Specific to loyalty programs (and the wider field of marketing), the digital age has made it easier to observe what others are doing, at scale and over vast geographies. Social media, review websites and word of mouth have all been identified as powerful influencers of consumer behaviour and attitudes towards brands and products. They establish group norms and stimulate mass conformity in ways not previously possible.
Sherif (1935) ran a famous study using optical illusions to test the influence of social conformity. When looking at a stationary point of light in a dark room, the light appears to move back and forth. Sherif found that when subjects were tested alone, they established their own range for judging the distance the light was perceived to move and used this as an anchor to guide future judgements.
When subjects were tested in a group, there was clear convergence on the range with group norms being established. Even when later tested alone, group norms persisted. When subjects within this study were asked if they were influenced by the judgements of other people in the group, only 25 per cent of subjects reported they were, showing that social conformity occurs sub-consciously.
In an equally famous study, Asch (1951) conducted a series of experiments which utilised a similarly clever approach to explore the effects of social conformity.
Asch placed a subject in a room with seven actors who had been instructed to provide specific answers. A line length judgement test was used, where a target line was presented, followed by three other lines (labelled A, B and C).
Each participant took turns to state which line was most like the target line in length across 18 different tests. The actors deliberately said the wrong answer for 12 of the 18 tests. On average, subjects conformed to the incorrect answers on 32 per cent of the tests, with 74 per cent of subjects conforming on at least one obvious test. This is an astonishing result considering the correct answer was generally obvious.
Cialdini (1984) built on this insight with the concept of social proof, where individuals mimic the actions of others in ambiguous social situations, irrespective of whether that behaviour is appropriate and logical. Cialdini hypothesised that ‘one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct’. This is based on the bias that when a lot of people are doing something, it is likely the correct thing to do.
A loyalty program can play a role in building a positive brand presence across these promotional channels in four ways:
- Building the member base and developing a positive relationship with members to increase their propensity to become advocates. This is best supported via a comprehensive lifecycle management strategy.
- Utilising gamification techniques to encourage members to engage with the channels (e.g., awarding bonus points for following a brand on social media).
- Prompting members who have recently transacted to provide their feedback via review, and responding to that review, whether it is positive or negative (studies have shown that nearly 95 per cent of shoppers read online reviews before making a purchase and 97 per cent of shoppers say reviews influence buying decisions).
- Providing members with access to a referral program, where both the member and their family members or friends can earn a bonus reward for joining the loyalty program.
The approach of gamifying social media engagement can deliver additional benefits. Rehnen et al (2017) ran a field study where subjects earned loyalty points for social media engagement.
The results showed significantly higher attitudinal commitment to the program and the brand than that of members who earned points solely through transactions. They concluded that rewarding customers for social media engagement can be a beneficial way of boosting active participation in loyalty programs, however they cautioned that the experience needs to be enjoyable and self-determined.
There is also a large movement towards social responsibility which aligns with social proof, as people want to be seen to be doing the right thing, with social media the enabler.
The market has long been full of programs providing the option for members to donate their points to charity (e.g., Amex, Singapore Airlines, Grill’d and flybuys to name a few), and while this premise usually tests well among consumers in market research, it rarely materialises into consumer action.
So, when there is no social pressure or social gain attached to doing the right thing, there is far less incentive to attract consumers to continue engaging in this way.
However, if loyalty programs can leverage the power of social media to support social movements, then the results can be powerful. For example, some brands are designing programs around the wellness social movement. Nike Training Club, Lorna Jane Active Living and Reebok Unlocked not only sell activewear but also incorporate rewards for fitness, nutrition, training and wellness, with results able to be shared on social media as a form of social proof.
By revamping their loyalty program in 2019 to focus on rewarding engagement, and in-particular public engagement, Reebok Unlocked continues to build on its mission to attract a younger audience. At launch, their global head of digital stated ‘We’ll be rewarding consumers for their loyalty and consistent brand interaction, with experiences that we know resonate with them and speak to their passions.’
The program structure places a focus on rewarding customers for social media interactions and for attending Reebok social events. Reebok also leverage the social networks of well-known health and wellness leaders who unlock access to training programs as rewards to members, creating a social community. The program also rewards members with bonus points for rating and reviewing a product. Attaching bonus points in exchange for ratings/reviews on social media or a website also taps into the norm of reciprocity where consumers who receive something free (points) feel compelled to provide something in return (a positive review).
So, if you’re not playing in this space, it’s time to up your game and take advantage of the Social Proof bias to turbocharge program engagement.
 Asch, S. E., 1951, ‘Effects of Group Pressure on the Modification and Distortion of Judgments’, In Guetzknow, H., Ed., Groups, Leadership and Men, Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie Press, pp177-190.
 Cialdini, R. B., 1993, ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’.
 Spiegal Research Centre, 2017, ‘How Online Reviews Influence Sales’, https://spiegel.medill.northwestern.edu/online-reviews/, accessed 12 May 2020.
 Fan and Fuel, 2016, ‘No online customer reviews means BIG problems in 2017’, https://fanandfuel.com/no-online-customer-reviews-means-big-problems-2017/, accessed 12 May 2020.
 Rehnen, L., Bartsch, S., Kull, M. & Meyer, A., 2017, ‘Exploring the impact of rewarded social media engagement in loyalty programs, Journal of Service Management, Vol 28, pp305 – 328.
 The Drum, News, 2019, ‘Reebok’s hunt for a younger consumer continues with first foray into customer loyalty’, https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/04/02/reebok-s-hunt-younger-consumer-continues-with-first-foray-customer-loyalty, accessed 12 May 2020.