What Makes the Crowd Appealing

On the eve of Black Friday, all was quiet in the house. Our tummies were filled and it was time to go out.  (Okay, the holiday allusion ends there.) My parents were thinking about getting a new LCD TV so we did our research and saw that Best Buy had a great $400something deal for a 50” Samsung.  Our consumerist ears perked. It was enough to overcome the tryptophan and get off our bums.

We drove to the local Best Buy expecting a mile-long line wrapped around the corner with tents, televisions, and sleeping bags rolled out. Instead, the line was only slightly longer than my 2-month old nephew- a measly 10 people stood waiting, equivalent to about  5 feet. Where was the party?! Keep in mind that it was 8 pm and the store was opening at midnight, in just a few hours! Images of the hoards of people running through the doors and scrambling to claim their stake didn’t seem to match up with this picture.  Perhaps people in Chattanooga care a little more about spending time with family, than getting a new TV.

However, this was not the case at the nearby Walmart.  Walmart opened their doors to everyone, even with registers not taking money until 10 pm.  People could browse and wait inside before official opening. Maybe that did the trick- who knows- but the parking lot was packed.  This caught our eye.  Why was everyone at Walmart?  We followed the crowd, took a spot, and ventured on it.  The deals weren’t actually that great- in fact, Best Buy’s was better- but there was still the knowledge that there were at least 50 others partaking in this shopping extravaganza with us. Compare that with the 10 at Best Buy. We couldn’t be going too wrong.

This here describes the concept of social proof.  Wikipedia describes social proof as “a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others reflect the correct behavior for a given situation… driven by the assumption that the surrounding people possess more information about the situation.” In other words, people are wired to learn from the actions of others, and this can be a huge driver of consumer behavior.

What got my parents and I in the door of Walmart was the presence of everyone else.  We didn’t set out for Walmart at the beginning of the night. But the fact that other people were there seemed to indicate that they possessed some sort of hidden knowledge about the situation. “They must know about some great deal that we don’t! We should check it out.”

That is an example of naturally occurring social proof. But we can engineer this too.

Like the social proof of a line of people standing behind a velvet rope, waiting to get into a club.

The line makes most people walking by want to find out what’s worth the wait.  The digital equivalent of the velvet rope helped build viral growth for initially invite-only launches like Gmail, Gilt Groupe, Spotify, and Turntable.fm.” – TechCrunch

This gets me thinking about ways we can use social proof to cultivate good habits, like reading news about important issues. I guess this may be the premise behind Washington Post Social Reader,but that requires having a certain group of friends who read those sorts of articles.  If your friends like news about Kim Kardashian, well then, you’ll just go along and read Kim Kardashian too.

We know that we’re more likely to do what our friends do (or at least be exposed to those activities). The question now is: how do we reach the ones whose primary network don’t have those habits?

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