The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 5 Issue 9   December 2009


Our last newsletter of the year takes a look at the concept of “social proof.” Specifically, how this often unforeseen factor can influence your research.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

“Proof”: Influencing Both Your Research and Your Eggnog
One of the very best things about attending conferences like The Market Research Event, is the thought-provoking material presented. This year, one of my favorite talks was given by Noah Goldstein, co-author of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.

Goldstein recounted his findings about what he calls “social proof;” what follows is my abridged version (from his book) of his best-known example…

With the cooperation of a hotel manager, Goldstein and his colleagues created two signs to be placed in hotel rooms, designed to reflect the type of basic “re-use your towels, save the environment” message. One asked the guests to show their respect for nature by participating in the program.

The other sign used the principles of “social proof” — when people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look outside themselves and to other people around them to guide their decisions and actions. This other sign informed guests that the majority of guests recycled their towels at least once during the course of their stay. Guests who saw this message rather than the standard sign were 26% more likely to re-use at least one towel during the course of their stay.

“Social Proof” examples are everywhere

Personally, I experienced the phenomenon of “social proof” last weekend, while strolling (okay, dragging and jostling) through the mall on the way to finishing up my holiday shopping:
  1. Watching children in line to visit with Santa. One boy, about 8 years old, explained loudly and earnestly to his mother that he just had to have the Eiffel Tower Lego set. Within minutes, every 8-year-old in line was a budding architect as well.
  1. Observing shoppers stampede towards a “one hour, unadvertised special” on winter outerwear. While I’m sure that many of the people tearing through the display actually came to the store intending to buy fur-lined leather gloves, I’m quite certain that many of them were simply attracted by, and flowing with, the rush of humanity.
  1. Enjoying the positive attitude of an unhurried, unharried, smiling sales assistant at Macy’s. Her gentle and graceful manner in the heat of holiday shopping battle led everyone else to smile and share a pleasantry.
Accounting for “Social Proof” in market research

My experience at the shopping mall got me to thinking about the many ways in which “Social Proof” also permeates market research and public opinion.
  1. Focus groups, particularly when there is an outgoing and vocal participant present, are social proof laboratories. A person who appears (by experience or demeanor) to be an “expert” may come to a conclusion with which other members — who may believe themselves to be less knowledgeable — don’t want to argue.

    It’s the rare confused participant who will challenge the direction of a group discussion, even if that participant’s confusion stems from a legitimate concern.
  1. Social media — blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Web discussions, etc. — have turned us all into “experts.” Any one of us can share a point of view and in some cases, have a noticeable and immediate impact on brand and public opinion. (Check out the infamous “cheeky” Virgin rant publicized earlier this year for a good example.)
  1. Advertising has long harnessed social proof tenets, sometimes with the result of being unintentionally (or intentionally) misleading. I’m sure you recall the famous Trident chewing gum line: “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” It’s compelling, certainly… until you remember that few dentists recommend chewing gum in the first place.
Here’s the Twist: “Social Proof,” “Herd Mentality,” “Peer Effects,” “Pluralistic Ignorance”… call it what you will. Goldstein’s presentation made us think hard about the effects of group interactions, particularly on market research results. It inspires us to keep these very human behaviors in mind when designing research and selecting methodologies.

— Julie

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In addition to its many other benefits (don’t get us started), CSR’s in-depth, one-on-one interviewing technique mitigates much of social proof’s negative impact on research. Participants — whether painfully shy, painfully outgoing, or somewhere in between — have the freedom and space to voice their real opinions.

We know that focus groups are appealing because it enables our clients to watch and listen to customers and prospects. With that in mind, we often enable that same “watch and learn” capability by conducting a series of in-person, one-on-one interviews in focus group facilities that client teams are able to observe.

On the scheduling side, however, some planning is required. Our approach is to schedule more than one interview at a time and to run them in parallel in separate rooms at the same facility. This offers three practical advantages:

  1. It gives clients a chance to move from one interview to another. Not all interviewees (or interviewers) are created equal; invariably, some sessions are more valuable than others. Although all the information from all sessions is ultimately captured (recorded and transcribed) and coded, parallel interviewing allows client team members to move from place to place, taking in whichever live interviews they choose to watch.
  1. It reduces downtime. If one of your focus group participants fails to show up, the session takes place anyway. If a one-on-one interviewee goes missing, however, everyone is on hold. Parallel interviews make this less of a problem.
  1. It increases the amount of information we capture. A 90-minute focus group will allow eight focus group members to talk for about 10 minutes each (because the moderator takes up some of the air time). And that’s assuming they all speak for equal amounts of time, which is rare.

    Running three, parallel, 30-minute one-on-one interviews in the same 90-minute time period allows for nine interviews of 20 to 25 minutes each (depending on how much the interviewer speaks), or 180 to 225 minutes of total feedback.


“Proof”: Influencing Both Your Research and Your Eggnog

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

This month, and in honor of the holidays, we’ve got a special Santa challenge for you. Send us your answer and you may win a prize (see below for details).

Here it is:

Santa is running two focus groups. He’s brought together ten 8-to 12 year-olds in one group and their parents in another. The topics to be covered are what you like most and least about the holiday season. Send us your “major findings” from either or both sessions.

The funniest answers (judged by the CSR elves) will win a copy of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive. We’ve got three books and we’re ready to give them away!

If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?

— My Mom and Dad
(and I bet yours too!)

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result, our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.

Understanding What People Really Think

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