You do everything you can to sell a product, yet your success is largely in the hands of other people. What your customer hears from friends, family, neighbors, experts, online reviews, scientists, celebrities, or social media influencers has enormous impact on sales. It’s the social proof that your products are any good.
In his bestselling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini calls out social proof as one of the most compelling ways to persuade a customer. What’s missing, however, is that different forms of social proof influence conservative and liberal customers to different degrees. Who is “influential” for your business depends on the worldview makeup of your customers and market. Knowing the differences can help you focus your time, energy, and investments in building the best social proof possible.
Social proof invokes another “horizontal” versus “vertical” distinction between liberal and conservative customers, similar to other attributes, such as perceptions of Success. Liberal customers operate in a more horizontal culture, which stems from its egalitarian roots, while for conservative customers, it’s more vertical, tied to ideas of hierarchy and position. Underlying both is a foundation of individualism.
Liberal customers have a few different sources for social proof that are tied together by the source having a type of “eminence.” In this case, eminence comes from having fame either broadly or within a specific profession. Experts are one powerful group who have eminence from specialized professional knowledge. Think of the person in the white lab coat or an author, engineer, or academic. In all of these cases, there is perceived credential.
Another influential group for liberal customers is celebrities, especially actors and singers from current popular culture. They have eminence in the eyes of liberal customers and hold significant sway, even though they often lack professional knowledge beyond acting and singing. This group derives its influence from having unique social status, even if derived primarily from physical attractiveness. Achieving social status is something liberal customers appreciate, whether or not it takes skill. Like experts with credentials, they aren’t above or below the customer - they don’t evoke power or control. They are more from the side, in an exclusive world that liberal customers admire.
On the other hand, Conservative customers are more influenced by people operating within a hierarchical order, who have one of two attributes: They either have a clear image of power or are familiar, seemingly similar in positional status to the customer. As we’ve seen with Change Boundaries, source familiarity, and relatability are strong factors influencing conservative customers.
Actors and singers tend to influence conservative customers less and may even turn them off, but exceptions exist. Actors, for example, can work for conservative customers if they consistently project a conservative image in their acting from roles they play in film or TV. Likewise, singers can be influential, but only if they project conservativeness through association with a particular genre, such as country and western music. The actors and singers may be liberal themselves but can influence conservative customers through association. For example, Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, and The Chicks were or are pretty liberal.
Sports figures hold the potential to appeal to both groups, offering a way to leverage one person or source for liberal and conservative customers. For conservative customers, athletes operate within a clear hierarchical order and have achieved success by “moving through the ranks.” For liberal customers, there are elements of specialized skills and team dynamics. The appeal to both groups is one reason sports are so popular.
Online reviews appeal to both groups, but the voice of the reviewer will determine who they influence. The differences in voice reflect distinctions in Thought Styles, a topic covered previously. Liberal customers integrate a wider range of inputs and demonstrate integrative complexity, while conservative customers will demonstrate a more incremental, linear evaluation, possibly drawing upon intuition. Neither style is proven to be more effective than the other. Reviews written by more liberal authors will also tend to be more positive, possibly reflecting their more wide-ranging empathies.
Social psychology researchers Flavio Azevedo and John Jost found that liberals were significantly more prone to “trust in the opinions of experts and intellectuals.” At the same time, conservatives put their trust in “the wisdom of ordinary people.” Another team of researchers found that conservatives value personal stories more than liberals do - putting personal stories on an equal footing as expert evidence.
The Oscars event on TV demonstrates an example of actors aligning with a very liberal audience. Research by CivicScience shows that the group most likely to watch the program is Gen Z, who is younger and skews quite liberal. According to their report, only 10% of conservatives were interested in watching the show, while 26% of all liberal adults planned on watching it in 2019.
I’ll never forget when I talked to my financial advisor about how celebrity actors and singers aligned more with liberal customers. She paused briefly and said, “Chris, I’m pretty conservative, and I hate celebrities!” I don’t think liberal culture appreciates the potential negative bias of celebrities among conservatives.
With regard to online reviews, a team of business school researchers conducted extensive research into the ideological makeup of review language. They studied the length of the reviews and their underlying complexities. They confirmed that review styles for liberal and conservative authors reflected the relative distinctions in thought styles. Liberal review authors employed more varied inputs, while conservative authors were shorter and more focused, which would appeal to conservative customers.
When Cialdini updated his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he added a new source of influence called “Unity.” It’s about being persuaded by someone in a similar group. He references an online study where participants were asked to categorize different shapes. The study showed that conservatives and liberals preferred help from others who had indicated they had the same worldview - even when that person displayed far less skill. So each group tends to look within their own group for advice, for better or worse.
When businesses seek customer testimonials, they are generally happy to find anyone who can speak enthusiastically about their product. The evaluation may be based on how they look on camera. Yet who that person is may determine which customer group - liberal or conservative - they appeal to more. More relatable customers will likely appeal more to conservative customers unless the person speaking appears to have specialized expertise.
Customer testimonials are a hallmark in direct response television, typically testing stronger for results. I’ve looked at customer databases of many direct response or DTC companies and have consistently seen skews to conservative customers. This may be due to conservative customers living in areas with less population density and, therefore, less immediate access to a diversity of retail.
Fox News, over the years, was also often a top-performing network regardless of product. Yet there are new, “modern” DTC brands that actively project a liberal worldview without even realizing it, potentially driving up customer acquisition costs and lowering customer value. So the tension may be there - you just have to take a look.
Certainly, a famous actor or singer talking about the product will go far further with more liberal customers, even if they have no specialized knowledge related to the product (which they often don’t). That same celebrity may actively put off conservative customers, disproving the product in their minds. Yet celebrity selection for businesses is usually a bit of a judgment call based on who is available and what overall popularity someone may have as measured by the “Q Score.” That ranking of celebrity talent does not take worldview into account.
A stark contrast could be made by comparing a business that promotes scientific evidence versus one that employs the day-to-day experiences of someone who seems a bit conservative. There are different shades of this, and you can undoubtedly provide a combination to appeal to both groups simultaneously, as long as one form of social proof doesn’t work against you. Again, the goal is to be intentional rather than consider all social proof equal for your market.
Social media influencers tend to be liberal and project a liberal worldview even if their content is not political. This group is dominated by influencers within pop culture, innovation, fashion, and other current topics. As a result, many of the largest social media influencer audiences are composed primarily of liberal customers who may or may not be your market.
Of course, there are exceptions, such as Ben Shapiro, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity, who all have large podcast audiences. But they are exceptions. The point here is that any “influencer” or social media strategy must consider the influencer’s worldview rather than focus on the size of the audience or reach together with basic demographics. An influencer’s broad reach may mostly miss the mark, wasting any time or financial investment. Yet fixing the alignment can be a simple part of the decision-making process if you ask the question.
This article originally appeared in Red and Blue Customers.