Social proofing, aka informational social influence, is, according to Wikipedia, “a psychological phenomenon that occurs in vague social situations when people are unable to determine the correct mode of behavior.” Simplified and in plain English, what this means is in unfamiliar circumstances, we look to each other for cues on what is credible and worthy of our attention.
Let’s look at an example of “real world” social proof before we get into digital social proof to help illustrate the concept.
Social Proofing in Action:
In April 2007, The Washington Post convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso, to play in the Washington, D.C. subway during the morning rush hour. Bell took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (excluding a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him).
The subway commuters are using each others’ response to the violinist in order to determine their own response to him. Without the cues that signal the violinist’s quality that accompany him when performing in a concert hall, such as expensive tickets and posters, the violinist is judged by other commuters’ reactions to him: as most commuters are primarily concerned with reaching their place of work, this forms the response the commuters signal to one another about the violinist. (Source.)
I’ve written a previous post sharing different types of social proof. Those types haven’t changed. But what has increased is the number of companies that are using digital social proof, both qualitative and quantitative. As a high-quality brand, it’s in your interest to ensure the metrics and sources you use to create credibility for yourself to users are working for you, not against you. With that, the thing about social proof is it has to be legitimate for people to take it seriously. Today I wanted to share thoughts on different social proof metrics and types and how you can think about them to improve your marketing.
Fluffy Metrics – Potentially Persuasive to Those in a Rush, but Don’t Rely on Them
Number of Followers in Any Single Platform
Smart users know you can automate the growth of these with tools or via outsourcing. Platform-specific followings (probably the most classic of which are Twitter followers) used to be extremely gameable and so many have. Some sites have made it more difficult, but I seriously question anyone who used automation to build a low-quality following in the first place. That act itself signals you’re trying to hide something and actually hurts your reputation. As a brand, if you hope your follower count to be a proof point, don’t fake it. It’s easy to see when a local small business has a hyped number of followers and could actually appear that you’re attempting to trick customers.
“As Seen in” Graphics Citing Media Brands
This one used to be more difficult to game, but with a sprawling tail of media brands and blogs, even popular sites are allowing guest content. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to fake this and in fact many do. If a person or brand is using this, look for legitimate editorial endorsements from trusted writers. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised.
I’ve already written about this one. Be skeptical and don’t use them to try to persuade customers. My friend Alex has the math, but I don’t even think you need it as I outlined in my post linked previously. They’re vague, meaningless scores that are gameable and don’t provide any context that would allow you to reliably and consistently use them as a proof point.
Better Metrics – Will More Definitively Show Proof
Community Members, Number of Users/Scale
These are more difficult metrics to game, and in fact can work for you if your site, brand, or app clearly has a following. This isn’t just for start-ups; even publicly traded companies use number of community members or users as a way to demonstrate the popularity of their product. The classic example of this would be a McDonald’s sign sharing “billions and billions served” on the sign outside the restaurant.
Care.com showing their user community size on their homepage helps establish them as a leader in their space.
Real User Comments or Endorsements
Real comments from a community — the kind that are well-thought-out by intelligent users of your products – can be extremely trustworthy if used correctly. A great example of this that’s proven highly effective are Amazon reviews shown below each product (including both a rating and review). Effusive comments such as this can be used as part of a brand’s social proof about a product or even on an employee’s resume.
Alexa Rank, Compete.com/Quantcast Traffic
OK, so these aren’t the most reliable metrics in the first place, but certainly you can use them as indicators to gauge if a company is successful and may be helpful in pitches in addition to showing your own traffic numbers. Note it’s possible to inflate these with social traffic (i.e., a brand that makes link-bait purely for traffic is not necessary trustworthy), so look for longer-term trends rather than spikes.
Really Strong Proof Points
For B2B: Employees Speaking at Multiple, Credible Industry Events
It would be pretty difficult for a single individual or brand to gain consistent speaking slots across major industry events in any category. Too many chances to be called out by attendees or organizers interested in keeping a high-quality event. Now – that doesn’t necessarily mean a talking head is qualified to, say, provide consulting. But it does show they have put forth the effort to be credible at the industry level. Still, vet these people’s actual talent and case studies as you should anyone if you intend to hire them.
Multiple Citations of Team Members or Products by Media (Not Just Guest Content)
Through serendipity of social or the power of search, one or two citations as a trusted source by media are certainly possible for anyone. But an ongoing, consistent list of quotes in a variety of publications (national/across verticals beyond their own) would be quite the feat to achieve without being a legitimately qualified individual behind a subject. This also goes for brands, too. It’s unlikely even a high-quality PR firm could fake such relationships long term: it would get noticed or called out. This is a great proof point users will see upon research.
Users Engaging With Something Right Now (Real-Time Metrics)
Showing the number of users active on a site or app in real-time can impart a sense of urgency and demonstrate demand for a given product, a type of social proof. Twiddy, a family-owned vacation rental company has been testing this and achieving great results. Not only did their revenue increase 18.6 percent, but the average order value increased 11.9 percent and the conversion rate increased 7.9 percent.
See the Twiddy case study for the full story and the screenshot above for an example of how this looks visually on their search results page.
I hope this post will get you thinking about incorporating new types of social proof into your marketing or help you use existing ones better to increase conversations and build trust.
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