Updated: Jan 16
We’ve previously talked about virtual influencers and the impact they might have on consumers and brands alike. In this article, we discuss how they influence consumers and their choice to purchase or not purchase our products and services. We will discuss what this influence provides (social proof) and the mitigating circumstances that might affect the validity of this social proof. If you want to find out more than just keep reading.
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What is social proof?
Social proof is the evidence that is provided by others when they behave in a specific way in specific situations and their behaviour is seen as the right thing to do (Cialdini, 2009, p.99). For example, when an influencer purchases a product, positively reviews it or declares it a “holy grail” product this behaviour encourages other consumers to follow suit. The consumers might suddenly realise that the mentioned brand exists. They might make decisions about what attitude to adopt towards those products. They might feel more confident in what to expect when purchasing from that brand and/or might decide to take the next step and buy that featured product (Hu, 2015). This social proof is composed of five things, the source of the proof (eg. the influencer), the proof itself (eg. the review), the medium through which it is conveyed (eg. YouTube video), the context of the proof and how the receiver engages with the proof.
Continuing with our example, the influencer is the person who is providing social proof. Several elements will impact on whether they are listened to or ignored (Wathen & Burkell, 2002, p. 136).
Expertise / Knowledge – Does the influencer know what they’re talking about?
Trustworthiness – How trustworthy are they? Would they lie about the subject they are talking about?
Credentials – Do they have qualifications, references, lived experience, etc. to back up what they are saying?
Attractiveness – How personable or likeable are they?
This is the follower or person who is watching the YouTube video. They can choose to either engage with or ignore the social proof that has been provided. Several elements will impact on whether they choose to listen to or ignore the information being presented to them (Wathen & Burkell, 2002, p. 136).
Relevance – is the social proof relevant to them?
Motivation – how motivated are they to engage with the message being communicated?
Prior knowledge – does the receiver have any experience with the subject matter being covered?
Involvement – how involved are they in the subject being explored in the social proof?
Values and beliefs – does the message align with their values or belief systems?
Stereotypes about the influencer or what they are saying – does the follower have any biases regarding the influencer and their message?
“Social location” – how much does the follower’s gender, race, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, etc. impact upon the way they receive the message being communicated?
This is the message being conveyed in social proof. Here we need to consider the quality, frequency, and consistency of the messaging and evaluate how it will affect the follower who hears it. More specifically the impactful elements of the social proof are as detailed below (Wathen & Burkell, 2002, p. 136).
Content – what is the influencer actually saying?
Consistency and validity – does the message match what the follower perceives are the values, beliefs and, motivations of the influencer?
Plausibility of arguments – does the message seem like it could be true?
Supported by data or examples – is there any evidence to back up what is being said?
Framing (loss or gain) – is the message presented as a positive or negative?
Repetition/familiarity – how often is the influencer communicating their message?
Medium of the content
This is the way the proof (or message is being conveyed). The message needs to be clear and devoid of hyperbole in order to truly persuade the receiver. The medium is affected by several elements which are detailed below (Wathen & Burkell, 2002, p. 136).
Organization – does the most important information come first?
Usability – is the message easy to engage with? (i.e. if its too convoluted then the follower is likely to click out before the complete message is conveyed)
Presentation – is the messaging short and succinct?
Vividness – is the message entertaining (e.g. language, examples, metaphors, etc)? n.b. entertaining messages can also be less persuasive and more easily forgotten (Frey & Eagley, 1993) so it’s a fine line that needs to be tread.
Context of the content
The follower is being bombarded with a thousand and one messages on and offline. They aren’t living in a bubble so the influencer needs to ensure that the proof they are providing will be heard, retained and actively engaged with. Lastly, several elements with the context of the social proof will affect the impact of social proof and they are detailed below (Wathen & Burkell, 2002, p. 136).
Distraction / “noise” – is the follower being exposed to other messaging? is this other messaging supporting this social proof or detracting from it?
Time since message encountered
Degree of need – how important is the message to the follower?
Previous post on Virtual Influencers.
Mediating Mediating effects of attitude towards sources
Given the mass of messages that consumers are being bombarded with online, on social media and via email it’s inevitable that they must make an assessment as to the validity of those messages. Their persuasion knowledge will determine if they believe or question the intent, tactics and, appeals of these messages and indeed the messengers. Those with little persuasion knowledge will be more easily led to blindly follow the social proof wherever it might lead them because they don’t realise that biases and potential deception might be at play (Friestad and Wright, 1994; Hibbert et al, 2007 cited in Boerman, Willemsen and Van Der Aa, 2017, p. 83). If a consumer is unaware, for example, that an influencer is being paid to endorse a product, paid to give a bad review of a product, etc then the social proof being provided to them will result in them coming to the wrong conclusion about the product or service. Additionally, the relationship an influencer has with their audience can impact on the validity of the social proof they can provide.
The choice to disclose or not partnerships, affiliations, and/or associated benefits of these impacts on the validity of the social proof. Consumers are increasingly aware of influencers that are not transparent in regards to these issues and it most definitely impacts their purchasing choices (ie. They choose to avoid the endorsed product completely). So, what are the three types of disclosure?
- No disclosure: No mention is made of there being cash payments, free products, store credit, discounts, free services, special access or favours of any kind being made. The consumer assumes that the endorser is therefore unbiased and expressing sincerely held opinions.
- Partial disclosure: Implying a commercial relationship between brand and influencer and brand without expressly stating it might be considered partial disclosure. In regards to disclosure laws, there are no loopholes. So, this could be considered deceptive and misleading.
- Explicit sponsorship: It is clear and conspicuously mentioned that the endorsement of the product or service is sponsored. It is clear to the consumer that the influencer is receiving cash payments, free products, store credit, discounts, free services, special access or favours of some kind in exchange for said endorsment.
The interactivity of the influencer with their audience also impacts on the validity of social proof they can provide. The relationship quality between influencer and audience is easily determined by the reciprocity, responsiveness and speed of response in interactions (Johnson et al., 2006, p. 41 cited in Mutum, Ghazali, Mohd-Any & Nguyen, 2017, p. 78). What do I mean by that?
- Reciprocity: Whether the influencer actually has reciprocal communication with their followers or whether they are just pushing content at their followers when it suits them.
- Responsiveness: Whether the influencer actually is meeting their audience’s needs with their content, is taking onboard constructive criticisms, taking into account their audience's suggestions or simply enjoying a good ego-stroking (ie. their audience telling them how great they are).
- The speed of their responses: Whether the influencer responds in a timely manner to communication from their followers, leaves them with the impression that they don’t give a damn or only seems to appear when they schilling something.
We’ve seen in this article what social proof is and how the source, receiver, message, medium and context of that social proof can impact the validity of the social proof being provided. We’ve also seen that influencer behaviours such as disclosure and audience interactivity can reflect greatly on the validity of the social proof that consumers perceive they are receiving. Hopefully, this article has given you a better insight into the different elements that affect your customers' purchasing choices and therefore how to ensure that they are exposed to the best possible social proof so that they will choose you.
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