By - Neal Cole

The Bandwagon Effect & Influencer Marketing

The bandwagon effect is an important psychological influence on buyer behaviour

What is the Bandwagon Effect?

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). Some times the bandwagon effect is driven by a fear of missing out as regret is a powerful and deeply unpleasant emotion.

In other instances the bandwagon effect is used as a short-cut to making a choice. If we are unsure about which item is best we may feel that following what the majority of people have chosen is a safe bet. People assume other people may know something they don’t and that ‘everyone else can’t be wrong’. If other peoples’ choices are based upon copying better this can be a good strategy. However, when people are blindly following other people the bandwagon effect can result in disaster.

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 an answer to this questions.

Herd Instinct:

When people consciously or unconsciously copy the behaviour of  of  the majority of people, this is referred to as our herd instinct. For example, people may purchase a brand due to its popularity within their peer group, not because they compared the features and consider it to be the best product.  Why spend time evaluating all the options when you can copy the choices made by other people we trust?

Our herd instinct is an important driver of the bandwagon effect because it is an automatic impulse or tendency to act in a group. People are highly social animals and will often conform to group behaviour to avoid the displeasure of the wider group and to gain rewards (e.g. become a popular member of the group). Customs, traditions, expectations, social status, roles  and a wish to be liked can all result in a desire to conform to group behaviour.

Directed Copying:

Mark Earls  (I’ll Have What She’s Having, 2011) identified two forms of copying when social influence is important in our decision making. Directed and undirected copying. Directed copying occurs in markets where we are faced with a relatively small number of similar options and people struggle to determine which option is best. In these circumstances people direct their attention towards a particular person. This could be an expert, prestigious people or anyone who is perceived to an authority on the subject concerned.

A common form of directed copying occurs when we want to identify with a particular person or group. This creates conformity and results in social diffusion within the confines of the group. Customs diffuse through a community with a common identity and popular names diffuse through a generation. However, we still retain our individuality because we all copy different people and groups according to the context and who we are connected to.

Directed copying has helped the human race prosper by allowing people to pass on new and better ideas from one generation to the next. Indeed, as people often make mistakes or changes when copying an idea or behaviour this sometimes leads to improvements that are then copied by other people and become adopted as a new idea or innovation.

Decision Making Styles

Image of decision styles from I'll Have What She's Having
Image Source: I’ll Have What She’s Having

 Undirected Copying:

Undirected copying occurs in markets where there can be too many people to try to follow and there is a huge number of similar things to choose between. This is a strategy that people use for all those thousands of small decisions we have to make everyday.  We often copy the behaviour of others without being consciously aware of it.

People also appear equally uninformed and use the behaviour of others as a guide to what options to choose. This is a pure form of the bandwagon effect as there may be little, if any, rational thought or judgement behind the decision. 

Undirected copying can lead to sudden spikes in popularity such as with fads and short-term trends. Pop music and shares are examples of markets that can be heavily influenced by undirected copying. People follow the crowd in an almost automatic and unconscious way as System 1 drives our behaviour.  This form of the bandwagon effect is extremely powerful but difficult to predict or influence. Influencer marketing is therefore unlikely to be effective in these situations because people are not consciously copying specific individuals and the characteristics of the people who we copy don’t matter, it’s the behaviour that is important.  

Asset bubbles:

Undirected copying also leads to the bandwagon effect 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 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 is the tipping point?

The bandwagon effects works with undirected copying because people unconsciously follow a behaviour or idea and this spreads through our social networks. The mechanics  of undireced copying is more spontaneous and related to how many people are seen or are perceived to be undertaking the behaviour rather than who is undertaking the behaviour.

Malcolm Gladwell (see  The Tipping Point), argues that for behaviours or ideas 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.

There appears to be a lack of scientific evidence to support Gladwell’s model and so it is difficult to estimate how common this type of copying occurs. However, it does highlight that some people may be more influential than others. This would appear similar to directed copying where it is directed toward specific individuals.

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. This is similar to the butterfly effect where a small change can result in something much bigger happening later.   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.

Does The Bandwagon Effect Support Influencer Marketing?

Markets that are characterised by directed copying would appear to support the concept of influencer marketing except that copying the behaviour of others doesn’t always involve someone who marketers would categorise as an influencer. They may just copy a young person, an attractive person  or someone in their in-group.

Gladwell’s model of copying and the agents involved lacks empirical support . Directed copying does suggest that some people are more influential than others. However, this is only one of a number of  styles of decision making as not all decisions are primarily directed by social influence. Even when social influence is important it is often undirected copying and so the role of “influencers” is less clear or manageable. The evidence suggests that more often than not ideas and behaviour do not spread through influencers, but rather through our large and complex social networks.

 

The bandwagon effect & conversion optimisation:

Developing a compelling purpose-led value proposition and encouraging people to interact with other people about your brand are important first steps 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.

Define a clear brand purpose and align your businesses and employee behaviour with what is important to your customers. If you can do this you are more likely to motivate visitors to interact and share your brand with others.

Image of Lean Cuisine ad "#Weigh this" which benefited from the bandwagon effect
Image Source:

Lean Cuisine manufactures low fat food for people who people who want to be careful about their calorie intake. Rather than focusing on the obvious weight control benefit of their brand Lean Cuisine  recognised that people do not necessarily buy their product because they want to lose weight.

A strong implicit motivation to purchase Lean Cuisine is that customers want to feel good about themselves for being careful about what they eat. To reflect this core brand purpose they created an ad “#WeighThis” which showed people talking about what they are most proud of in life. The YouTube ad went viral because it communicated this core purpose in such an emotional and inspiring way that it instantly engaged people who watched it.

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 lots of 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 demonstrates that social influence is one of the most important drivers of conversion and sustainable growth. However, influencer marketing is only one aspect of this as people copy behaviour for a number of reasons and in a number of different ways. Identify which decision style is most prominent in your market and whether influencer marketing is at all relevant.  Not all decisions are strongly shaped by social influence and so other marketing strategies may be better suited to your market.

It is essential to establish a strong and compelling value proposition. People love to associate themselves with people and brands that epitomise their own values and behaviour. A purpose-led proposition can help this process and can encourage customers to interact with your brand. This can facilitate 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.

Avoid simply copying trends and fads in website design as these are often not based upon evidence or experimentation. This form of the bandwagon effect has resulted in designers using the hamburger icon and using auto-play which have proven to only harm conversions. Before implementing new ideas on your website try to test the impact first with an A/B test.

Related posts:

Innovation – What is the most effective strategy for innovation?

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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  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk, partypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
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