Social Influence on the Web: Eight UX Implementations
Theory | User Experience

Social Influence on the Web: Eight UX Implementations

on / by Sabina Idler

Social influence happens on the web all the time, and you can improve your webpage if you know how it works. Maybe it is best explained by a real world example:

Imagine you are on a night out with your friends and the whole group is about to leave one club and go to another. You had a long day and feel tired, and to be honest, you would rather go home and get some sleep. Your friends, however, tell you to get yourself together and come along. Fearing to be called a poor sport, you agree to come.

This is a classic example of social influence. Let’s dive in a little deeper and see how it applies to User Experience on the web.

Social Influence Definition

Social influence describes how beliefs, values, and behavior of an individual are influenced by real or perceived expectations by others. The psychologists Deutsch and Gerard distinguished between two different kinds of social influence: informational and normative social influence.

Informational Social Influence

Informational social influence is based on the psychological need to be right. In case that we need to make a decision and we are either uncertain or pressed for time, we look at others for inspiration. We expect that if everyone in a group agrees with certain values, beliefs, or behavior, the chances that everyone in the group is wrong, are very little. Also if we are confronted with an expert, we tend to trust in his or her expertise. By conforming with others, we act more efficient and accurate.

Normative Social Influence

Normative social influence is based on the psychological need to belong. Individuals conform with values, beliefs, and behavior of other individuals and groups in order be accepted and liked. By conforming with others, we make sure to gain approval or avoid disapproval within a group. We conform with what we think others expect from us. These expectations are subjective and can be both real and imagined.

Social Norms

Social influence is based on the adaption of social norms. Social norms can be official laws or implicit rules. We strive to adapt social norms in order to act efficient and accurate. There are two different kinds of norms; descriptive and injunctive norms.

Descriptive norms

Descriptive norms involve the perception of values, beliefs, and behaviors which are typical in a certain group. By conforming with these norms, one does what’s popular and therefore appropriate. Descriptive norms can mostly be found in informational social influence. As source for our own decisions, we look at others.

Injunctive norms

Injunctive norms involve the perception of values, beliefs, and behaviors that are typically approved or disapproved in a certain group. By conforming with these norms, one makes sure to be accepted and liked in the group. Injunctive norms can mostly be found in normative social influence. Before making own decisions, we evaluate what others expect us to decide.

Dynamic social impact theory

When working with Social norms on your website, you should also know about the role of the reference group you choose to present your norms.

According to the dynamic social impact theory, the extend to which others influence our decisions depends on two factors: the size of the reference group and the physical proximity. A numerically bigger group has more social influence on us than a numerically smaller group. A group that is physically closer has more social influence on us than a group that is further away. The physical distance of a group also includes the perceived distance which is influenced by commonalities such as interests or personal goals.

Implementation of informational social influence on the web

Informational social influence plays a role when we are confronted with a decision. By looking at others, we can make up our minds more easily. This indicates not only that we are willing to blindly copy others but we rely on others to make efficient and effective decisions. On a website, there are several ways we can use this psychological phenomenon to persuade our users. To make this more clear, I collected several examples from websites that work with informational social influence.

1. Numbers as reference

You can use numbers as reference for your clients. On our own website, we offer a whole list of clients who use Usabilla. This list indicates that Usabilla is a high quality and efficient tool. If it wasn’t, not that many people would use it, right?

Figure 2 - Example of numbers as reference on our own website

2. The best-seller

Another classical example of informational social influence is a best-selling list or a single best-selling product. Amazon uses this descriptive norm very effectively. Clients who read that the Kindle is the best-selling e-Reader in the world, will hardly doubt about it’s high quality. If that many people all over the world have bought it, it must be good. I want it, too.

Figure 3 - Example of best-seller information on

3. Testimonials

Testimonials of experts or recognized people can be used to influence customers. We trust experts to know more about their field of expertise than we do, so it is reasonable to believe them. The Bank of America offers a statement about intergenerational wealth transfer by the president of U.S. Trust, their private wealth management department. I really trust this guy knows what he is talking about, so if her tells me to consider this, maybe I should.

Figure 4 - Example of an expert testimonial on

Also testimonials of e.g. clients help people make up their mind. The information that others were satisfied with a product shows that the quality is good. if others use it, I’ll use it as well.

Figure 5 - Example of client testimonials on our own website

4. Popularity

Use popularity indicators on your website to convince your clients. A lot of websites display the number of e.g. Facebook likes, twitter follower, or blog subscribers. If a lot of people follow someone on twitter, he must be interesting.

Figure 6 - Example of the popularity effect on The Next Web

5. Feedback

Offer your customers positive feedback. Positive feedback is important to feel appreciated and accepted. For example Ethos life coaching uses a likable guy with thumbs up on their website to get their customers engaged. Give your customers the impression that you care about them and than they can trust you.

Figure 7 - Example of positive feedback of Ethos Life Coaching

6. Sense of belonging

Make sure to offer your customers a sense of belonging. If your customers can identify with your company, they are more likely to act in your interest. Based on the need to belong, people like to be part of a community. Within this community they will conform with existing values and adapt behavior that is suggest in order to meat the community’s expectations.

Figure 8 - Example of giving a sense of belonging

7. Charity implications

People naturally have the need to help others. Altruistic behavior gives us a good feeling, especially when we don’t expect disadvantages for ourselves. Linking a purchase to the
donation for something good, will increase your clients willingness to buy. However, when we are alone, this only works if the buying intention is already there. Otherwise, the purchase involves unexpected costs and therefore personal disadvantages.

In groups, people act more altruistic. People approve with good things and people who do them. In a social group or when we can later show a proof of our good action, we are more likely to take it. For example, WWF links a symbolic animal adoption to a donation. For a defined donation amount, donors can even purchase an adaption kit including stuffed animals and a certificate.

Figure 9 - Example of appeal to our altruistic behavior on

8. Trend setter

Last but not least, you can appeal to the need to be important. People like it if others listen to them or ask for their opinion. For example, Facebook offers the option to like things, and as motivating factor, they give you the chance to be the first of your friends to like something. This way you can show off with something by being the first to find it. Your friends will perceive you as interesting and a source for something new.

Figure 10 - Example of appealing to the need to be important

In sum…

People like to conform with others to be efficient, accurate, accepted and liked. We can use these psychological needs to persuade customers on our website, by offering them text, pictures, and numbers with descriptive and injunctive norms. Ideally, you combine beneficial descriptive and injunctive norms. Try to use close and numerical big reference groups to ensure your customers can identify with them. Be creative when thinking of norms you can include on your website!


Deutsch, M. & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.

Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment.
Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109.

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Article by

Sabina Idler

Sabina was technical writer & UXer @Usabilla for 5 years before she started her own UX research and consultancy firm; UXkids. With UXkids, Sabina leverages her academic research expertise, know how in child development, and strategic vision to help companies build successful digital products for children. You can connect with Sabina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

Share your thoughts

  • John U

    Interesting article.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Sheff

    Nice article. I’m not familiar with all the terminology used but Informatioal social influence seems very similar to the 6 key principles of persuasion identified by Robert Cialdini. This articles expands on these nicely and gives some web based examples of them. Personally I’m still not comfortable exactly where you draw the line with using such techniques. As long as you aren’t misleading or abusing such knowledge I think they can be used to enhance the users experience and your sites popularity etc.

  • Climax Media

    Great article. Offering a sense of belonging is crucial in the social world. It’s how ideas spread and movements are created. When you have a group of like-minded people who belong to a singular cause, that’s the type of power you can’t put a price tag on.

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