Social Proof Messaging: What it is and how it helps everyone shop online with confidence

Why social proof works, how it improves the customer experience and how it increases conversion rates and revenue for retailers.

Alison Wiltshire

| 7 July 2021 |

Est. Reading: 8 minutes

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What is social proof?

Social proof aggregates the actions and opinions of customers and shares this information in real-time with other shoppers at relevant points along the online shopping journey.

Like a virtual sales assistant, social proof messages provide factual answers to the questions you’d ask an assistant in the bricks and mortar store, such as ‘is this in stock?’ or, ‘what’s the bestseller in this category?’.  It can also tell you what other shoppers are looking at or putting in their basket, as well as providing aggregated customer reviews.

Taggstar social proof messages are grounded in accurate, real-time data pulled from the retailer’s systems and third-party providers. By constantly verifying and cross checking our data sources, our data is accurate, meaning messages can never over claim or mislead.

Best practice social proof messages avoid emotive language, simply presenting the consumer with accurate and contextual information, such as ‘125 of these sold in the past 24 hours’, or ‘16 purchased since your last visit’. 

Our social proof is a responsible way for retailers in every market sector from value to high end to enhance the online experience and help their customers make informed buying decisions. 

"Some customers in our market are often overwhelmed by the amount of choice available to them. Being able to see what other customers are purchasing helps to build a customer’s confidence..."

Alan Gregory, SEO & SEM Executive, Victorian Plumbing

Social proof: the science

The basis of social proof is simple: no-one likes to be told what to do. But we are influenced by the actions of others. 

Psychologist Robert Cialdini first articulated the idea that people are likely to do what they see or hear others doing. It’s peer pressure, in a nutshell. Hotels use it to help reduce laundry with that message in the bathroom: ‘87% of guests re-use their towels to help the environment’. Governments use it to increase tax revenues or encourage recycling (‘78% of residents in this street have a recycling bin’). And it’s what gives influence to social media influencers.

 “In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.”

Dr Robert Cialdini

On the whole, people trust each other – family and friends – more than they trust brands. According to research from Edelman, as few as one third of consumers trust most of the brands they buy. Which means however artfully crafted the images and words on the retailer’s website, customers remain sceptical. 

It explains why ratings, reviews and customer comments are so powerful. As Bazaarvoice says “through user-generated content (UGC) like customer reviews, photos and Q&A, consumers are conversing with one another to learn more about products or to (often unknowingly) be brand advocates”.  

Consumers today – especially younger people - also seek authenticity, transparency and honesty. To ensure that social proof messaging has integrity and can be trusted, it must be based on real-time, real life crowd-sourced data. 

We’re past the point of no return

In the past 12 months, we’ve reached a tipping point. The pandemic has created a huge upturn in eCommerce activity and accelerated digital transformation in the retail and CPG sectors - the shift to online is likely to be permanent. A survey by NatWest and Retail Economics shows that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated growth in online sales in 2020 by five years and permanently changed the shopping habits of two in five consumers. 

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, eCommerce’s share of global retail trade rose from 14% in 2019 to about 17% in 2020. More than 260 million Americans will make an online purchase in 2021, spending on average US$1,784. In the UK, the proportion of retail sales online was the highest on record in January 2021, reaching 35.2% compared with 19.5% reported in January 2020

Lots of these consumers will be new to online, while others will be spending in categories such as beauty, or for big ticket items - home furnishings or even cars - where they would normally prefer to shop in person in the store.

It’s never been more important for retailers to give every customer a positive digital experience. 

Social proof messaging has an important role to play in guiding customers through their online journey. By drawing on the behaviour and opinions of other customers, social proof messages inform and reassure at every step of the online experience and across all digital channels and touchpoints, helping people buy with confidence.

Adding social proof messaging to the customer journey is a powerful and low risk way to achieve that.

Like shopping with friends: how social proof enhances the customer experience

Drawing on the wisdom of the crowd, social proof messaging software puts all sorts of relevant facts and figures in front of the customer as they ponder their choices. It acts as a friendly, knowledgeable sales assistant, with unobtrusive and helpful comments about sales and add-to-basket volumes, what others are looking at right now or what other buyers have said about a product. 

Taggstar social proof is not limited to the retailer’s own website. Messages can be displayed on any digital channel including social media channels, email and even OOH. A strong campaign will use a variety of message types, all written and designed to reflect the brand’s look, feel and tone of voice, and connect with consumers. Typical messages will address how many people are looking at an item, what’s trending and summarise customer reviews of goods and services.

“Taggstar helped us to define the best message combinations, and that's pushed our results to add another 12% to SimplyBe new visitor conversion rates.”

Paul Hackett, UX Testing & Optimisation Manager, N Brown

Social proof is also a powerful addition to social commerce. It provides another layer of guidance for shoppers as they journey from inspiration to gratification, seeking to buy items directly on social media sites such as Instagram. Sharing stories, products and ideas along with real time commentary on what’s trending gives people the confidence to make buying decisions on social media. Increasingly we turn even more to social media for inspiration, and the growth opportunity of selling through these channels is vast.

Social proof supports consumers at every step of their shopping journey

Exploration and inspiration. Too much choice is intimidating. From the moment they start browsing on social media, messages can help customers identify popular items, look at what’s trending, what’s hot. 

Making a shortlist. Nearly half of consumers fail to complete the buying journey because they are overwhelmed by the breadth of choice online. Seeing what others have bought can help to narrow those choices and curate a shortlist. 

Browse and belong. Social proof helps to create a sense of community, to replicate the buzz of the physical store online and show the shopper that she is not alone in the aisle. 

Guidance and affirmation. Messages that tell consumers what other people think can help new customers get used to online shopping and provide proof that others like you have thought this was a good choice.

“Using Taggstar has given us impressive online results. We set out to improve the experience for our online customers and it’s rewarding to clearly track uplift in our revenue directly to using social proof messaging.”

Paula Riley, Web Trading Manager, Benson’s for Beds

Confirmation and reassurance. Knowing that other people have also bought this hot tub, that mobile phone package or kid’s car seat without seeing it first helps to reassure consumers about making significant purchases online.

Information and help from a virtual sales assistant. Consumers expect up to date information about product features and attributes. Social proof gives them answers before they need to ask.

“Taggstar acts like an online virtual assistant, helping to make purchasing decisions easier for our millions of customers, and supports the growth of our online sales.”

James Kinnear, eCommerce Retail Director, Aldi

Surprise discovery. Friendly, non-intrusive messages can prompt shoppers to look at something new, something they might not have otherwise considered.

Decision time. Reducing returns is in everyone’s interest. Feedback from other shoppers can help customers get it right first time, especially when choosing fashion items, where fit is often the reason for multiple purchases and consequent returns.

Add to basket. ‘Check out anxiety’ accounts for 85% of basket abandonment. Social proof messages steer customers through the complexity and a personalised message reaffirms their choice.

Finishing touches. Messages can also remind customers about ancillary items such as accessories or gift wrapping, the kind of on-the-spot advice they would get from an assistant if shopping in store.

The benefits for retailers

The multiple benefits to retailers of social proof fall into two categories: (a) a better experience for online customers, and (b) a fast return on investment through increased conversion rates and sales.

A more engaging and personalised customer experience

Two thirds of retailers say the customer experience is one of their top business priorities for 2021. According to Accenture, “73% of all people point to customer experience as an important factor in their purchasing decisions”. Speed, convenience, knowledgeable help and friendly service are all important elements of a positive customer experience. Social proof ticks all these boxes. 

Specifically, it helps the retailer to:

  • Engage customers with friendly, personalised (’51 of these sold since your last visit’) and brand-appropriate messages that help them make informed purchasing decisions.

“We work tirelessly to make our customer experience better and better so people can choose the right shoes and apparel to achieve their fitness goals. Social proof makes it easier for customers to find what they need and buy with confidence.”

Dan Cartner, Senior Marketing and e-Commerce Manager, SportsShoes.com

  • Provide timely and up to date information about stock availability, or how other buyers rate an item or service (‘88% said this mobile plan is value for money’).

"This gives consumers vital information about what’s trending and in stock, so they can benefit from amazing deals.”

Sam Barton, Head of User Experience, The Very Group

  • Crowd-sourced behavioural data helps reassure customers – especially those new to ecommerce, or those looking for goods and services they’d usually buy in-store (such as cosmetics, or high consideration items like statement home décor pieces) – that people like them have endorsed this way of shopping (‘Excellent choice - 156 people have bought this in the past 24 hours’).
  • Recreate some of the social interaction and buzz of browsing and shopping in the bricks and mortar store. Social proof messages (‘19 other people are looking at this right now’) help make the experience more fun and give the sense that while you may be shopping online you are not alone in the store. 

“Since launching social proofing, our revenue and conversion has increased sizeably, and we’re also seeing positive engagement metrics and interactions with our organic social platforms.”

Victoria Betts, Global Omni Channel Director, Hotter

A rapid return on investment: 100% ROI

Social proof messaging can pay for itself very quickly through an uplift in conversion rates (some retailers have reported a conversion rate increase of up to 20%) and increased sales. Indeed, Taggstar social proof deployments have consistently delivered 100% ROI and in some instances 1000%+. 

"Giving customers the confidence to make informed buying decisions has delivered a swift return on investment: in just 21 days, the increase in sales attributable to social proof messaging covered the cost of the Taggstar solution."

Lindsay Costa, Senior eCommerce Trading Manager, Wickes

Of course, responsible retailers do not deploy social proof to encourage sales at any cost, but to ensure every customer makes an informed decision and is delighted with their purchase.

“Taggstar messages instigate an informed purchase, but we don’t want to drive impulse purchases. Our objective is to drive quality demand.”

Liam Price, Digital Director, Oasis

Social proof can also help retailers sell more long tail items, by making it easier for the customer to uncover those slow-moving niche products. 

It’s also likely that by enabling better buying decisions, social proof can help reduce the cost of returns – an objective high on every retail sustainability agenda. Generous policies for returning unwanted purchases appeal to customers but mopping up the flood of returns incurs huge financial and environmental costs. 

The returns headache is especially acute in fashion where shoppers can easily buy the wrong size and routinely order multiple sizes to compare. But when shoppers have real-time information on say, sizing information (‘95% of buyers said this item comes true to size’) they will be able to make more confident choices and hopefully make fewer returns.