Marketing Series: Social Proof – Introduction

Social Proof

What is it?

To get us started in the marketing series, I’m going to introduce you to a concept that is acutally part of your daily experience as an indie writer: social proof.  So what is social proof?  

Social proof is basically the way that we learn things by our social environment.  Our social environment is all of the people in our lives, including family, friends, teachers, community leaders, and to some degree people like the news anchors where we get news information from.  What ever these people are saying or doing we accept as true.  Let me give you a concrete example if everyone around you is unemployed, but you hear on the news that unemployment is down, you’re going to think that the news is stupid or lying.  In your social environment, the evidence is that unemployment is up.  This is learning from your social environment. Another application of this is if everyone you know says that one grocery store is better than another, you might think well if everyone says that then it must be true.  Still another application is found in social media.  On LinkedIn, there is an endorsement function where people can endorse skils that you have.  This is based on social proof.  If 20 people say you’re good at something, someone looking at your profile will assume that this is true.  Another application is the recommendations that you see on online booksellers website.  If you’re interested in this, other people who were interested in this also bought that.  Well, then you’ll probably like it too.  

Examples of social environment and social proof
  • unemployment rates reported versus everyone you know (learning from social environment)
  • everyone likes one grocery store over another (social proof)
  • LinkedIn skills endorsement (social proof)
Definition of social proof

In the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, he wrote about the persuasive technique that capitalizes on social proof (link non monetized).  He describes this as a way that people learn what is called mores (more-ehz).  This is basically the unspoken rules of correct behavior, like standing in line or not.  There’s no law (a codified behavior — explicity written down).  You just learn that this is what we do when we go somewhere to do something that involves organizing lots of people.  You wait in line.  You wait your turn.  You learn this because everyone around you agrees that this is the right thing to do.  So we rely on others to tell us what the right thing to do is.  Social proof.  In some cases it’s benign or even helpful.  Having a way to organize ourselves at a movie theater is helpful.  We just know what to do, and we do it.  Sometimes though this tendency is used for not so helpful things.  I’m not going to delve into that too much at this point.

So what does social proof have to do with marketing?

How is this applied to research into consumer behavior, because really that’s what you’re interested in.  Consumer behavior. Well.  I’m so glad you asked.  I ran across a scholarly journal article by a Taiwanese professor, Dr. Yi-Fen Chen (link not monetized to abstract in scholarly journal database).  She wrote an article about her research into how people buy books online.  The article was called “Herd Behavior in Purchasing Books” .  Herd behavior should ring some bells.  How?  Herd behavior basically describes a similar thing as social proof.  In her article, she described that people buy books based on reviews.  Whaaaat? I know.  You knew this from the YouTube videos you watched, the blog posts you’ve read, and the how-to books you’ve read.  So reviews provide the social proof that your book is worth buying.  If someone stumbled on your book because of another book they bought, as in an automatically generated book recommendation — others bought this book or an email — all the better.  This will carry even more weight than just reviews.  Because recommendations based on books that the readers already like not only carry social proof, but another persuasive concept: familiarity.  I’ll write more about that later.  If you’re curious, you can always read Cialdini’s book, but he doesn’t go into much on how to apply it yourself.

I bet you’re saying to yourself.  Great!  I just have to get reviews and get the automatic recommendation genie to recommend me.  But now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, but how do I do that?  Before you go down a rabbit hole of despair, this is one of the things that I’m going to be writing about — how to leverage these “mechanisms” but without being an a-hole about it.  One, I don’t like a-holes so I’m not going to tell you how to be one.  Two being an a-hole may get you reviews or sales at first, but it’s a short game.  So I wouldn’t recommend doing a-hole things.

So we now know what social proof is, and you know that people buy books based on social proof.  So you say to yourself: I need to build up the social proof.  Yes, you do.  But here’s the thing, it can also work against you.  Dr. Chen and a colleague, Dr. Jen-Hung Huang , wrote a scholarly journal ariticle about what happens if there are bad reviews.  Well, they looked at good reviews and bad reviews.  They found that guess what?  Good reviews in the presence of bad reviews is … bad.  “However, herding effects are offset significantly by negative comments from others (3).”   What does that mean?  Bad reviews are bad for sales.  They also found that getting reviews from other readers is more influential than from so-called experts.  (Again, we’ll talk about that more with “authority” and “familiarity” or you can read about it in Cialdini’s book).  

  • Good reviews drive sales
  • Bad reviews hurt sales
  • Recommendations help
  • It’s better to get reader reviews than critic or other authority type people’s recommendation

Other places you find social proof

Let’s look about where else we see this “social proof” thing.  Sales numbers.  Best-seller lists.  Sales rankings.  For an unscientific experiment, I went on to Facebook and asked my friends and also members of a book recommendation club to see where they find books for their to be read list.  Best-seller lists.  Recommendations from friends.  … And yeah.  So there it is.  

Can you think of other places social proof shows up?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.   I’ll give you some examples.

  • Number of followers
  • Lawn signs 
  • Endorsements on LinkedIn
  • Mentions
  • Likes on posts

That’s about all that I can think of at the moment.  So now you know everything you need to know to make a marketing plan?  Mmmmmm.  Not so much.  Like I said, people are complicated, and a person is even more so.  But don’t worry.  I’ll cover it all!

So try this out! Go to your favorite social media site.

  1. Scroll through your feed slowly. You are looking at posts to see
    1. which one has the most comments
    2. which one has the most likes or no likes
    3. what were your thoughts & feelings about them
    4. would you have stopped to look at the one with no likes
    5. would you have commented on ones with no comments
  2. In the comments below, let me know what your experience was looking at the posts and thinking about the ones that had more likes than others
  3. Do a similar thing with profiles
    1. What do you think about profiles with few followers
    2. What do you think about profiles with a lot of followers
    3. What do you think about profiles who follow a lot more people than follow them
    4. What do you think about profiles that follow much fewer people than who they follow
    5. What do you think about people who follow about as much as the are followed
    6. While thinking about this, who would you be more likely to follow and why? You don’t have to have an answer. You just need to take the time to think about it.

Please share your experience of this in the comments below.

Feel free to like and share! and repost and … you know the drill. Happy marketing!

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