Testimonials and Teenagers Whizzing in the Bushes: The Power of Social Proof

Teenager

Testimonials add power to your copy. How? Let me answer that question by telling you a little story about a rabble of bladder-challenged teenagers whizzing in the bushes along an Interstate near my home.

Trust me. There’s a connection.

You see, some time ago, my wife and I were on our way to a party when traffic slowed to a standstill along a stretch of highway. Nine out of ten cars were filled with teenagers, so I quickly concluded that there was a concert at the nearby arena and that the ill-designed off ramp was clogged.

Fortunately, the wait paid off with unexpected entertainment.

A young man jumped from a car ahead of us and, in obvious physical distress, ran into the weeds to the right side of the road. Thirty seconds later he reappeared, smiling the smile of a man relieved of a great burden. He reentered his car to the approving whoops of a highwayful of instant fans.

A few moments later, a girl wearing one of those glorious “I’m doing something my parents don’t approve of” expressions followed the boy’s lead, plunging into the overgrowth, beer can still in hand.

Within seconds, two-dozen others ran staggering into the bushes. And when the available flora offered no more occupancy, the less shy simply turned their backs to the road and conducted their transactions under a bright Ohio sky.

Actually, I would have liked to use the facilities myself, but my wife’s disapproving look – not to mention the traumatic memory of insulting a nest of hornets the last time I improvised a rest stop – kept me in the car.

What happened here?

This is an example of social proof, the psychological principle of accepting something because others accept it, of doing something because others are doing it.

Most of those teenagers had been drinking. And I’m sure many of them needed to relieve themselves. But the idea of doing it in public didn’t strike them as acceptable until they saw someone else doing it. And the more who did it, the more acceptable it seemed.

It’s a natural human instinct to follow the behavior of others, whether it’s wearing the same type of boring gray suit as your associates or laughing at your boss’s lame jokes because everyone else around the water cooler is laughing.

Social proof is one of the most powerful psychological forces in our lives, and that definitely applies to copywriting. And what is the most popular – perhaps the most effective – social proof technique available to copywriters?

It’s our old friend, the testimonial.

11 Ways Testimonials Influence Behavior

The standard testimonial is a customer or client saying, “I’ve tried this and I love it.” The selling power delivers is enormous because its “social proof” works on so many levels:

  1. Credibility – A testimonial builds confidence in your message, offer, product, and company because it offers proof that it has worked for others.
  2. Objectivity – People expect you to say good things about your own product, so your persuasive abilities have a limit. But your argument is multiplied tenfold when other people say good things, especially when those other people have no bias and nothing to gain.
  3. Similarity – The best testimonials are from those similar to your prospective customers. People give more weight to the opinions of those who are like themselves. Doctors trust doctors. Housewives trust housewives. Teenagers trust teenagers.
  4. Expertise – If your product lends itself to testimonials from experts, this can have an effect as great as testimonials from similar people. I’ll listen to a person like me about the high quality of a tire for my car, but I’ll also listen to a mechanic who gives the tire high marks. Imagine a mechanic saying, “The Everlast Tire is the best tire on the road. Actually, it’s a little too good. Because once I put them on a car, I never see that customer again. Those tires could put me out of business.”
  5. Bandwagon Effect – When many testimonials are presented together, they not only engage the social proof Effect, they also trigger the Bandwagon Effect. “Lots of people are doing it, so I have to get in on this and do it too. How can X number of people be wrong?”
  6. Enthusiasm – Excitement breeds excitement. And if you’re aggressive in your testimonial collection, you should be able to gather comments that brim with energy. One testimonial, around which I framed an entire promotion for one of my clients, started with the word “WOW!” Others in the same promotion contained statements such as “What a treat!” and “I love it.”
  7. Benefits – Testimonials also offer an objective means of relaying your most important benefits. And by collecting lots of testimonials, you have the option of organizing them in your copy so the most informative are at the beginning.
  8. Features – Along with benefits, features can surface in your testimonials. Because of the quirky, disorganized wording of real testimonials, they may not cover all the facts. But people are likely to mention the most important or popular features or relate how particular features help in particular situations. It makes features tangible.
  9. The People Factor – On a basic level, communication theory tells us that people are interested in people more than in things. Testimonials represent real people talking about their experiences and sharing their opinions. Anything real people say will be more interesting and relevant than what a copywriter can concoct.
  10. Quotes – Along the same lines, people like to read or hear what others have to say. Readership studies show that anything in quotation marks – even if it’s not a quote – gets high readership. Quotations are also easier to read than running text. That’s why good children’s books are often filled with quoted dialog. It actually encourages reading!
  11. Specifics – And finally, good testimonials allow you to share specifics about your product. And because of the higher readership value of testimonials, they will be absorbed and understood quickly and effortlessly.

You should always have a collection of good testimonials on hand to help sell your products and services. So in part 2 of this series, I’ll show you a simple method I developed for collecting testimonials. With this method, building your collection will be easier than you think.

About the Author: Dean Rieck is a leading direct marketing copywriter. For more copywriting and selling tips, sign up for Dean’s FREE direct response newsletter or subscribe to the Direct Creative Blog.

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Comments

  1. I really never expected to take a lesson on copywriting and social proof that had anything to do with whizzing in the bushes ;) Good one, Dean!

  2. Excellent post Dean. The interesting thing about this social proof is the audience affected. Teenagers see others of same age, and as you wrote, followed the behavior of others. Reminds me of those trips to Vegas (before the bridges) when one would walk into the street not waiting for the light to change. A trickle would follow and then the whole crowd would move, literally stopping traffic.

  3. I’m always reminded of the study experiment of a man that enters a room. There are a bunch of people in the room, and they’ve been instructed to say that the number 6 is really 14. (Or whatever numbers it was).

    At first, the man protested. Then he met resistance and insistence. Then he began doubting himself.

    And soon, he too said that 6 was 14.

    Not social proof in this case (groupthink, if I remember well), but I love the whole theory of the herd mentality overriding the sense of the individual.

    Another cool one is foot-in-the-door syndrome. A little more… a little more… a little more… (This is how scope creep on gigs happens, people.)

    I love psychology. Thanks for this post, Dean.

  4. Which would explain why we like to have more comments on blogs. Comments on blogs communicate to others that the blog is acceptable, and maybe others will like it, too.

  5. I started doing video testimonials for clients a year ago and it has had a dramatic impact on my business since most prospects for real estate in my area come from the internet. Check em out if you want at http://www.sandbarstosunsets.com/clients – I have 4 more to add ;) – the best part is one has been viewed almost 4000 times in the past year – no real person is going to repeat their testimonial that many times. I have experiences all the points you outlined above – great article!!

  6. @ Jacqueline – What’s interesting to watch is what happens after two to three comments – more come.

    What’s even more interesting is to watch the tone of the first three comments. They’ll set the mood for the whole thread. Positive? All positive comments. Negative? Downhill from there.

    And then someone leaps in counter current, and all the comments follow THAT person’s tone… weird lol

  7. I would’ve never expected to make a connection between the two!

  8. James –

    You’re absolutely right – here’s another comment!

    :-p

  9. Dean,

    You made a really good point about others being more trustworthy than the company itself.

    There was a survey last year by Bridge Ratings and the University of Massachusetts, published on eMarketer.com, that broke down trusted sources of information.

    http://www.bridgeratings.com/press_08.01.067.Influentials.htm

    On a scale of 1-10, “Strangers with experience” received a 7.9 in a survey of trusted sources of information, while a company’s own advertising received a 2.2. A chart shows that’s changed dramatically over the past 10 years.

    Vendor communications have their place in creating awareness, but clearly must be backed up by other sources to get buyers to make a purchase. Testimonials and customer success stories perfectly fill the “strangers with experience” category, providing the third-party validation that buyers need to make decisions about products, services, or an organization.

    Thanks for the insightful post!

    Casey

  10. chuckling here Dean…And the the first thing that comes to mind is my mom saying , “Just because someone jumped off a bridge does that mean you will too?”

    Uh, well , maybe mom. Depends on the bridge. Highly entertaining connection professor. :)
    Can’t wait for the next part.

  11. Dean,

    I see this behavior with teenagers all the time. They try to “Out-Like” each other when talking. It’s “like” when they “like” say “like” like every other word. The more you one hears it, the more they seem to say “like” too.

    Cyndee,

    With that many video views, you should consider using revver.com and start collecting some money for the views. Just my two cents.

    Buck

  12. The TV commercial with someone who is not particularly attractive, saying they like a product must be effective because there is a lot of it. Under Attractive, the frisky couples who do the ED commercials.

    Testimonials have worked for time eternal, but I appreciate the explanation why!

  13. Known for a long time that it always is better to have someone else tout you than to have you blow your own horn. This is especially true on the personal level!

  14. Fun post Dean — in part II, could you (or anyone here) address the issue of posting testimonials for a confidential business?

    I currently use a person’s general title with the written blurbs I post, and can’t use even one name (with permission) or it undercuts my whole ‘confidential’ thing (which works for my biz.) Any thoughts?

    (The great thing about guest posts for a trusted blog is I’d never have read Dean otherwise; now I’m heading over to his blog!

  15. @GirlPie, maybe you could just use [Name Withheld for Confidentiality] in place of each one? Conventional wisdom holds that the more identifying info, the better (because cynical people think testimonials are all made up anyway), but in your case if confidentiality is a big part of your message, this might even reinforce that somewhat.

    I’m curious to hear how Dean would address it, too.

  16. And therein lies the conundrum — I appreciate your thinking!

  17. GirlPie,

    If you can’t reveal names, you can’t reveal names. Don’t sweat it. Give what you can. Some people use initials in place of names. Titles can work too along with the type of company, such as “Marketing Manager, Fortune 500 Software Developer.”

    As you’ll see in subsequent articles, the magic is not in the testimonial itself but in the principle underlying the testimonial … lots of people think this is great or lots of people are doing this. There are many ways to do this.

    Stay tuned.

  18. Yeah Dean, I’ve been using titles — thanks for the reminder about initials too. And you bet I’ll stay tuned!

  19. A rule of thumb I like to use on unnamed comments:

    The more anonymous the testimonial, the stronger, more detailed the comments should be. People tend to trust detail even if the person is anonymous, but it has to be a really compelling comment.

    I’d love to hear more thoughts on this conundrum.

    Casey

  20. Good point Casey — I’ll reread the source material to see if I’ve got the most detailed bits posted — thanks!

  21. Heh heh… simple proof that people are more closely related to sheep than apes..
    But great post mate..
    I have to point out though that most people seem to ignore testimonials since they’re pretty sure that the person writing them isn’t a customer/client but rather the hired pen..

  22. Uh… it’s called Alcohol. Good try though. I mean anyone who dranks can attests that they have done things after a few that they normally wouldn’t for find socially exceptable.

    ALSO there is the expression “broken the seal” because when you start drinking you also have to go to the bathroom like 100 times worse.

  23. Kyle, I think you might have missed the point. Yes there’s alcohol and full bladders involved, but the mass whiz did not occur until the first person took the leak leap. :-)

    Do some research on social proof and you’ll find tons of other examples. Start with the link in the post.

  24. Brian, I get it and totally understand the concept which is a good one. I just think in this case the variable of alcohol was what created the “leap”. Now there might be times that one person would make a leap like this, but even then a bunch of normal rational people aren’t all going to run into the woods to relieve themselves. It’s also a bunch of teenagers are more likely to react wildly, which if that’s your market is good (or bad) for you.

    Now I would agree that the good takeaway is that if your marketing can be the variable to cause an influential person to make the leap then your rolling.

    Thanks for getting me to develop my comment a little more!

  25. @ Kyle – Here’s one for you.

    Kids at high school need to pee. The girl’s bathroom is busted. They have to go to the one on the second floor or do without.

    Suddenly, one girl says, “Screw this,” and uses the guy’s bathroom.

    You think the rest will walk away and say, “That was dumb?” No. They’ll all follow.

    The first to take action is the one to lead the pack. Period.

  26. Kyle,

    Here’s one of a series of articles I wrote on influence and persuasion:

    http://www.directcreative.com/influence-and-persuasion-the-rule-of-social-proof.html

    It’s all based on the work of Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., a researcher with whom I’ve had enlightening conversations. This is a robust area of study in psychology, but I recommend beginning with Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” Lots of references in the back to supporting research.

  27. Shane, about your observation that “most people seem to ignore testimonials since they’re pretty sure that the person writing them isn’t a customer/client but rather the hired pen,” it’s particularly easy to overcome this concern on the web by using either audio testimonials+ photo+link back to testimonial-giver’s website (if any) or video testimonials+ link back to website.

    Even off the web, you can still use a photo of the “speaker” and business name/contact info.

  28. Great post Dean – you’re quickly becoming one of my favorite resources for copywriting tips!

  29. @James – hilarious. Point well made.

    @Dean – thanks for the link, bud! Looks like some good stuff to spend the rest of the night poring through.

  30. A friend and business comrade pointed me to this post (a testimonial in and of itself), and I loved the real-world example of how human behavior gets shaped by social leaders who test and set norms which others follow.

    I spent a few years working at eBay, and we never tired of studying the situation where items with bids attracted more bids, while identical items priced lower with no bids, somehow repelled interested bidders. My take was that people are lazy, and that they assumed that if someone else had bid on an item, they had done the looking under the hood and therefore items with bids had higher trust than those that didn’t. This is why you should always start your items low on eBay, people!

    Great stuff, gang. Please humor me in directing you to some related stuff that’s been on my mind in the department of “Endorsement Marketing”:

    http://endorsementmarketing.wordpress.com

  31. Argumentum ad Populum.

  32. I agree with the power of testimonials, but I’d go a step further and say that written testimonials that include a PHOTO of the writer and VIDEO TESTIMONIALS carry even more weight. Since we introduced picture testimonials on our wedding video website brides have told me they believe the testimonials more, plus they look at the ‘pretty’ pictures- examples here: http://www.electraweddingfilms.co.uk/testimonial/page/10

    We are also using video testimonials for clients in our webclips for corporate clients with effect – example here: http://www.astonsciencepark.co.uk/forthcoming-events.html

    Not trying to promote our services, as we are UK based but just agreeing and expanding on the post!

  33. I’d just like to endorse Brad Porteus’ Endorsement Marketing blog posts on his site. (See hispost above.) Just read 2 posts and they are bang on the mark. Going back to read more, but popped back to leave this comment!

    So thanks Copyblogger for attracting good comments as well as giving us good info!

  34. You are completely right about the power of testimonials !

    That’s why our company (BBC) appealed to Our Clients (www.our-clients.com). Our-clients is an online tool that makes it easy to collect testimonials from your clients and keep them up-to-date.

    The testimonials are completely trustworthy thanks to the fact that not only you but also your clients have control on what is published. And testimonials have to be updated or confirmed every 12 months. So you end up with a list of testimonials that are real and recent. Only those will convince your prospects.

  35. Heh… Ohio… 3.2 ’nuff said.

  36. Very informative post.

    Thank you.

  37. I definitely agree with how influential social proof is just to convince people to go with what’s IN. Of course, who wouldn’t want something that experienced people find very appealing and effective.

    As a parent though, I can’t help but feel disturbed by the behavior most of our teens show nowadays. That’s the reason why I often remind my preteen to be cautious about who they made friends with. I let them invite their friends over, as a matter of fact and I’m glad they’re open to me about things they like to talk about.

    Thanks for your helpful post.