What pizza taught me about social proof marketing


It was the best pizza I’ve ever had.  Mozarella, tomato, prosciutto and rocket. Salty and buttery, light and good.  And it was from a tiny joint tucked away in an alley in Byron Bay.

Without Trip Advisor, we would never have found this place.

When we landed in Byron Bay, I loaded up Trip Advisor and searched for restaurants nearby. Il Buco came up as the number one ranked restaurant in the whole town.  Eighty-eight people had left reviews, and almost all of them were glowing.  By review number three, my mouth started watering.

We make decisions like that all the time.  You could be looking for a good restaurant.  A good hairdresser. A good website designer, lawyer or accountant. With so many options out there, how do you choose? If you’re anything like me, you ask around. You use other people’s experiences as a guide.

What’s going on here?

We evolved to be social animals and to learn from the experiences of others.  Going back to our caveman days, 60,000 years before the invention of pizza, we needed that social learning to survive.  The wisdom shared across our tribe would tell us where the good hunting was, where to find shelter, whether that bright red fruit was safe too eat.

In marketing, we call that ‘social proof.’  We use other people’s experiences to achieve two things:

  • Narrow the field of options to be considered.  I don’t need to evaluate every single plant in the forest (or restaurant in Byron Bay) – I can narrow my selection based on what’s already popular
  • Gaining trust. Whenever we’re asked to choose something new, we’re cautious. Will we like it? Will this person treat me well? Social proof provides the evidence we need to feel more confident, and reduce the perceived risk.

What are the types of social proof?

Now we have print and electronic media, we don’t need to go up and talk to someone in our tribe. We can harness their experience through a stack of channels:

  • Likes on a Facebook page
  • User reviews (like Trip Advisor)
  • Recommendations through online forums
  • Client lists (for example, a section on a website that displays the logos of previous clients)
  • Case studies (I’ve written on case studies before).
  • Testimonials
  • LinkedIn recommendations

Don’t get peer-pressured into using social proof

Often I see clients jumping on board one of these channels just because they’ve been told that they should. They add a Facebook likes widget to their website, because everyone else does.

It’s ironic.  One of the biggest barriers to using social proof effectively is just instinctively following what other people are doing.

That’s why I decided to write this post: once you understand the underlying principles of social proof, you can zero in on the type of channel that’s going to work best for you.

What makes good social proof?

My experience with Il Buco crystallised the two factors that make social proof work:

1. Who’s saying it

When you use social proof, you’re appealing to the opinion of peers. Bear in mind that it’s someone’s peers for the purpose of that decision. They don’t need to be an exact demographic fit, as long as they have something in common, and it’s relevant right now. That’s what happened with my pizza experience. Their customers aren’t all mid thirties, bearded and introspective.  But in that moment, we were united by our quest for a decent feed.

2. What they’re saying

Social proof is most powerful when it carries more information than just a thumbs up.  That’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of using Facebook likes to demonstrate credibility (though they do have other uses).  Social proof is most effective when it carries information that speaks to your clients’ needs, doubts and questions.

It can be paying $15 for pizza, or investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a new IT platform.  We’re still social animals, looking to the person beside us, to find out what they think before we eat that fruit.


Next post, I’m going to explore one of the most useful but most poorly executed types of social proof: testimonials.

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