It happened seven years ago, but I’ve not forgotten the story.

“Famous violinist plays at public location on Stradivarius violin, barely anyone notices.”

Stradivarius violin

A Stradivarius Violin. You think people would notice who was playing it.

That wasn’t the exact headline, but it could have been.

The world-renowned violinist in question was Joshua Bell, and the location was the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington D.C. Bell stood, with his violin case open, and played some of the most difficult violin pieces without much reaction from anyone. As I read the 2007 article in The Washington Post about their experiment on whether people would react to Bell (whose concerts are far from free), I was frustrated. What is wrong with people? I thought. Why wouldn’t people stop and listen?

This isn’t the first time where people have not noticed when something important was happening right in front of them. Most recently, graffiti artist Banksy set up a booth in New York’s Central Park and sold paintings that would normally go for $31,000 for just $60. An unknown elderly man was in the booth to sell the paintings, and only three people ended up buying them.

How do people miss out on recognizing a great musician or high-priced art like this? It has to do with social proof, and context.

What Is Social Proof?

A few months ago, a reader had pointed out that there weren’t a lot of comments on our blog. “You need them for social proof!” he said. While I enjoy seeing comments on our blog posts, it hadn’t occurred to me there was a reason to want them beyond enjoying discussion. Was he right? Was a lack of comments a bigger problem?

In Robert Cialdini’s article “Six Principles Of Influence (PDF)”, which covers techniques and qualities that people can use to convince other people to act in a certain way, social proof is number three on the list. Social proof is, quite simply, where you and I replicate the actions of those around us in the current situation, because we assume that is the correct behavior.

1. Social Proof Is A Shortcut

If most people are doing something, we can rest assured that if we do the same we won’t:

  • Look stupid and stand out.
  • Commit an unforgivable faux pas.
  • Have to think if we should or shouldn’t; the rest of the group did that thinking for us.

Relying on social proof is easy in a day full of decisions to make. Are the rest of my co-workers staying late? Then I will. Did they leave early? Then I can, too.

Social proof is a shortcut in the thought process. We don’t have to think. The others already did (we assume).

2. Social Proof Is An Endorsement

If I see a restaurant with many diners in it, I assume it’s a pretty good place to eat. If there is no one inside, then surely there must be something wrong with the place. I assume that other people know something that I don’t know, and so I take their opinion on the restaurant–and how they vote with their feet–as the basis for my decision.

When many people take part in something, it tells me that I ought to, too. I don’t want to be left out (a huge fear for most people) and despite what my mother told me growing up (“just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean you have to!”), we are inclined to do what everyone else is doing.

Social proof tells us what we out to do, because other people are doing so with apparent success and enjoyment.

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3. Social Proof Tells Me Right And Wrong

Cialdini also talks about social proof in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and he suggests that “[o]ne means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct…We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it” (116).

Remember, one of the reasons people share content on social media is to ask for help in understanding how they should feel about it. We take cues on how to think about something by observing how others think about it. Social proof is similar; what others do tells me whether something is right or wrong.

Social proof lets us off the hook when it comes to what seems right and wrong. We go along with the crowd, who has decided that for us.

social proof morality

From the 1963 film “Lord of the Flies”. Criterion Collection.

Allowing social proof to determine right and wrong is not necessarily a good thing. Consider examples of crowds or businesses (or children, à la Lord of the Flies) going off the rails and down the path of terrible ethics and actions. At the conclusion, we wonder how they could have veered so far off the path when all along they were using social proof as their guideline for what was acceptable. When the group around you has lower standards for what is right and wrong, it won’t be long before you will, too.

4. Social Proof Works Best With Peers

It’s not necessarily any old crowd that can get us to do something. Sure, we’ll take a stranger’s word for it when it comes to online reviews or whether or not they’re eating at a restaurant, but even then we put much more weight on the word of our peers. If five people ate at a restaurant? Interesting. If five friends did? I’m sold. We listen to people on the same level as ourselves.

Influence is often best exerted horizontally rather than vertically. – Robert B. CialdiniClick To Tweet

According to Cialdini, “…science supports what most sales professionals already know: Testimonials from satisfied customers work best when the satisfied customer and the prospective customer share similar circumstances.”

We’ll follow along with the crowd best if it is our crowd.

The Herd Mentality Of Social Proof

buffalo jump

Painting of a buffalo jump by Alfred Jacob Miller, from Wikipedia.

Social proof, as a reality of how groups of people act, is a bit disturbing.

Near the farm where I grew up in northeast North Dakota, an elderly man collected rocks and other interesting finds he’d come across on his land. I went to interview him for the newspaper that I was working for at the time, and spent several hours looking and listening to a fascinating history as seen through the eyes of geology. The best rock he saved for last. It was huge, and was outside in his flowerbed. Its surface was rough, except for one side which was polished smooth and shone in the sun.

“I found this near the buffalo jump,” he said, gesturing to the rock as we stood in front of it. “There’s a small one nearby.”

“A buffalo jump?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“The Native Americans would drive a herd of buffalo over a cliff or into a ravine,” he explained. “The buffalo would tumble over the edge and be rendered immobile. They could then kill them easily. It was much more efficient.”

He described the buffalo jump he’d found on his property, a ravine littered with bones that would frequently surface at spring thaw or with even mildly ambitious prodding around. He pointed to the rock, with its strangely smooth side. “There were several of these rocks, lined up to the edge like the lines on the highway. These rocks helped them guide the buffalo to the correct area, and they were worn smooth from the animals rubbing against them.”

What does a buffalo jump have to do with social proof?

We are the same as the buffalo, in a sense. We make decisions based on assumptions from the social cues around us rather than thinking. I’m sure you believe you are above having a herd mentality, and that you make decisions based on careful thought, but the truth is that most of us don’t. More often than not we’re functioning on default, i.e. not consciously deciding. We are letting other factors tell us how to decide, rather than thinking things through.

The buffalo herd ran right off a cliff. Individually, they might not have, but as a large group in which all of the rest of the animals were doing it, they did, too. In other words, we follow crowds, and to the extremes.

Why didn’t people notice the violinist, or realize the art on the street was worth so much?

Because no one else did. The musician and the art weren’t in the proper context (concert hall, gallery). No one made the connection. Even those who did think something worthwhile was happening convinced themselves they were wrong because no one else was reacting. It’s the bizarre bystander effect, where the more people there are around, the less likely you’ll get help if you need it. Everyone can see there’s something happening, but no one takes action until someone takes action which is a catch 22.

How Do I Use Social Proof?

As a content marketer, you need to know how to use your content to get people to act in a particular way. You need to find a way to tap into something that prompts them to listen to you, and using social proof is a way to do that without extensive work and effort. If you can get a few, you can get many, many more. You don’t have to individually target all 100 people in a group. Just get 20, and the other 80 will follow.

According to writer Aileen Lee, there are five kinds of social proof:

  1. Expert: Approval from credible experts.
  2. Celebrity: Approval from people we admire.
  3. User: Approval from people like me, doing what I’m doing.
  4. Crowds: All of those people can’t be wrong!
  5. Friends: Approval from those I trust.

Each of these five types fits into the idea of how we listen to our peers.

1. Find The Right Spokesperson

If you are trying to convince a group of teenagers that they shouldn’t skateboard on your property’s concrete barriers, good luck. They probably won’t listen. You’d be better off finding another teenage skateboarder that they respect to do the convincing. We listen to those we perceive as being on our same “level.”

What is the audience you are trying to reach? Who is it made of?

For CoSchedule, our audience includes people who use WordPress blogs, are serious about content marketing, and make heavy use of social media (or people who want to be like that). Finding regular people who are doing exactly that are more convincing as a spokesperson than all the slickest PR we might possibly generate, or having Huge Gigantic Corporation say “I use CoSchedule.” It’s why we retweet comments on Twitter from users who are excited about CoSchedule, or why we share testimonials with photos and links. We’re showing our audience that others, just like you, use and love CoSchedule.

Find a spokesperson who has the same experiences and speaks the same language as your audience.

2. Capitalize On The Identity Your Audience Wants

I am certainly not close friends with celebrities, but I might identify with them or something they represent. There is no other reason for me to listen to a famous person who is otherwise wholly removed from my life, other than I am attributing a quality or identity to them that I want, also.

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Advertising’s historic technique has always been to tap into the secret things people wish were true about themselves, and convince them that buying something will make that happen. That sounds a little sleazy, but there is some truth to finding dissatisfaction in people and poking it with advertising.

One of the questions we ask our users, via an email, is what aspect of content marketing they are struggling with the most. They often tell us the difference between what they are doing and what they wish they were doing. That’s when we help show them how CoSchedule can take them to where they want to go, and how others got there, too.

Show how others achieved their goals, and how they can, too.

3. Create A Crowd

How can you create a crowd of people online to show that lots of people love your product or service?

Collections of logos, or quotes from users, creates a crowd. Seeing the logos or quotes from users of your service or product is very convincing. It tells the visitor to your site, who is casually considering your app, hey! Look! All of these people decided to use our app! You want to create the feel of a crowd as soon as you can. Many companies have, in their terms of service, the option to use your logo in display to tell others who uses the app.

Don’t be shy about letting others know who uses and enjoys your product or service. The more, the merrier.

Pull social media into comments. Another way to create a crowd, in regards to your blog comments (which was the incident that got me thinking about this in the first place) is to use a plugin that pulls in social media reaction to your blog post.

In recent years, I’ve bemoaned the fact that so much discussion about the blog posts I write aren’t happening in the comments section anymore. The comments section seems dead while there is plenty of discussion happening elsewhere, such as on Facebook, on Google+, on Twitter…but that social proof is lost as far as a blog reader is concerned. From all appearances on my blog, it looks like no one is talking about my content.

I’ve started using the Comments Evolved WordPress plugin on my own blogs because it allows for these social comments to be there with the blog. Another would be MailChimp’s Social plugin (I’ve also used), which does something similar, but also pulls in tweets about the post as comments. So many conversations happen on Twitter that are otherwise disconnected from your blog post. It’s a shame, really.

Bring all of the social conversation back to your blog post and show that lots of readers are talking.

Show how popular a post is. Use social sharing buttons that reveal how often a post is shared if you have a blog that gets a fair amount. This is the same as how restaurants add a simple “most popular item” phrase to their menu to increase sales: we figure if everyone else shared the post, we probably should, too. When I see a post has been shared a lot, I figure (especially if I didn’t fully read the post) that surely it must be a great post.

social share count

Adding a count to your social share buttons is a good way to “build a crowd.”

A tool like CoSchedule, which helps you regularly share your content more than once on your social networks, can actually help in this regard. Though you’re not doing it to build false numbers, the result is your post is appears to be well-shared. You’re building social proof in the numbers. Remember how we said that no one takes action until someone takes action? Get the ball rolling on your own, and share your own posts a few times to get some numbers on the board.

Make use of embeds. Embedding a tweet, Facebook post, or a Google+ public post, is a way to bring some of that social action into the post itself and create a back-and-forth connection between your content and the places you share it. While it isn’t the same as having the comments in the comments section, it does show things like how many favorited, +1’d, or liked your content.

4. Prove Your Expertise

Whether you use your “about” page to list your achievements, or go with handy links to packaged blog posts, show that you are an expert.

There’s a lot of cheap talk about being an expert these days. If you actually are an expert with specific skills, experience, and knowledge, make it clearly known. If there was ever a time where you shouldn’t hold back or keep knowledge from your readers and potential customers, this is it. Your experience is built on working with lots of clients and people; be sure to let others know!

When I was actively selling my art online, I realized that I needed to leave the sold pieces in the online gallery, but clearly mark them as “sold.” This created a sense of urgency (she might sell out!) but also proof that lots of people were buying. Removing the images made my gallery look as if I’d never sold a thing. People want to do business with someone who has experience, not the new guy who is untested.

Prove that you’re an expert by showing how much experience you’ve gotten.

While there are aspects of social proof that I find disturbing in personal life, the power of crowd-think makes it an important consideration for your content marketing efforts. It is also a bit of a relief, in terms of how much effort you have to put into getting your audience’s attention: if you can convince a decent few, the many will follow.

What are you doing in your content and on your site to let your visitor know that lots of people have chosen your product or your service?