What Does the Fox Say? or, How Conformity Can Help Your Business Grow

“Do as most do, and [people] will speak well of thee” –Thomas Fuller

If you’re reading this from anywhere in North America, chances are you think you’re one in a million. Unique. Cut from a different cloth, as they say.

And deep down, somewhere in the dark, cobwebby recesses of your psyche, you probably have a sneaking suspicion that you’re wrong. How does the cliché go? “You’re an individual — just like everyone else.”

The truth, of course, is just that. You’re not that different from anyone else.

It’s OK if that stings a little. Don’t take it personally. See, American culture stresses the importance of not conforming. We’re raised to value individuality. Our cultural image is shaped in part by how our nation was founded, by our system of government, and by our experience with western expansion – we “tamed” the wild west, for crying out loud. In short, we celebrate individualism.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan have both famously talked about how we’re all made of “star stuff” (see here and here). That makes us feel pretty special, right? But what they’re really espousing is that, at the end of the day, we’re all made up of the same basic stuff. We’re intrinsically, hopelessly connected in our vast one-ness.

As modern consumers, we have this sense that the things we consume define who we are on an individual basis. Let’s face it: Cro-Magnon man didn’t care what he wore, as long as it was warm. We’re not, in the grand scheme of things, vastly different from our ancestors. But today, as consumers, we need the things we consume to say something to others about who we are. How do we determine that the “stuff” we consume is the right “stuff”?

A week ago, my brother-in-law sent me a link to the Norwegian group Ylvis’ video “The Fox”. It’s ridiculous. If I had stumbled across it on my own, I probably would have just dismissed it as juvenile and weird. But because it came recommended by someone I trust – and then, was mentioned again in a friend’s Facebook status – I watched it again, and passed it along to other friends.

What I had just succumbed to was a form of conformity called “social proof”. This is the concept that people will conform to the actions of others in ambiguous situations, under the assumption that this is the correct behavior. In other words, “If other people are doing it, esp. people I trust, then that’s what I should be doing.” This factor of conformity is part of informational social influence — the tendency to (wittingly or unwittingly) seek the input of others to form an opinion or decision. As humans, we are hardwired to think that if we don’t know the answer, the majority opinion must be the right one.

One example of this is waiting to clap at an event until others start clapping.

Another example is the laugh track on your favorite sitcom. You may rationalize it as an annoyance. It kind of is. But try watching The Big Bang Theory without a laugh track and you tell me how funny it is. It’s not nearly as enjoyable without an external group of peers cueing you in to when the funny stuff is happening.

If informational social influence makes us conform to find answers, what makes us do it simply to be liked and accepted? Well, that’s called normative social influence – and that’s a topic for another day, my friend.

So how can you use informational social influence – or social proof — to help your business?

  • You can start by generating positive word of mouth for your new business — by giving customers a great experience and outstanding customer service. This is what I tell everyone, so don’t say I never give you anything: you can have the greatest product in the world, but if people don’t like their experience with you, you may as well wait for business to shrivel and die. No one wants to deal with a rude proprietor or dirty merchandise. No one.
  • If you’re offering a new product or service, advertise it with testimonials, quotes, case studies, or links to other mentions around the good ol’ internets.
  • Leverage social media. Hard. Think things like media and blog mentions (gear up that PR machine); Facebook mentions and shares; tweet embeds; and the like.
  • Product reviews – Amazon, Yelp!, anywhere you can get a positive review.
  • Consider recruiting (genuine) ambassadors. These are people who like your product or service, and wouldn’t mind passing out coupons, flyers, or recommendations to their friends and colleagues.

There are endless data-driven studies out there that show people are more swayed by peer reviews and opinions than by traditional advertising. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive – it’s basic. But you get the idea. Get other people to talk about your business positively. Word of mouth is king.

Oh, and by the way: good luck getting “The Fox” out of your head. You’re very, very welcome.

Matthew Chabe

About Matthew Chabe

Matt Chabe is a principal at The Galleon Agency, an integrated marketing agency based in Bangor, Maine that helps businesses around the nation maximize growth. He is the chair of Bangor SCORE, a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, and drives way too fast for his own good. Matt graduated from University of Maine with a BA in marketing and a minor in psychology.