The bandwagon effect is an important psychological influence on buyer behaviour

Why Do Some Ideas Go Viral?

What is the Bandwagon Effect?

For an idea to go viral people have to copy and share it with other people they interact with.  But what makes this process continue to build up momentum for an idea to spread throughout our social networks? Many marketers focus on targeting “influencers” but is this the right approach? Analysis of the bandwagon effect may provide answers to these questions.

The bandwagon effect is a psychological tendency where the adoption of ideas, products or behaviour increases with the uptake (or perceived uptake) by others. This means that the propensity to take-up something rises as more people decide to follow the trend (i.e. jump on the bandwagon).

When people seek to align their beliefs and behaviour with a specific group this is also called herd instinct. For example, people may purchase a new electronic gadget due to its popularity within their peer group, not because they necessarily need it.

The bandwagon effect is an important driver of behaviour as people align their beliefs and actions with others as they prefer to conform or they derive information from others. Indeed, research indicates that many purchase decisions and behaviours are the result of social influence. For this reason displaying evidence of social proof can be a very effective strategy for establishing trust and credibility for an online brand.

Copy, Copy, Copy:

Mark Earls, author of Herd, suggests that because people are “super social” we naturally copy the behaviour of others, often without even being conscious of it. Few ideas are new and so rather than reinvent the wheel people naturally copy others when they believe it will be beneficial.

Earls argues that social learning as he calls it helps to spread ideas, products and behaviour through our social networks. It is also a major reason for the success of the human race because it allows people to pass ideas and knowledge onto future generations without the need for them to be reinvented. Further, because people often makes mistakes when copying an idea or behaviour this can sometimes lead to improvements that are then copied by other people and become adopted as a new idea.

Asset bubbles:

This bandwagon effect is also seen during stock market and asset bubbles where people stop using their own judgement and rely on the wisdom of the crowd. People wrongly assume that other investors must have knowledge they don’t and also they seek to avoid regret (which they might feel if they don’t follow the crowd).

There is also some evidence in politics of the bandwagon effect with undecided voters choosing to support the party with most popular candidate because they wish to be associated with the biggest party.

Evolutionary Advantage?

Some psychologists also believe that the bandwagon effect may be an evolutionary strategy for reducing the risk of making a poor decision. Being part of a large crowd can certainly provide protection in dangerous environments. Merchants also risk losing reputational capital if they sell sub-standard goods or services to a member of a large group. People understand this and so assume that they are less likely to be ripped-off if they buy from a well-known supplier who is known to other members of their social network.

What conditions make it go viral?

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that for something to spread widely through a population there need to be three types of agents involved. These are connectors, mavens and salespeople.

  1.  Connectors are people with an innate ability to form and maintain long-term relationships with a diverse range of individuals.
  2. Mavens are people who love collecting and sharing specialist knowledge, and have the necessary social skills to pass the information onto others.
  3. Salespeople are very expressive and adept at persuading people through both non-verbal and verbal cues. Indeed, Gladwell suggests these people are much more emotionally contagious than the average person.

However, even with all these agents being aware of an idea or behaviour it will only spread effectively if it is what Gladwell calls “sticky”. This means that the message is memorable in a way that engages and motivates people to share it. Only when this condition is met are we likely to get the kind of behaviour needed to result in a geometric progression which characterises a viral episode.

This may explain why companies with a strong customer-related purpose or personal crusade tend to perform better than the average. This is because people who hold the same passion and beliefs are more motivated to share a brand that embodies these goals with others. The insight here is not to focus on influencing a particular type of individual, but instead find your purpose idea and live it.

When an idea or trend gets to a certain point in popularity (known as the tipping point) an availability cascade forms which results in a sudden and huge increase in the adoption of the item. Gladwell suggests that what triggers a cascade are not large changes in behaviour or circumstances, but lots of small changes that amplify the trend. So don’t look to create a large splash, but instead work on generating lots of small ripples and hope they may trigger something bigger later on.

The bandwagon effect & conversion optimisation:

Developing a compelling purpose-led value proposition is an important first step in using the bandwagon effect to improve conversions. It is not what you say about your brand that matters, it is what your customers and staff say that determines what your brand stands for. By having a clear purpose and aligning your businesses’ and staff’s behaviour with what is important to your customers you are more likely to motivate visitors to interact and share your brand with others.

Example of Celebrity Endorsement

Image of cristiano ronaldo playing poker
Image Source: PokerStars.uk

Secondly, evidence of social proof can help online conversion optimisation. This includes customer testimonials, celebrity testimonials, number of customers, product rating and reviews, social media likes and shares, awards and brand logos of well-known customers or partners. Indeed, a lack of social proof is often a key reason for poor online conversion rates as visitors are reassured when they perceive that a site is popular and trusted by many other customers.

Example of Social Proof A/B Test

Example of A/B testing customer numbers for social proof

In the above A/B test example the only difference between the two variants is that we changed the number of monthly players from all players on the left (i.e. total number of players for all rooms throughout the whole month) to the number of unique players (i.e. only counting each player once in a month) on the right. This dramatically reduced the number of active players that could be quoted underneath the call to action button. Variant B which displays the lower number of unique monthly players reduced registration conversion on the landing page by 5%.

Conclusion:

The bandwagon effect is one of the most important drivers of conversion and sustainable growth. Like any strategy for improving conversion it is essential to establish a strong and compelling base (i.e. a purpose led value proposition) first. This will help to encourage interaction with your brand which facilitates the sharing of your idea or product through social networks.

Having clear evidence of social proof on your site or app should also be a priority as it provides reassurance to visitors that you are a popular and trusted brand. Use online experiments to validate the implementation of social proof as it is particular sensitive to how and where it is communicated.

Related posts:

Herd instinct – Are most purchase decisions the result of social influence?

Herd instinct – How do social networks influence human behaviour?

Herd instinct – What makes social networks tick?

Word of Mouth – 6 myths about word of mouth marketing.

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  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.