Just before Christmas in 1989, the most technologically advanced basketball shoe ever was released: the Reebok Pump.
By pressing a button on the tongue of the shoe, (which was designed to make a very satisfying air-thrusting noise) you could inflate the sole – thus enabling you to jump higher, run faster, and maybe even dunk.
In real time? They were amazing. In hindsight? They were pretty dumb.
Social proof is the thing that makes us ascribe value and credibility to something like an inflatable basketball shoe. It’s something we need to understand, not only to use to our own advantage but also to defend ourselves against having it used against us.
There are 5 types of social proof that we should all be aware of. We’ll use the Reebok Pumps as an aid to show just how successfully they took advantage of the phenomena.
Experts: Scientists designed this thing. Obviously. This was as high tech as the Nintendo you wanted a few years earlier.
Celebrities: Dominique Wilkins was wearing them – and he was a pro. Maybe you couldn’t see yourself on TV, but you could see your shoes on TV.
Users / Friends / Wisdom of Crowds: All three of these are their own, but in a pre-internet world I learned A. The kids who had them were proud of them, B. Everyone else coveted them C. we all assumed they must be amazing. In practice, users offer testimonials, friends lend trust and authenticity, and the wisdom of crowds is mostly “what do the Amazon/Yelp/Google reviews say.”
Smart people (and companies) build social proof into the DNA of their products as well as their marketing plans.
I used the Pumps as an example here to also remind us that even with limited resources, we can use social proof on the playground of life to create scarcity and status. Celebrities might be out of reach, but referencing high-level similarities is not. Expert opinions are easily found. Users, friends, and the wisdom of crowds can be referenced at even the smallest level.
Social proof is real, and it’s ingrained in all of us. Learn to spot it, and learn to use it.
For further reading, start with Robert Cialdini’s books Influence and Pre-suasion.