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It’s All About Me Too!

I apologize to all Portlanders for what I’m about to say: You guys rock at furthering your motto, “Keeping Portland Weird!” So much so, in fact, that I found myself walking around for hours last summer trying to find the normalcy in your beautiful city. 

After passing many interesting people and places, I found a long line off the beaten path in front of a small storefront with a coffin in the window and a large scary pink sign above the door. Curious, I approached the store to see what the attraction was. It was raining and people were still standing in line, so this had to be good. Perhaps an exhibit of original Beatles instruments, or tickets to a Pink concert? No. These people, old and young, rich and not so rich, were standing in line for about an hour for a donut! 

As I observed this long line—all for grease-soaked, white flour, full-of-air pockets with dried crusty sugar on top—I marveled at the crowd’s energy every time someone walked out with a donut in hand. Oohs, wows, and ahhs. Yes, Virginia. There is an Emperor with no clothes, just like how these VOO DOO Donuts have no appeal other than that they’re named and shaped like body parts that I cannot mention in this column. And intelligent adults can’t help themselves.

No matter how intelligent, sophisticated, confident, or secure you or your customers are, we humans are powered by the need for social proof. Social proof isn’t just knowing that others like what you like or do what you do, it’s also making sure that you don’t miss out on something that everybody else has or is doing. Deny it as much as you want. However, we’re all wired to follow the crowd and be part of what others are doing.

This phenomenon transcends our everyday lives to our professional lives. Social proof plays an important role in the initiation and abandonment of stock coverage by Wall Street analysts, according to a study by professors at Emory University, Norwegian School of Management, and University of Michigan. Decision makers at investment firms often start covering firms peers cover and drop coverage when others do, according to the study published in Administrative Science Quarterly entitled “Fools Gold: Social Proof in the Initiation and Abandonment of Coverage by Wall Street Analysts.” This behavior highlights the inherent, often unconscious need to follow what others do to validate one’s own actions and choices.

Marketers who understand our unconscious and conscious needs for validation have been capitalizing on this for years. There’s a reason that Trident gum touted their endorsement by four out of five dentists for decades. And many brands promote their customer satisfaction rate more than the products they sell.  Nielsen’s consumer trust study shows that 92% of us trust other consumers’ opinions to guide our own shopping decisions. In addition, various studies show that the majority of us research what others are buying before deciding on a purchase online or at a local store. Check out BrightLocal’s 2013 Local Consumer Review Survey

Because most of us are driven by a negative affective system, or a mind-set wired for survival versus risk taking, we consumers also tend to clamor for things we deem to be scarce—a behavior that psychologists refer to as the scarcity effect. 

Just take a look at Twinkies. When Hostess announced that it was going to stop producing the popular snack foods, sales jumped 31,000% for just Twinkies alone. Somehow, adults who hadn’t eaten Twinkies for years most likely, suddenly had to have one—and not just one, but boxes of them—before they went away forever.

Key takeaways: 

Validate consumers’ interests in your product, purchases, and satisfaction in all that you do. Invest in customer satisfaction studies, and find ways to inspire consumers to post their experiences and love for your products. Share statistics showing how your product sales compare to competitors’ products, and let human nature take over. And if your product is in high demand, and potentially hard to get, make sure that the world knows that too!

Jeanette McMurtry, principal of e4marketing, is an authority on psychology-based marketing, speaking at business events worldwide. She is a Back by Popular Demand trainer, speaker, and course instructor for the DMA.
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