How Plant a Tree Co. used Social Proof to make fools of us all

Written by Laura Browne, Digital Director.

When an online Instagram campaign promised to plant a tree for every pet photo posted, in no time its creator unsurprisingly claimed it had ‘spread out of control’. The campaign was shared more than 4.1 million times online, seeing stories filled with cats, dogs, and all sorts of other lovable pets. The promise being: ‘We’ll plant one tree for every pet picture’. 


What a time to be alive. 


My Instagram friends are pretty savvy when it comes to questionable online campaigns, and it’s fair to say a lot of us felt something wasn’t quite right. If something sounds too good to be true, it often is. But hey, nothing sends people into a furry frenzy quite like sharing pics of their pets online. 


Did we fall victim of an unconscious bias known as social proof? Or do we just really like sharing pictures of our pets?


Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where people are influenced by what everyone else is doing and copy them. It’s one of the most researched behavioural biases marketers can use, which is even more effective when they have a definitive product. A classic example of social proof is this Elevator Social Experiment clip from the 1960s. 

Freelance journalist Patrick Malborough went viral on twitter after breaking down what he unpacked about the company behind the trend, Plant a Tree Co. He uncovered 23-year-old Zack Saadioui, the founder of Plant a Tree Co, and its ecommerce website that claims to sell charitable bracelets.


Annoyingly, it is yet to send any proceeds to any of its claimed charities.


With no sign of any new trees taking root and no charitable donations confirmed, it’s left us wondering: is Saadioui a genius or just a lucky idiot?   


Famously, Whiskas cat food declares they are ‘preferred by 8 out of 10 cats’. However, it’s believed that social proof messages are more powerful when the claims are from people we are more familiar with. So, we tend to mimic the behaviour of those we have a link with (in this case, our Instagram connections) more than the population as a whole.


It’s unclear if Saadioui predicted that his less-than-charitable cause would receive so much attention, or if he knew that the idyllic blend of puppies and social proof would generate over 4 million shares. But it does prove that behavioural biases are still at the foundation of our decision making. 


Social proofing may be an old-school technique, but it’s still relevant today. The fact it’s so ingrained in human nature makes it a great way of shifting behaviour. If we use our creativity when applying it, we can produce great value for our clients and brands. Who knows, we might even do some good.


Now, anyone for a picture of a rather cute Cockapoo?

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