Imagine that you are planning to celebrate your wedding anniversary.
The momentous occasion is in two weeks time. You wish to surprise your better half with the best holiday of her life.
What and who would influence your choice of the perfect holiday?
- Your personal knowledge and preference of the dream vacation
- A hot and trending travel destination on the media
- Social media influencers whom both of you follow online
- Recommendations by your best friend
- Reviews on Tripadvisor on destinations that you’re considering
While the final choice would be yours (Happy holidays!), there is a high chance that your eventual decision would be influenced more by others than you think.
And that’s the power of social influence.
Written by Jonah Berger, the bestselling author of the book Contagious, Invisible Influence – The Hidden Forces That Shape Behaviour explores the subtle, secret and often surprising ways in which the people around us affect our behaviours.
Spanning a wide range of research topics – from Henry Ford’s first automobile to popular music and inner city slumps – the book provided a fascinating glimpse into how others have a huge influence on what we do.
What is Social Influence?
Before we delve into the ideas in the book, let us first define what Social Influence is…
“Social influence is the phenomenon whereby individuals or groups, whether intentional or unintentional, cause a person to think, act or behave in a certain manner. It often occurs as a result of how the person perceives himself or herself in relation to others.”
While folks around us exert a heavy influence on our lives, most of us would vehemently deny that we are being influenced. After all, society tells us to be our own man or woman, and to avoid being a lemming which goes with the herd.
In the book, Berger highlights five key insights which debunks our independent thinking myth:
- Human beings tend to copy each other.
- However, we also want to differentiate ourselves from one another.
- What we eventually choose depends on who the “other” group is as well as our contexts.
- This dynamic tension results in the most successful products being somewhat similar yet sufficiently different.
- When others are around, we may perform simple tasks better. However, we perform complex tasks better when we are alone.
As social media marketers keen to change our customer’s online behaviours, it is useful to consider these insights in the context of the online world.
Let us look at each of them in detail.
#1 Imitating Others (Mimicry)
Which hawker stall do you buy your food from? Chances are that you’ll choose the one with the longest queue.
From the directions in which we park our cars, to how waiters who repeat diner’s orders help to improve the value of the meal and the tips given thereafter, studies reveal that imitation can truly be flattery.
Notice too how colleagues tend not to air dissenting views in a group after the first person has raised his opinion. Rather than rock the boat, most prefer to agree quietly rather than challenge the vocal proponent of an idea.
How to Apply
- Model the right behaviours for others to follow, rather than use rewards and punishments.
- To avoid groupthink, encourage dissenting views by pre-arranging different colleagues to air alternative views in a meeting.
- Use social proof indicators (eg no of customers, no of fans/followers on social media) to nudge potential social media customers in your direction.
#2 Differentiating Yourselves
While we may ape the behaviours of others, there are certain contexts where we wish to distinguish ourselves.
For example, we may wish to order a different food item from others in a group, or choose a different colour from a friend if both of us are buying a similar shirt.
Like younger siblings seeking to differentiate themselves from an older brother or sister, we strive to craft a distinct and separable identity.
How to Apply
- Create multiple variants (eg Apple’s rainbow hues of iMacs) to allow your customers to feel distinct
- Personalise customer experiences (like Starbucks) by tailoring to unique tastes and calling people by their names
- Consider cultural influences on influence. East Asian cultures tend to be more communal while Western cultures tend to be more individualistic.
#3 Avoiding Wrong Signalling
So we know that there are occasions where you imitate others. And occasions where you wish to differentiate yourself.
What about situations where you choose NOT to be affiliated with others?
In an example cited in the book, a campaign to combat the ill effects of binge drinking on a university campus was more successful when a poster featuring a geeky looking guy holding a drink was used. Students who saw the poster reported drinking 50 percent less alcohol!
A similar identity-based intervention involving signalling was successful applied by Burberry.
Associated with white working-class soccer hooligans in the early 2000s with their distinctive camel check pattern, the brand decided to remove the iconic plaid pattern from 90 percent of its product line.
This helped Burberry to maintain its high-quality status, and shake off hangers-on who wanted the brand for what it signaled.
How to Apply
- Choose a positive role model for your online brand. Ensure that he or she has the right aspirational identity that appeals to your target group.
- Tone down or shift the use of visible signals (like logos and patterns) to avoid attracting the wrong customers
- Refrain using stigma-associated signals in your marketing. For example, adding unprotected sex (a stigmatized reason) to a list of potential ways to catch a disease may reduce the number of people coming to your clinic to test themselves.
#4 Being Optimally Distinct (The Goldilocks Effect)
Sometimes how we choose isn’t a straightforward either/or question.
While we don’t want to be exactly the same, we may not want to be completely different either.
Instead, our choices and behaviours allow us to be optimally distinct. We avoid extremes, and like things that are moderately similar, “blending the allure of novelty with the comfort of the familiar until it feels just right.”
Often, we conform on identity-relevant attributes (eg length of hair) while differentiating ourselves on identity-irrelevant ones (eg colour of shirt).
How to Apply
- Navigate the sweet spot in introducing innovations, blending similarity and difference
- Cloak technology in a skin of familiarity – eg the use of a floppy disk icon to denote “save” on a computer
- Design products that resemble something familiar while offering significant improvement, eg the iPhone
#5 Social Comparisons: How Peers Affect Behaviours
When you’re performing a simple and repetitive task (eg running on a race track), the presence of similarly abled others could be motivational. However, if you fall too far behind, those same others can lead you to quit.
What about more complex tasks, like coding for a completely new app?
Well, for such complex tasks, you’re probably better off doing it alone. The presence of others could exert a negative influence on your performance.
The positive influence of peers was powerfully described in the Moving to Opportunity programme in the US.
Part of the National Industrial Recovery Act in the US in the 1930s, low-income families randomly selected to move to better neighbourhoods improved their eventual outcomes in life. Their children were more likely to attend college, less likely to do drugs, and more likely to get better paying jobs.
How to Apply
- Avoid winner-take-all models where only the top person gets promoted or wins. While it motivates people who have a chance near the top slot, it often demotivates many others who feel that they don’t have a shot at winning.
- Break larger groups into smaller comparison sets, eg golf tournaments grouping players by their handicaps
- Choose peers that are similar in performance and abilities to ourselves
Commonly associated with the number of fans on Facebook or engagement rate of your posts, social influence in the online world is often confused with social media KPIs.
While such measures are useful proxies of your potential impact on others in the online world, they do not tell us what we should do to improve our performance.
Thanks to Invisible Influence, we now know a thing or two about how we can effect the right online behaviours in our target audiences by changing the dynamics of social influence.
Which of these insights would you apply? And why?