While reading countless lawn mower reviews online researching which model to buy, I had one of those "What would I have done before the internet?" moments. My dad had a Lawn Boy mower growing up that is still running so that's a strong endorsement. I spotted two of my neighbors with Lawn Boys, so I would have talked to them to validate my dad's testimonial. If I still wasn't convinced, the Home Depot associate telling me that they sell more Lawn Boys than any other mower would have sealed the deal. This is what social validation applied to a buying decision looked like before the internet.
Those types of personal recommendations and sales popularity claims are not enough to convince people in today's internet age. To ensure we're making the right decision, we look at ratings and read through review after review of the top-rated models before making a decision. Online ratings & reviews are far more informative and reliable than a couple personal recommendations -- it's the equivalent of asking the whole neighborhood about their mowers from the comfort of home without having to knock on the door of the neighborhood's crazy cat lady and Boo Radley.
People are influenced by online social validation for more than just lawn mowers. Would you rather watch the movie that got 5 stars on Netflix or the 2-star flick? Would you rather eat at the 5-star restaurant or the 2-star? Would you take your car to the 2 star mechanic? I could go on, but you get the idea. If you stop to think about how many decisions you've made based on the ratings & reviews of people you don't know, it's astonishing. This post is not about cautioning the consumer on basing their decisions on online reviews -- I would recommend making a decision based on 50 opinions over 1 opinion every time. 50 reviews is a decent survey -- which is not to be confused with data -- but 12,754,000 miles reported on certain tires is even more reliable.
There is a dark-side for the need for online social validation. It is worth keeping in mind that users are more likely to be motivated to post a review based on a negative experience than a positive one. While researching a humidifier I fell into a black hole of analysis paralysis. Every model I looked at had a bunch of positive reviews and a bunch of negative "DO NOT BUY this product under any circumstance. It failed immediately and burned my house down" type reviews. As soon as I found a model that I thought was the one I wanted to buy, the negative reviews prevented me from pulling the trigger. I still have not purchased a humidifier.
Not convinced that social validation is a powerful online decision-making influence? If you Google it and see pages of results will you be convinced? Thought so.
So how do we harness the power of social validation for ourselves? Tune in for part II of this blogpost when I list some ideas to try on your own website.