Why Social Proof is critical to online success
“Social proof” is an important aspect of personal power and influence in both the offline and the online worlds. In the absence of enough information to make our own decision based on facts, we turn to signals from others to help us find a way forward. We go with the crowd.
Here’s a simple example — Let’s say you are at the site of a terrible car wreck and two people are shouting orders. One is wearing a doctor’s lab coat and one is wearing a pizza delivery uniform. Everybody else is following the doctor’s orders. Which direction are you likely to follow?
A social proof “badge” can bestow authority upon a person whether it is deserved or not. Somebody who wears a doctor’s lab coat, has an office decorated with diplomas, or drives an exotic car is communicating “power” — even if they are a fake. The pizza delivery person might actually be an emergency specialist and the doctor could be an actor on his way to the television studio, but in a pinch, we tend to make decisions based on social proof.
It’s a type of herd mentality, and it can be both dangerous and useful, depending on the situation.
Social proof is even more important in the online world
When I was doing research for the book Return On Influence, I discovered something disturbing. In the online world, this social proof is even more powerful and may trump actual accomplishment!
A “badge” like number of Twitter followers or a Klout score may be the ONLY mechanism we have to determine influence in the online world. We never quite know who is who. Most of us are suffering from information overload in this data-dense online world. We simply don’t have the energy to do any more digging and will gladly accept a “badge” as proof of authority.
Offline, we may have the chance to meet people, or ask a mutual friend to help us determine credibility. But this type of validation is often not possible online, so we seek a shortcut, and on the social web, there are plenty of them!
A shocking truth
It’s difficult to admit this, but I think the conclusion is inevitable — When establishing online influence, social proof matters … even more than real achievement. I’m sure more people know how many Twitter followers I have than any aspect of my career, education, or charitable work. Sad, maybe even disappointing, but true. We see this playing out in many ways:
- 1. A global brand uses “cost per Facebook Like” as a key marketing metric. Their stated goal is to always have more “likes” than its primary competitor.
- 2. A prominent U.S. politician was caught buying lists of Twitter followers, meaningless accounts that only trumped up his social media credibility that is so important to young voters.
- 3. A well-known conference speaker admitted to me that he had built an entire career out of a false online presence. He bought his Twitter and Facebook fans and followers and trumped up the existence of a book he never wrote. People hired him consistently based on a manufactured online reputation, never thinking to check the facts.
Intellectually we may resist the idea of being judged and rated based on a number but as business professionals and marketers, we should acknowledge that our customers, partners, and employees are making decisions every day based on these numeric markers of social influence.