity badges, verified purchaser badges, and reviewer attributes – give reviews more credibility and relevance. For example, Golfsmith records the skill levels of reviewers so visitors can curate the reviews most relevant to them. Patagonia lets shoppers browse the user-generated images uploaded with reviews. Trip Advisor even plugs into the Facebook social graph, so visitors can see reviews written by their friends.
Enabling Q&A on a retail site takes proof up a notch. If a shopper considering a $900 camera on Adorama asks whether she can still see through the view finder after the battery dies, she might get 25 answers within 15 minutes. If the top one is no, but the reviewer loves the camera anyway, she’s probably buying one. Of added benefit, Google indexes the Q&A; so when people ask the question, they’re led to that page.
Showing the footprints of shoppers is even more powerful. Whereas some e-commerce sites still feel like you’re the first visitor, JackThreads puts a widget on every product detail page, showing how many people visited, bought or put it in their wish lists.
The biggest opportunity of all is extending social proof to retail stores, where 92% of sales still take place. For the most part, retailers are not deploying proof strategies at the point of impact.
To remedy that, retailers need to follow the lead of a few forerunners. Best Buy now puts QR codes on the fact tags for every product in the store, so shoppers can easily get social proof on their smartphones. Nordstrom puts a table in the women’s fashion department to display items trending on Pinterest, and mounts video monitors at store entrances showing what products are popular in the store as well as on sites such as Wanelo and Instagram. One clothing store in Brazil now uses hangers with digital displays that show a running tally of Facebook likes for each garment.
As the cost of electronic shelf labels plummets, it’s increasingly viable to show such a live feed for every product. Combine these with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons or Near Field Communications (NFC) technologies, and you can send smartphone users directly to products with the most social proof.
The simplest way to start introducing social proof into retail stores is to equip sales associates with digital clientelling tools. A sales assistant with tablet in hand can give interested customers social proof in person. That’s providing what shoppers really need in the form they trust the most.