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Social Proof: A Powerful Thesis Explaining Why Social Media Works and How To Leverage It

December 1, 2011

As individuals, we are highly influenced by our friends, family and trusted professional acquaintances.  But oftentimes we are influenced by total strangers if we believe it’s part of a trend we may be missing out on.

I was recently reacquainted with a ‘pshych 101’ concept I had long since forgotten called social proof, which goes a long way in explaining this influence and the way social media has magnified it’s potential to be leveraged by New Market Entrepreurs.  First, let’s take a quick look at social proof courtesy of Wikipedia:

The effects of social influence can be seen in the tendency of large groups to conform to choices which may be either correct or mistaken, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as herd behavior. Although social proof reflects a rational motive to take into account the information possessed by others, formal analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice, so that decisions of even large groups of individuals may be grounded in very little information (see information cascades).

Social proof is a type of conformity. When a person is in a situation where they are unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others for cues concerning the correct behavior. When “we conform because we believe that other’s interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action,”[1] it is informational social influence. This is contrasted with normative social influence wherein a person conforms to be liked or accepted by others.

Social proof often leads not just to public compliance (conforming to the behavior of others publicly without necessarily believing it is correct) but private acceptance (conforming out of a genuine belief that others are correct).[2] Social proof is more powerful when being accurate is more important and when others are perceived as especially knowledgeable.   -read more

So how does social media magnify this behavioral phenomenon?  To address this question I call upon the help of Aileen Lee, Partner at venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who recently penned a this post on the topic.  Please give it a look.  It’s a highly worthwhile read.   Aileen cites 5 ways New Market Entrepreneurs can both engineer their product (especially if it’s a web-based offering) and/or leverage social proof via social media marketing.

If you’re a digital startup, building and highlighting your social proof is the best way for new users to learn about you.  And engineering your product to generate social proof, and to be shared through social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, YouTube, Pinterest and others, can multiply the discovery of your product and its influence.  Think of it as building the foundation for massively scalable word-of-mouth.  Here’s a “teardown” on various forms of social proof, and how some savvy digital companies are starting to measure its impact.

1) Expert social proof – Approval from a credible expert, like a magazine or blogger, can have incredible digital influence.   -click for examples

2) Celebrity social proof – Up to 25% of U.S. TV commercials have used celebrities to great effect, but only a handful of web startups have to date.  -click for examples

3) User social proof  – Direct TV marketers are masters at sharing user success stories. (fascination with this was actually the inspiration for this blog post). -click for examples

4) Wisdom of the crowds social proof – Ray Kroc started using social proof in 1955 by hanging an “Over 1 Million Served” sign at the first McDonald’s.  Highlighting popularity or large numbers of users implies “a million people can’t be wrong.”  -click for examples

5) Wisdom of your friends social proof – Learning from friends thru the social web is likely the killer app of social proof in terms of 1:1 impact, and the potential to grow virally.  -click for examples

The key takeaway for New Market Entrepreneurs (especially digital ones) is to be constantly thinking about and acting upon two dominant goals:  1) making your product offering delightful and highly remarkable… so life-changing cool that people just naturally want to talk about it, and 2) wiring into the user experience ways that your users can share this enthusiasm via social media.   As Aileen notes in a postscript, a close cousin to social proof is “the fear of missing out”.  The more you understand these very real human psychological phenomena and how they can be leveraged in the DNA of your product offering and launch plan, the more successful you will be in spreading the word organicaly (translation- saving your precious capital for more important things than banner ads!).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill permalink
    December 1, 2011 9:42 am

    Great artictle Mike – social media can be leveraged for sharing “customer success stories”. There is a place for case studies and press, but leveraging social media in an effective way to help a young company move the herd.

  2. December 29, 2011 5:11 pm

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.


  1. Example of a Picture-perfect, Social-based Launch « LaunchPad's Ready-Aim-Fire

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