Social Proofing As Part Of Your Marketing Strategy

It used to be that artists, writers, marketers, PR professionals, entrepreneurs – anyone with ideas – would:

  • Need the blessing of gatekeepers to move up in the world,
  • Rely on things such as awards or industry endorsements as credentials,
  • Require media to buy into their story in order to build their reputation.

I’m not saying these things aren’t still relevant and don’t help establish credibility, they absolutely do, but savvy people and businesses across industries are leveraging the web to create influence, trust and authority on their own rendition through the concept of social proofing.  And, something interesting happens to those able to acquire social proofing – they actually find it is a key to get the blessings of gatekeepers, gain awards/industry endorsements, and attract media attention.

Social proofing aka informational social influence is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in vague social situations when people are unable to determine the correct mode of behavior.  Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed and become likely to follow that 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.

Social proofing in action:

In April 2007, the Washington Post convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso, to play in the Washington DC 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’ reaction 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.


Traditional applications of social proofing:

  • If a man is perceived to be in a company of attractive women, or is associated with them, then his perceived social value and attractiveness will be perceived to be greater.
  • If he is seen to be rejected by many women, his social value will be judged negatively. The implied cognition is then “I just saw him being rejected by many women, there is probably a good reason why they don’t like him”.
  • A person who has been unemployed for a long time may have a hard time finding a new job – even if they are highly skilled and qualified. Potential employers attribute wrongly the person’s lack of employment to the person rather than the situation.
  • Similarly, a person who is in high demand may continue to get many attractive job offers and can as a result extract a considerable wage premium – even if his/her objective performance has been poor. When people appear successful, potential employers and others who evaluate them tend to search more intensively for virtues or positive characteristics that are “congruent” with or explain the person’s success, and to ignore or underestimate the person’s faults.
  • Some nightclub and bar owners effectively employ social proof to increase the popularity of their venues. This is usually done by deliberately reducing the rate at which people are allowed to enter, thus artificially causing the line to be longer.
  • Contrary to common annoyance of canned laughter in television shows, television studios have discovered that they can increase the perceived “funniness” of a show by merely playing canned laughter at key “funny” moments. They have found that even though viewers find canned laughter highly annoying, they perceive shows that happen to use canned laughter more funny than the shows that do not use canned laughter.


Web-based social proofing

The web democratizes social proofing, allowing anyone with talent and marketing prowess the ability to build their reputation on a global scale simply by doing what they do best.  Just like the concert hall and expensive tickets act as social proofing for Joshua Bell, many successful businesses and people utilize elements on their site as cues to visitors to help identify that what they are doing is worthy of attention.

Social proofing through numbers

Bloggers share their RSS reader count publicly as social proofing to show the value of their content (hundreds or thousands of others read your blog, there must be something to it).

Photographers and graphic designers use networks like Flickr to establish themselves by showing view counts of their works.  Using Flickr and a creative commons license, a freelancer could take the time to make a portfolio of their web popularity including detailed metrics, showing how many times their images have been viewed on Flickr, embedded on blogs, used in SlideShare presentations, etc.  A compelling PDF or portfolio website of an artist’s work combined with data attractively presented is a strong selling tool for their services.

Musicians can use music networks like MySpace, Last.FM and file sharing to track the popularity of their work and use metrics as social proofing to pitch a label.  A label would be hard pressed to ignore an artist whose work has hundreds of thousands of plays/shares across platforms (it’s clear people like the art).

Social proofing through comments

Comments are less about numbers and more about quality.  Highlight exceptional comments and endorsements by users or clients as social proofing, especially in cases you know they will resonate with your potential targets.  The web makes getting comments simple for everyone from major brands to small startups.  Simple in the ability to attain them, but the quality of comments generated is of course based upon your performance.  Linked In plays into this, notice they have an entire section devoted to this for professionals called recommendations.

Social proofing through ratings

In relevant cases, a rating system – whether objective or subjective – can help establish social proofing, especially in cases where the most popular items are not obvious.  Sorting by ratings is a helpful way for new customers to discover the most popular items at an online store quickly.  Consider doing things like calling out the most rated items as a clear starting point.

PR as social proofing

I created a feedback room for The Future Buzz over on FriendFeed which automatically aggregates conversations from a few key places around the web about this blog.  It’s just for me to keep track of what they early adopters specifically are saying about content here – but all the conversations, links, posts, articles and endorsements generated are good online PR that I could use as social proofing.  A blog is the ultimate PR tool  for your businesses or yourself.

SEO as social proofing

Aside from connections, companies and people that rank highly in the engines are viewed as having high degrees of social proofing because of the links and trust required by the web community to get to that spot.


Of course, there are even more examples of how to generate social proofing for your business, your art, or yourself on the web – it is only limited by your creativity.  All people and businesses of high quality can benefit from the democratic nature of social proofing and it is a basic, if often forgotten strategy to be incorporated on everything from blogs to web applications to e-commerce sites to personal portfolios.

The first step is to define the methods to get the desired return and begin to generate data.  The next step is not just to display the data, but consider how it can be used in the most compelling way to persuade others you’re the right choice and take the actions you’d like.

Don’t stop yet – there are so many different ways to continue to use your social proofing to help accomplish other goals and create compelling material surrounding your brand.  Remix the data, mash it up, share it with fans, put it into blog posts, use the subjective data to create new products, take it offline to use in presentations and pitches, use it to generate PR, even use it to generate more social proofing – popular people/businesses tend to get more popular.

Related posts from The Future Buzz

The Two Kinds Of Web Popularity

The 48 Laws Of Power Applied To Blogging

The Rise Of Personal Branding

Related posts from around the web

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Reviving the Traditional Press Release (PR 2.0)

Social Cues & Increasing Sales (SEO Book)

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