Social proof is hugely important to marketers. Social proof speaks to your audience in terms that are valuable to them. After scarcity, Influence, by way of social proof, is the most powerful marketing tool of all.
In the 1950s, researcher Solomon Asch proved that people ultimately just want to fit in, to be part of the crowd. His experiments proved that 75% of participants would go along with the group in a variety of scenarios – even if they had reason to believe the group consensus to be wrong.
In all likelihood, you have seen social proof at work before. If you are visiting a new city and drive past a restaurant at 8 o’clock on a Friday night and the parking lot is nearly empty, you are likely to opt to eat at the packed restaurant across the street – even if there is a queue stretching far outside the doors!
The implication here is that the restaurant with the empty parking lot must serve lousy food, because everyone in town (apparently) is at the place across the street. You can assume that those in the know (the locals) have an idea of just how bad the food is at the empty restaurant. For dining establishments, an empty parking lot is damagingly bad social proof. (It’s also why they seat the first dinners of the evening towards the front, near the windows)
So how does social proof work in a Web-based context? Are you more likely to watch a video on YouTube that has 67,523 views or one that has 52 views? Looking at video thumbnails in YouTube search results offers no other indicator aside from social proof (view count). Yet, videos with high numbers of views tend to draw even more views in a kind of snowball effect. This is basic social behavior that goes back to Asch’s studies of the 1950s.
Since social proof connects to two of The 7 Levers of Business, opt-ins and conversion, we’ve created this essay to help you get more of both, by adding credibility via social proof.
In this essay we cover the following:
- Why social proof matters to you
- Highlighting positive social proof
- How to manufacture social proof.
- Avoiding negative social proof
- Social proof superstars [Examples for opt-ins and conversions]
Social proof has a lengthy psychological meaning, but it also has a simpler explanation that matters to marketers.
James Chartrand of The Micolancer Blog sums up this second meaning of social proof in the following way:
“Social proof can also mean that someone bought a product and found it useful. Or they read a blog and learned something new. Or they’ve tried a service and got results. They’ve experienced something before you, and they survived – they even liked the experience!”
“Your perception is one of increased safety and less risk.”
In other words, social proof shows your customer that your offer is something they can accept without worry.
Let’s look at how you can harness the credibility of social proof to increase opt-ins and conversions.
1. Why social proof matters to you
“From a marketing standpoint, social proof is the basis of both buzz and large sales figures. Without it, there’d be no ‘grapevine’ in the first place.” – Brian Clark, CopyBlogger
You have probably seen one of the most high-profile displays of social proof ever devised. For years, every McDonalds had a sign out front that stated the number of customers the chain had served, first in millions (for those of us old enough to remember!) and later in billions.
That was an early usage of social proof in marketing thought up by Ray Kroc, long-time CEO of McDonalds. Kroc understood that people would see the large number of people served and think, “Well, all those people can’t be wrong.”
On the Web, social proof works in much the same way it did for Kroc and McDonalds. But the Web is more complex, and consumers expect more of their social proof than a simple sign on the side of the road. Social media is the new norm, the new conduit through which social proof travels and credibility is earned.
A report from Moto Message tells us that 34% of online consumers surveyed have used social media to voice their opinions about a company.
The same report tells us that, of those who use social media to discuss businesses, 26% have done so to air dissatisfaction; 23% have done so to share information about companies they actually like.
The Moto Message article also tells us a couple other closely related statistics: 70% of consumers trust “unknown users,” while just 14% trust advertising.
As marketers this is a HUGE factor to be aware of:
“70% of consumers trust “unknown users”
Think about it for a moment… it doesn’t matter WHO the recommendation, approval or validation comes from, it’s just that social proof is there that matters. The wanting buyer is looking for confirmation that their urge (or impulse) to buy is founded. Social proof gives them that validation.
The increasing importance of social proof has to do with the way people interact and exchange ideas. As the infographic from Desk shows, just a few decades ago, the average person had a social reach of about 10 people. Twelve years ago, an individual could reach 100 people. Now, social media allows reaching 1,375 or more people with a single post.
The continuing amplification of social media exponentially multiplies the famous quote from Jeff Bezos, “When you have a bad experience offline, you tell six people. Online, you tell 100.” Obviously, Bezos was essentially correct, though he was shortsighted in estimating the Internet’s ability to amplify the reach of the individual, with the help of social media.
While Bezos was focusing on the negative side of social proof (which we’ll discuss later), for our purposes here it’s better to focus on the positive aspects, first.
2. Highlighting positive social proof
In a Search Engine Journal article, Garret Pierson reports that Petco Vice President of Ecommerce, John Lazarchic once stated, “Adding customer ratings increased our sales and decreased our costs.” In the article, Pierson tells us that Petco surveyed buying customers asking “What online tool most influenced your purchase decision?” The number one answer: product ratings and reviews – both of which are forms of social proof
We’ve recently written about one the most important forms of social proof, testimonials, which is also one of the most common forms of social proof, alongside offsite reviews, likes, and followers.
“Featuring social proof prominently in your marketing is essential, but it’s equally as important to make it easy for your customers who already love you to share their comments with others.”
That statement speaks to the many channels social proof travels through. Posting a testimonial on a landing page is one highly controlled way of using social proof, but other channels are less malleable (though they can all be leveraged to your advantage, if you know what to do).
According to Marvin Russell of the SEO Group Blog, social proof can take on any of the following forms:
- Case studies
We’ll cover each of these in the next section, but remember that social proof can exist in other contexts, too. Anywhere social interaction is publicly on display effectively becomes social proof.
Also note that it pays to think outside the box to come by social proof. In a great example of using social proof, U.S. Waterproofing is allowing visitors to see a Google Map dotted by existing customers located in the visitor’s city. Talk about driving the point home!
Kogan employs another location-specific original idea to show off social proof.
In the lower left corner of results pages, the Kogan site shows a popup spotlighting products others have JUST purchased.
The message the popup sends is, “here’s what people just like you have been shopping for,” which can urge a purchasing decision – even an impulse buy.
Positive social proof, in whatever form, is something you will want to emphasize as often as you can. This can be your “Over 99 billion served” McDonalds-like statement (“Over 331,862 monthly subscribers”), or a testimonial placed near a checkout button on a product page. It can be a prominently displayed review count for an eBook, a view count for a YouTube video, or even a Google Map.
As long as social proof shows that people (just like your customers) have already opted-in or converted, it’s worth highlighting.
3. How to manufacture social proof
So now we get a little controversial. The term “manufacture social proof” doesn’t scream ethical marketing.
When we were researching this article, we came across some negative sentiment around the search term “manufacturing social proof.” Here is an example of the sometimes controversial nature of manufacturing social proof.
You’ve heard of Reddit, right? Well, do you know how that weighty social snowball started rolling? Here’s the true story, from Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman.
How Reddit Manufactured Social Proof
Wow, if you are taken aback by how Reddit got off the ground (yet somehow still impressed that it actually worked) don’t worry, we had the same reaction.
We could debate the ethics of the Reddit approach all day, but let’s put the unethical side of things away for the moment, because as a marketer it’s your responsibility to do everything in your power to create and promote all the social proof you possibly can.
Are we saying go out and “manufacture social proof” by purchasing a bunch of fake app store reviews, paying for 10,000 (or 156 million, in the case of Lady Gaga) YouTube views or ordering 25,000 Twitter followers?
Are we even so much as saying that you should create multiple bogus profiles on your own site and start posting comments just to get started, like they did at Reddit?
Absolutely not.. but we’re only your marketing advisors, not your moral conscious.
You simply need to be putting systems in place that grow your social proof – with the occasional nudge from you along the way. Here are some ways you can do that – ethically.
Implementing testimonials is a great way to create social proof.
We’ve recently talked in-depth about the art and science of using testimonials to increase opt-ins and conversions.
As we mentioned in that essay, Michael Aagaard increased sales of his eBook by 64.53%, simply by distributing testimonials in specific positions on a sales page.
The reason for that spike is because testimonials create authenticity and ease potential customer doubts about taking a desired action.
We’ve also highlighted testimonials in our podcast with Dale Beaumont, during which he shares his proven testimonial template, which is definitely worth checking out for full details on implementing this valuable type of social proof.
According to BusinessWeek, More than 70% of consumers say they read product reviews before buying. What’s more, according to Econsultancy, more than 55% or customers say that positive reviews will increase their likelihood of purchasing.
That means you should be thinking about product reviews (and using them in your marketing, more importantly!).
Do you have a way to reward customers for leaving a product review?
Do you have an email in your post sales sequence asking people for their feedback/review?
EBay has been using an automated feedback system for many years, which you are probably highly familiar with. EBay has made it a part of its culture to collect and display feedback, obviously to improve community standards and build trust with customers.
After a transaction is completed on eBay, its feedback automation system kicks in and emails you to ask you to fill out the feedback form for the seller you have purchased from. This totally automated system is one of the most streamlined feedback systems ever – it works beautifully, for the most part.
But, as news.au.com’s Victoria Craw reports, eBay won’t allow sellers to leave buyers negative feedback, which appears to be more of an effort to preserve eBay’s own social proof, rather than allow authentic feedback from sellers – which is interesting to note, and is likely a side effect of a particularly robust review system.
In an ideal scenario, you won’t run into the kinds of issues that eBay does. Thankfully, though, there are some tools that can help you automate customer feedback on your site, like eBay.
- Customer Thermometer – an excellent tool to help you automate email customer satisfaction surveys
- Feefo – another good customer feedback survey system for products and services
Customer feedback can be constantly collected and reviewed, for possible inclusion in your marketing as social proof, with the help of automated tools like the two we’ve listed.
The media has recently reported that Google is cracking down on fake YouTube views like the ones the company stripped from Lady Gaga.
Here’s a more believable example of the power of views.
Within two days of its publication on YouTube, “Superman with a GoPro” had 6,739,093 views – impressive, particularly in light of the short time all those views came in. But all those views themselves helped take the video to new heights, elevating the upload to YouTube’s front page list of popular videos.
As a recent article from SEO Group points out, no one wants to waste time watching a boring video, and showing off your views (or plays on SoundCloud, or any other platform for that matter) can be great social proof – especially if the number of views/plays is high.
As we told you in our recent essay on testimonials, if your view/play count is low (at first) it’s best to keep it hidden, because small numbers can be negative social proof. Wait until the numbers ramp up enough organically before you switch the count to public display.
Then make sure you show it off. Can you go the way of Lady Gaga and buy views? We are not ones to judge, but definitely don’t get carried away (come on, 156 million bogus views is a bit much, even for a pop music superstar!).
Do you show how many times an offer has been accepted by listing the number of subscribers or downloads on the opt-in page itself?
Have you signed up for a newsletter and seen something similar to what MarketingProfs is doing, showcasing “624,000 marketing professionals” who have already signed up? Sounds like a group of people you should be a part of, doesn’t it? That’s because of “herd behavior,” a term that describes the natural tendency of people to want to be part of a group of like-minded individuals.
Prominently displaying the number of downloads or subscribers helps your customers feel like they belong, which in turn encourages opt-ins.
So how can you kick start downloads/subscribers? Well you, your best friend, and your mom can only hit the “download” or “subscribe” button so many times. You can buy subscribers/downloads, too – at your own risk, of course.
But to really ramp up your initial count, you need to turn to your all-powerful customer list.
Regardless of how many customers you have in your list, they are always your starting point. Even if you’ve never had a newsletter before and you launch one, your existing customers need to know about.
Having an opt-in capture page on your site is good, but to reach those existing customers who might not have visited lately, you will need to notify them any time you have something new to offer.
And if you find a way to incentivize your existing customers to share their subscriber status, you can bring in new subscribers. (See the section on Shares below for more on how to do that.)
Remember McDonald’s “Over 99 Billion Served?” This same tactic can increase conversions on the Web.
And this is a metric that can be manufactured. Case in point:
In 2012, author Soren Kaplan’s debut book, Leapfrogging, entered The Wall Street Journal’s bestselling business titles list in its first week on sale. The following week, it plummeted 99% and disappeared from the list.
Because, as The Wall Street Journal exposed last year, Kaplan’s marketing firm, ResultSource, purchased copies of the book in advance of the publication date to manufacture social proof.
Surely Kaplan isn’t the only one, as stunts like that are common. There is a downside to ResultSource approach, as WSJ also points out. Amazon, a major bookseller, ditched ResultSource. That’s not a good end to a campaign.
The way this worked, Kaplan had to pay ResultSource upfront for the books, which they in turn bought to inflate the book to bestseller status. But the same article from WSJ gives us a much more sustainable (and ethical) tip, courtesy of author Melissa G Wilson.
Wilson says that she presold 3,000 copies of her book, Networking is Dead, by discounting her public speaking fees to companies that invited her to speak in exchange for buying up copies of her book. She ultimately turned the orders in to ResultSource, which fulfilled the deliveries.
We’re not blown away by ResultSource’s role in either of these scenarios (according WSJ, Networking is Dead has only sold 8,800 which is not a mindboggling number, especially considering it sounds like Wilson did most of the work herself).
But there is a good takeaway to be found here about thinking outside the box to boost social proof. Wilson was thinking right when she turned manufacturing social proof into an offer. That’s how it’s done – ethically.
Social media followers/likes
The number of people following you on social media works a lot like your subscriber list social proof.
Like your subscriber count, finding ways to showcase your social media follower count (like around your social sharing buttons) is the way to turn this count into social proof.
Andrew Hutchison of Social Media Today warns against the temptation to employ “like farms” or use bots to manufacture followers/likes.
“…while it might seem like a good strategy to kick off your business profile with a few thousand fake followers, invest a small amount to boost your industry status, you have to keep in mind that that decision will very likely come back to bite you,” he writes.
And he’s right. The glaring problem with buying followers and likes is that it will become apparent that you have done so, even if only to that one real follower who clicks on one (or more) of the hollow profiles of your fake followers.
To increase social media follows and likes, we urge you to keep it totally organic, because there is no sign that social sites like Facebook will soften up on this practice anytime soon.
Simply put, having no comments is no good.
A blog post without comments is like a digital ghost town with tumbleweed blowing down the street. It’s just not inviting.
As Inbounce.com points out, “a lack of reaction is a reaction.” To that, we’d add that it’s a negative one.
To dodge that, the best advice is to make it really easy to comment.
One of the better call outs in the Reddit video we showed you earlier was that it should be easy to comment. There’s no need for long-in-the-tooth signup pages just to comment on some random blog or site (which is what your blog or site is the first few times anyone visits it).
Tools like Disqus make the process of implementing easy discussion tools to blogs, landing pages, and other webpages easy as pie.
We have recently posted an essay in which we talk about how we How We Got an 8.5+% Opt-in Rate, A 25.14% Social Share Ratio + Increased Our List By 66.4% With One Simple Bribe. As that essay explains,in a recent test, we saw some impressive results through social sharing.
We wanted to drive traffic to www.7LeversReport.com, so we encouraged visitors to share with a tiny bribe and a bit of gamification.
As each subscriber came to the site and downloaded our report, we awarded them one referral point.
When a subscriber referred three people, they earned three referrer point and were rewarded with exclusive access to the first two modules of our advanced 7 Levers training course (which focus on increasing the first two levers: Traffic and Opt-Ins).
The result is that an impressive 25.14% of the 3,404 new subscribers shared our opt-in page on social media, netting us 856 unique shares.
The reason is because we gave our new subscribers incentive to share. An article from Mashable (a site great at encouraging sharing – more on that in the last section of this article) tells us that people are more satisfied when they get something in return for their effort. By offering two free advanced training courses, we met with that desire to be rewarded, which drove social shares appreciably.
The very nature of lead generation on the Web hinges on creating irresistible lead magnets – content offered in exchange for information (typically, customer contact information). But here we’ve used the offer to drum up social proof.
Urging sharing comes down to offering some incentive to share. We used a $37 WordPress plugin called ListEruption V2 to help us maximize our subscriber list, which is a worthwhile investment, because we all know that the money is in the subscriber list – especially in light of the 8.5% bump in opt-ins that we saw when we incentivized sharing and measured our results!
HubSpot is using customer case studies effectively. The site has created a dedicated page for case studies and given each of its featured customers a video and a box that pulls out some relevant metrics that have improved as a result of using HubSpot.
HubSpot has even taken social proof a step further, adding customer testimonials beneath each case study.
This is a great approach and you will do well to take note that Hubspot is carefully calling out numbers that matter to its audience –“100% increase in lead to customer conversion since launch,” “doubled revenue in the first year,” “70% year-over-year increase in Web traffic,” etc.
Hubspot is admittedly good at what they do, and they’re nailing down case studies with what may be the perfect model of how it’s done.
For most companies, case studies are often an outgrowth of customer feedback, which you might be collecting for reviews or testimonials. If you can identify a particularly helpful review or testimonial that has come through one of those channels, you can always reach out via email to the customer who created it and ask them, “Hi, would you like to be featured on our homepage?”
This is even more ideal if the customer is clearly successful at what they do, which translates well to your audience and adds to the credibility of the case study.
4. Avoiding negative social proof
Not all social proof is created equal.
Negative social proof can upend your marketing efforts and act as deterrent to customers. When people see negative social proof, they bounce.
Negative social proof can manifest in the following ways:
Consider the screenshot from Forbes shown above. Forbes is a widely read outlet, and in small print, the site does display its sizeable view count, which is a good thing. But what about follows and comments? Could this omission be hurting social shares? Could Forbes stand to learn a thing or two from the example below from Mashable?
Mashable makes prominent use of social proof with its share counts in green text, while encouraging further shares.
When was your last tweet on your company’s Twitter page? Was it last week, last month, or last year? When was the date of your last Facebook activity? If it’s been too long, that is negative social proof.
Ask anyone and they will tell you that you’ve got to have social media for marketing, and they would be right. What is often left unsaid is that you have to remain active in social media for it to be effective.
Leaving a social media profile without updates for more than a couple of days is like trying to run a brick-and-mortar store with boards on the windows – everyone assumes you have gone out of business.
Inactivity is one of the worst forms of negative social proof. As Nelson Ta points out at Omnibeat, negative social proof resulting from inactivity amounts to laziness – so fire up that Twitter feed, recover that lost Facebook password, and get active!
Too many social sharing buttons
Social sharing is a great way to spread your message, but we have a word of caution when it comes to social media buttons. Social media buttons have been shown to reduce bounce rate by 1%, according to Business2Community, but your social media buttons need not be huge or redundant.
If you have big social media buttons going on in multiple places on a particular page, you give the customer too many chances to become distracted and migrate away from your page, immersed in the world of social media.
Search Engine Journal reports that social media buttons can also slow site performance by 1.12-ms per button, and using too many different social platforms can lead to indecision instead of sharing, which can in turn drive bounces higher, as well as curb opt-ins or conversions.
The same article also points out that in 2007, Amazon reported that for every 100 milliseconds of loading time for a given page, sales decreased by 1%, thereby negating the 1% bump afforded by having social sharing buttons in the first place.
The point? Keep social sharing buttons simple, unobtrusive, and focused on your most engaging social media pages.
Sending the wrong social signals
The most famous study on the effects of negative social proof was published by Noah Goldstein in Yes! Secrets from the Science of Persuasion. In that book, Goldstein recalls a study of social media conducted in the United States’ Petrified National Forest Park. The experiment measure the effectiveness of certain approaches to combatting the theft of petrified wood by visitors to the park. Park visitors were alternately presented either of the following signs posted in the park:
- (Social proof) Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest. (Accompanied by a picture of people taking petrified wood)
- (No social proof) Please don’t remove petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest. (Accompanied by the circle/slash universal symbol for “no”)
In the experiment, the control group was shown no sign. For that group, petrified wood was stolen at a rate of 2.92%. The group shown the sign without social proof resulted in a 1.67% theft rate. The group shown the social proof stole petrified wood at a rate of 7.92% – a huge increase over the control group with no sign at all.
The reason for this is because people saw “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood” and took that as a permission slip to do so themselves. This is negative social proof, functioning in the opposite way intended. Rather than curbing theft, the sign encouraged taking petrified wood!
Takeaway Tip: Be careful with numbers! Social proof works best when it is positive. So for example, referencing the comparatively modest 24,355 users you have is better than referring to the 347,268 people who could benefit from using your product because the big number makes your prospective customer wrongly think, “well, I shouldn’t worry about using it either.”
When to hide social proof
Remember the early days of eBay, when sellers would put a page counter at the bottom of every auction, in an apparent effort to urge buyers to go ahead and bid? The hit counter was once at the footer of a majority of webpages (even outside of eBay). Now, though, it is all but gone from the Web, perhaps because hit counters reek of 90s webpage design!
The page counter has fallen out of favour because it became a negative form of social proof. Often, the hit counter would show just how unpopular a particular page was. At other times, like eBay auctions, it exposed how many visitors had passed on an offer.
On the other end of the numbers spectrum, small numbers do nothing for your marketing efforts. If you start posting podcasts on SoundCloud, for the first few weeks or months, you will have double-digit plays, which are publicly displayed by default (though plays can be hidden with SoundCloud Pro).
That is negative social proof that says no one is listening to your recordings, thereby urging others not to listen. We experienced this ourselves when we first added our podcasts to SoundCloud. The low play count was hurting our social proof, despite the (literally) thousands of downloads we were getting on iTunes. We hid our plays and, unsurprisingly, got more listens as a result.
As Marketing Funnel Automation points out, there is no “neutral social proof,” and there is no creating “a little social proof.” Little social proof is always negative social proof.
It’s better to turn off views or comments altogether than to let them become a glaring example of negative social proof for your company.
Phony social proof
Consumers know when they are looking at phony social proof. Overly glowing testimonials, rave reviews, and paid, manipulative social proof isn’t worth the effort (or cost).
Pre-recorded TV comedies have been manipulating social proof on the sly for decades. It’s called a laugh track or “canned laughter”– a recording of an audience chuckling and clapping that is cued right after every punch line of a situation comedy.
Of course, canned laughter has been a standard practice in the television industry for decades, and the modern audience is keenly aware of it – in some ways, even accepting of it. On the Web, manipulative, falsified, or otherwise “drummed-up” social proof has a more damaging effect than the canned laughter of bland sitcoms. In fact, in the digital space, phony social proof is no laughing matter at all.
As the public becomes more aware of phony social proof, the phenomenon has brought criticism even to US President Barack Obama. USA Today reported in 2012 that upwards of 70% of Obama’s 18.8 million Twitter followers were fakes.
Obviously, Obama won his re-election bid that year, despite the minor damage to his online credibility stemming from negative social proof. Nevertheless, it’s better to avoid the bad publicity, and work to weed out phony social proof relating to your business. Not everyone has a full pack of saber-toothed political campaigners behind them!
Takeaway Tip: If, like President Obama, you have many bogus followers, you have a few options for dealing with them.
5. Social proof superstars [Examples for opt-ins and conversions]
Since social proof works equally well for both opt-ins and conversions, let’s examine a shining example of each usage.
Social proof for opt-ins
Constant Contact promoting opt-ins with social proof.
Social proof via peer pressure – 465,000 peers to be exact.
Constant Contact is asking you to join the 465,000 subscribers who already read the newsletter. The action is easy enough to take. After all, who wouldn’t want to be among those clearly “in-the-know?”
Note that Constant Contact has placed social media buttons below the sign-up form in an unobtrusive way that encourages sharing, not bouncing. As you can tell, there’s a lot to learn from this simple, understated example.
Social proof for conversions
Basecamp is using social proof to drive conversions.
Basecamp makes great use of social proof.
Note that Basecamp is using social proof to drive conversions in a couple highly effective ways. In the bold text, it’s hitting the visitor with some big numbers, right above the anxiety-inducing call to action. Beneath the button, Basecamp supports the desired action with a smaller but more specific number (6,324) and an in-text call to action.
Basecamp brings together several angles on social proof (including a blip about “word-of-mouth alone,” which we think is bold, but effective).
P.S. – Social proof is not one-size-fits-all!
While we think our examples in this essay are all helpful, as always, we urge you to assess your business’ unique needs and make decisions that work best for your situation. Social proof works in many contexts, but not all.
If the social feedback for a product or services are squarely bad, you have to factor that and work to overcome the challenge.
Ultimately, as Brooks Bell contends on her blog, unanimously bad social proof can expose opportunities to improve your delivery of customer expectations in terms of quality and consistency. In such a scenario, social proof is not working for your marketing efforts as much as it’s highlighting another area of business that you should focus your energies on.
Rest assured though, that social proof always enters the picture in the world of business. In all cases, be sure to test your results with social proof and do what works for you!