The Secret Power Behind Why We Pick Crowded Restaurants Over Empty Ones

When tapped effectively, "Social Proof" can be used to crank up business, online and off.

When you see two cafes side by side, and one is packed with lively people and the other one is empty, which one would you go to for a coffee? Why?

Most people will go to the packed cafe. But what if the empty cafe was way cheaper, made better coffee, and was much cleaner? It wouldn’t matter. People naturally want what other people have, and they feel a certain level of comfort from following the choices of others rather than having to think about the situation for themselves. It partially explains why we see a lot of people wearing white earphones.

While we may not realize it, we see Social Proof around us all the time, and most of it is subconsciously registering in our brain. We use Social Proof to decide what clothes we are going to wear, what color the walls in our house will be, and what car we drive. When in a retail outlet, we also use Social Proof to decide if it is safe to buy from. When we walk into a store and see lots of people lining up at the cash register to buy something, our brain automatically tells us two things:

  1. This place must be safe to buy from. There are lots of people who have assessed this store and concluded that it's a good store to buy from.

  2. The deals in this store must be pretty good because lots of people are buying, and they wouldn't be buying if the deals weren't great.

Clearly people would rather use someone else’s brain rather than their own. There's nothing inherently wrong with this though. After all, it is the most efficient way to navigate the complexity of modern day life.

While Social Proof has been around us all the time, a couple of specific things made me realize the importance of it. I fly from Melbourne to Sydney and back very often. My flight from Sydney to Melbourne usually arrives at Gate 3, and from there you walk off the plane, turn left, and there's baggage claim. On this particular day, my flight landed and I was the first person off the flight. I received a phone call as I was walking off the flight and my mind was occupied with the call. I walked off, turned left and kept walking and talking on the phone. When I got off the phone, I looked up and saw that I was at Gate 12. The plane had docked at a different gate than usual, and turning left had caused me to walk in the opposite direction. As I turned around to walk all the way back to baggage claim, I saw something spectacular . . . 200 people had followed me off the flight in the completely wrong direction. Nobody decided to use their own brain.

That is the power of Social Proof.

A few years ago I was in China and met with a factory that had just found a more efficient way to make remote-control helicopters. I saw an opportunity to be the first person in Australia to sell affordable remote-control helicopters. I organized a stall at one of the busiest shopping centers in Melbourne, and imported a couple of containers of remote-control helicopters. This was in the lead-up to Christmas, so I expected these to sell like hotcakes. I had the stall from November 24 to December 24. So I set up the stall and started selling them on November 24. Even though I had an awesome product that would make a perfect Christmas gift for a crazy price, there was close to no interest in it. I sold two or three helicopters a day for the first few days. I was screwed. I had about 10,000 of them to sell.

My little cousin (14 at the time) had his high school nearby. He called me one day and said: "Rus, I heard you've got remote-control helicopters. Can I come down with my mates and play with them?" I said: "Sure, come down!"

My cousin came down that lunchtime with some mates from his high school and they started playing with the helicopters. All of a sudden, there was a stampede of people around my stall. I was making sales left, right, and center. When my cousin and his mates went back to school, the crowd of people disappeared. I called my cousin that evening and offered him $50 a day to come down with his mates and play with the helicopters. This was a 14-year-old kid’s dream, and he enthusiastically accepted my offer. My cousin and his mates came down every lunchtime and spent their entire weekends at the stall. I ended up selling all the helicopters by December 10. For the last two weeks leading into Christmas (the most expensive real estate I had purchased), I had completely sold out and had nothing to sell.

That is the power of Social Proof.

I'm sure we've all been at a shopping center and seen a huge crowd of people fighting one another for a better view. We go there and join in to see what everyone is looking at, and then we notice that people are competing against each other to watch a salesman clean a piece of carpet to try and sell everyone a new brush.

That is the power of Social Proof.

The ability to create and foster Social Proof is one of the main advantages that offline businesses have over online businesses. You can't underestimate its power or potential.

As digital marketers, it's our job to try and create Social Proof online. Social networks have helped us with this a bit—they are a great way to showcase people interacting with your brand and foster a community around your product or service.

A website can be a lonely place—especially if you're not a household name. People need to trust the website they’re interacting with, and it isn’t easy to build that rapport or communication when you don’t have the advantage of bricks and mortar.

It’s important for website visitors to know that others are interacting and transacting with you. This will give them the confidence to do the same. One of the ways we have done this at is by creating a live feed of sales that you can see in the bottom left-hand corner of our site. This pops up at regular intervals showing you what people similar to you have just purchased:

This achieves a few things on our site:

  • If someone is new to the Kogan brand, they get to see that lots of people are constantly buying from us. It's the equivalent of a queue at the cash register in a crowded store.

  • When there is a sale or discount on a certain product or range of products, you will see these products popping up more often than others (because naturally more people will be purchasing them). This achieves the same effect as a "bargain bin" in a store with discounted items that has a crowd of people around it searching through for the best deals.

The Book Depository does its work very well based on a similar concept, but it does this as a global feed.

Whatever your website or digital business does, you need to think about how to "Social Proof" it. Generally speaking, in the Internet, startup, and technology world, we have countless advantages over our bricks and mortar rivals, especially when it comes to efficiency and innovation. However, our industry is lagging when it comes to tapping into the power of Social Proof. It may be more difficult to convey this through an online medium, but it can be done. And when done right, it can be a huge boost to your business.

Ruslan Kogan is founder and CEO of tech e-commerce startup Follow him on Twitter at @ruslankogan.

[Image: Flickr user Compdude787]

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  • Capitals

    and you write all your text in capitals because social proof tells you it's cooler that way? :)
    it's definitely more annoying to read...

  • Ara ohanian

    Social Proof is important I agree, but, I would
    also disagree that the online environment is not susceptible to it. The
    difference is that Social Proof on -line is not controlled by the marketers but
    is in the hands of consumers themselves. There are those who are adept at
    working with tools such as twitter in the open space eg zappos, while others
    can be caught out by witty or strident consumer reaction (think United hit by
    United Breaks Guitars
    The speed and impact of social media means that is where the power of social

  • Poohah

    I did this for many years, we used to offer a super cheap deal to people who booked online, like $5 Burgers in our off peak times and always made sure we had people in the restaurant at all times, this would bring people in and they had no idea that the next table had spent $10 whilst they were spending $50 or $60 dollars....We always had our restaurant packed whilst all the other restaurants were dead..its human nature...The helicopter story is a great one....

    People are strange, another time we bought an upstairs bar and noone would stay in it so it would never get busy, I tried everything, cheap drinks, free food with drinks, you name it I tried it but nobody would stay so it never got busy and didn't have an atmosphere...

    So i charged $1 to get in,, it was crazy, people would never leave because they wanted to get their dollars worth..the bar was packed always after that, weird..

    Another weird bar story, we bought a nightclub, the club would open at 10pm, people would come in at 11-11.30 and leave at 12.30-1.30pm, so i paid all this rent and money to have one hours drinking time, bloody nightmare, so we started a happy hour, opened at 5pm till 9pm happy hour, I paid 2 security, dj's bar staff ect ect, guess how much money i made in the first week...$5000, $4000, $3000, $ no no, I sold one discounted drink at $1.80 for the whole week...luckily by then i knew a little about people and didn't give up...we now take more money in the happy hour than the club part....humans are strange but once you work them out you can make good money....

  • Neville de Sousa

    Cattle mentality, safety in numbers, call it what you will... It's true... And it will play out this weekend in the upcoming Australian federal election

  • Susan

    Some of this is attributed to curiosity - "What's going on that's so special here?", and partly to needing affirmation from others that you are doing the "right thing".  Actually I feel this is pathetic. Something tells me Einstein or Jobs would have gone to the empty restaurant because they might discover something rather than being sheeple.  

  • Lloyd Lemons

    I go to busy eateries because I always feel like the food being served must be fresher. 

  • Marlene Gentile

    This strategy actually worked on my sister and I while at the outside cafes at Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, FL. Two Italian cafes were located side by side with their tables nearly touching. One cafe had white linen cloths, fresh sunflowers in blue glass bottles, wine bottles, and was really crowded. The other place had no tablecloths and very few customers. We chose the one that was crowded. The prices at the no-tablecloth, few customer place were less expensive, but we still chose the crowded cafe.

  • Sick

    I would rather be in an empty restaurant any day. Why would anyone go to a packed coffee house?  Maybe they think it's better because everyone else is there.  People follow others and can't think for themselves.  Exactly why I dislike people and would stay as far away as possible.  You can see why in some of the trivial comments below.  Seriously.  Let's complain about a picture in a blog.  People drive me nuts.  

  • Paul van den Bergh

    I usually don't like (maybe even trust) these websites with popups showing what other people bought. It's too pushy. That's the thing I like about buying products online: infinite amount of time comparing and research before buying anything. Don't really care for what other dumbasses bought.

  • Shoaib

    Thanks for posting this Ruslan...

    The idea of showing recently sold product via a pop-up is fantastic.

  • Julien

    The same thing applies when sharing content on the web. People will naturally be willing to share something that other already have - there is less risk. 

  • Steve Braidwood

    Being aware that the crown can be wrong is also useful. At many time of the day it is possible to double your driving speed in London by using off-duty bus lanes. They are invariably empty while everyone else is queueing, assuming that it is illegal to drive in them (even though the on-duty hours are clearly shown) - the queue itself is their social proof.

  • catherine751

    My Uncle Carter just got a twelve month old Mazda MAZDA6 Sedan by working part time off of a home computer. more tips here w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • mse40

    Hey did you bother thanking Dan Ariely for ripping off his discussion of self-herding and behavior-herding in 'Predictably Irrational'? Just curious because if you were ripping him off, just know that it's quite obvious -- and if you weren't, just know that you have not come up with some genius insight that hasn't already been well-documented...(but good job promoting your own company)....

  • mse40

    The Power of Influence, Predictably Irrational - whatever you want to choose, I don't care - the point is that this guy is writing about 'social proof' as if he's the first to discover herding behavior and I think he's a fraud for his 'genius insights' when all he is doing is promoting his own company -- you want to go with Cialdini, fine -- I think Ariely pre-dates him on the research side -- either way this guy is ripping off true behavioral economists and psychologists..