Influence in direct marketing: social proof at work

Observational comedy sometimes gets a bad rap as people complaining about airline food and never ending string of “what is the deal with X?”.  For my money, however, someone like a George Carlin or Jerry Seinfeld get to greater truths about the absurd reasons and non-reasons why we do what we do.

So for social proof, I’ll turn it over to Jerry Seinfeld to start:



Why is McDonald’s still counting? How insecure is this company? Forty million eighty jillion killion tillion….is anyone really impressed anymore? Oh eighty-nine billion sold! All right I’ll have one. I’m satisfied.

Who cares? I would love to meet the chairman of the board of McDonalds and say, look, “We all get it, ok, you’ve sold a lot of hamburgers, whatever the hell the number is, just put up a sign, ‘McDonalds, we’re doing very well. ‘”

What is their ultimate goal to have cows just surrendering voluntarily or something? Showing up at the door. “We’d like to turn ourselves in, we see the sign, we realize we have very little chance out there. We’d like to be a Happy Meal if that’s at all possible.”

This sign is here as a signifier of social proof.  The implication here is not trying to get cows to surrender – it’s to get people to surrender.  Social proof is when people assume that everyone else knows what they are doing and, as a result, they should do likewise.

If you want a workable definition of irony, check out the Wikipedia page for “social proof.”  Here’s a screen shot:

social proof

See that banner at the top?

wikipedia header

There’s a key counterproductive sentence in here (although there are other problems with this): “Only a tiny portion of our readers give.”

What Wikipedia is signaling, on top of this article about how people tend to do what other people do, is most people don’t donate to us – you shouldn’t either.

There is a famous study cited by Cialdini and many many other (in fact, it’s part of Yes!, another great book on influence) with the Arizona Petrified Forest.  They found that a sign that has negative social proof significantly increases the likelihood that someone will do something bad. In this case the sign said:

“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, destroying the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”

In essence, this sign says out loud what your mom warned you about – everyone else is jumping off a bridge and you should too.

Yet Wikipedia is far from alone in using this tactic.  How many gap appeals have you seen that say, in essence, “not ask many people are donating as they had been; please give generously”?  These types of appeals are fraught with social proof peril.  Personally, I’ve only seen them be effective either when the gap is due to something outside of the nonprofit’s control (e.g., “you and people like you have been more generous this year than ever, but the loss of this government grant imperils…”) or when the gap is due to increased need (e.g., “Hurricane Oberhauser means that more people are homeless; can you help immediately?”).  To admit others aren’t supporting your nonprofit is counterproductive.

That said, social proof can be used for good.  People are more likely to support a nonprofit when the list of people supporting it before them is longer (see, for example, this study).  With major donor campaigns, it is common to have a quiet period where funds are raised to get to around 40% of the overall goal.  Donors during this period are told, correctly, that they will be helping with this effect.

But it works for small donors as well.  A challenge fund, in addition to creating scarcity/urgency, which we will talk more about, also communicates that other people are supporting this cause – you should too.  The thermometer on the side of walk pages works much better when there are people already supporting the cause.

Similarly, you may want to test “Join 324,224 members” instead of your “Become a member” button.  “Join” is in particularly a powerful word in this respect because it implies that you are becoming a part of something larger than yourself.

Pre-seeding campaigns works.  One nonprofit of my acquaintance starts recording donations for their year-end campaign in mid-November, but only puts the thermometer up in December, so that the social proof is in place when it is most likely to be helpful.

Another form of social proof is testimonials from your current donors.  A good donor story can be very effective in a newsletter.  One part of this that we’ll talk about more in the authority post is that it’s especially effective when it is a like person giving the testimonial – similar age, race, name, state, etc.  The message “people support this” is good; the message “people like me support this” is better.

Pictures also work well alongside testimonials.  A great study on what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” (whether something “feels” true, not necessarily whether it is true) found that having pictures alongside of a truth claim makes it feel more true.  Thus, if you can get the picture of the person making the testimonial, the testimonial will tend to ring more true.

Have you seen strong examples of social proof in action?  Please leave them in the comments – everyone else is.

Influence in direct marketing: social proof at work