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Using “Social Proof” to Sell Sustainability

The principle of ‘social proof’ suggests that when deciding how to behave in an uncertain situation, most people simply copy the behavior of others around them. For advocates, social proof of sustainability is abundant. But how can we possibly deliver convincing ‘social proof’ for the urgency of sustainable behavior among a mass of mainstream folks who, as of yet, have very few socially similar role models? Applied Empathy.

One of the most reliable discoveries from decades of social psychology research has been the principle of ‘social proof’.  Basically, this principle suggests that when deciding how to behave in an uncertain situation most people simply copy the behavior of other people around them.  Or to put it in slightly stuffier words:
When confronted with a situation in which the proper behavioral response is unclear, a person’s most potent behavioral clues will come from the observed behavior of similar others.
This discovery has been lurking within social psychology text books for decades, but has never been more relevant than today – especially for those of us who hope to help inspire a more sustainable brand of capitalism in today’s uncertain economy.
PROBLEM: The social innovator’s dilemma
For advocates, social proof of sustainability is abundant. We read books and articles about sustainability. We attend conferences on the subject.  We even sometimes force ourselves to watch gut-churning documentaries about melting ice caps, drowning polar bears and the like. Through all of these experiences we are constantly bombarded with images of admirable folks who model sustainable behavior in uncertain situations.

Learn more about applied empathy from John by attending his workshop, Inspiring Sustainability in Skeptics, at Sustainable Brands '11 this June 7-10 in Monterey, CA!

But, let’s face it: for the vast majority of the mainstream public, such ‘social proof’ for sustainability is sorely lacking. In today’s information-saturated world of shiny flat screen TV’s, social media mash-ups, and smart phone apps, we are constantly bombarded with an infinity of choices for how to spend the currency of our limited time and attention. As such, our subjective day-to-day experience of the world, is shaped by millions of (mostly unconscious, habitual) choices…and for the uninitiated, these choices have little or nothing to do with sustainability.
And here we find the real crux of the problem, that insidious question which every aspiring change agent must eventually confront:  
How can we possibly deliver convincing ‘social proof’ for the urgency of sustainable behavior among a mass of mainstream folks who, as of yet,  have very few socially similar role models ?
The math appears grim.  If 90% of mainstream folks still take their behavior cues from the actions of others around them – 90% of whom aren’t yet really that concerned with the larger environmental impact of  their everyday choices --  then how will the sustainability movement ever grow beyond us odd, innovation-loving, early-adopter 10%?
It’s one of those chicken-or-egg paradoxes that can leave one’s mind in a pretzel, and one’s gut grumbling for a stiff Martini.
SOLUTION: Applied empathy and the “social proof 6-step”
If a lack of social proof is the problem, then applied empathy is the solution.  When we take time to really step into our audience’s shoes, we start to get a deeper feel for the values, attitudes and beliefs that underlie their everyday choices.  And, if we stick with it long enough, we might even approach that mysterious realm of true human understanding, ripe with the penetrating insights into how to give our audience exactly the right  ‘social proof’ they will need to  validate their innate desire to do good.
Each communication challenge is unique, but the basic “Social Proof” discovery process that I use to help clients inspire behavior change involves the following 6 steps:
Step 1:  Clearly define the target behaviors and determine target audience baseline
“Save the world” is not a clear, actionable behavioral goal. What specific behaviors—or constellations of behaviors--   are you targeting? What audience are you strategically targeting to inspire these particular behaviors? How often do they currently engage in these behaviors? This step may seem simple and obvious, but I’ve been mystified by how often smart, educated people overlook the obvious.  Clearly defining our behavioral goals is an essential first step, and the only way we’ll be able to later assess whether or not our ‘social proof’ campaign has been a success.
Step 2: Take time to find out where your audience lives
No, not just their street address.  But where do they ‘live’ in the every dimension of the word: materially, mentally and spiritually.  Through in-depth interviews and/or savvy psychometric surveys, your next goal must be to really get to know your audience at a deep level – to discern both the daily habits that guide their current decision making, as well as the larger psycho-spiritual context in which those habits reside (aka their ‘worldview’). Once you’ve done this, a clear pattern will emerge which helps you truly understand your audience’s POV, and the distinct psycho -spiritual needs that drive their everyday sense-making.
 Step 3: Discover their preferred ‘cues’ for determining social proof
Now that you understand your audience, step into their shoes and ask yourself:  “In this situational context, what specific social cues or ‘proof’ would I need in order to see making those targeted behaviors occur as both desirable and appropriate?” 
If you’ve done the hard work of step 2, it should be very clear that your audience will be attracted to certain forms of social information over others. For example, some audiences will crave the comfort and security of an establishment expert; others will view such credentials as cause for suspicion. Some audiences will be skeptical of anyone who wears a suit and tie; others will find in these garments a pleasant subconscious resonance with their own material aspirations and dreams. Some audiences will see self-deprecating humor as a sign endearing humility; others will see it as evidence of lack of gravitas.
Each audience has a unique way of assessing their environment.  In Step 3, we step into the shoes of our particular audience and let them tell us the exact type of ‘social proof’ they will require.
Step 4: Turn audience insights into behavior change strategies
Now we’re cooking. You’ve got the two essential ingredients: clear behavioral goals and penetrating social proof. It’s time to build a sturdy strategic bridge between the two. The working question here is this:  How can the insights uncovered in Step 3 be used to  inspire the behaviors outlined in Step 1?, if you’ve done your job right, the insights from Step 3 will naturally start to percolate new, innovative strategies for engaging your target group.  Messaging strategies, design aesthetics, media formats, distribution platforms—each of these elements will start to come into clear focus. Why?  Because you’ve built your behavior change campaign from the inside out, based upon a deep, empathy-based understanding of what makes your target audience tick. 
Step 5:  Create and deliver social proof
With the deeper questions answered and the proper strategic blueprint in place, it’s now time to create and implement your behavior-changing social proof campaign.  Because you’ve done so much work up-front, you should find this process to run rather smoothly and effortlessly. (Creative blocks at this stage usually arise because the proper insights and strategies have not yet been adequately unearthed.)
Step 6: Measure, Revise, Repeat.
How did it go?  Make it a habit to assess behavior change in your target audiences. Determine trends and impact. This step is critical for two main reasons: First, it will provide valuable feedback to help you learn from your successes and revise your strategies as needed.  Second, it will provide quantifiable evidence that you are doing your job well – which becomes valuable social proof for other aspiring change agents everywhere.  (Never underestimate the cynicism-destroying potential of hard data.)
CONCLUSION: The social proof is in the pudding
If you are like me, you’ve sometimes been frustrated by the ‘herd’ mentality that seems to keep everyday people from taking action towards causes that matter. Fortunately, with the right social psychology at our fingertips we can start to leverage that same herd mentality to nudge people from their slumber and give them a renewed sense of social purpose.  The principle of social proof, if properly applied, will help us offer others the precise permission they crave to shed the shackles of conformity and embrace a more sustainable status quo.

John Marshall Roberts is a behavioral scientist and an acclaimed expert on the psychology of strategic communications. He is an outspoken advocate for business innovation, and founder of Worldview Thinking, a strategic  consultancy with a single focus: to help… [Read more about John Marshall Roberts]