There has been a lot of buzz about the importance of social proof in the success or failure of business today. As defined by Graham Charlton at EConsultancy, a community of digital marketing and eCommerce professionals:

“Social Proof is the phenomena where people tend to believe that the decision and actions of others reflect the correct behaviour in a given situation.”

As it applies to business, social proof is the consumer’s validation or condemnation of your products or brand, created through social sharing, commenting and other digital engagement.

The rapid pivot between trust and disgust in the social proof equilibrium creates significant challenges for today’s businesses because word-of-mouth marketing, customer reviews and other social media engagement are so immediately and widely disseminated. The speed and viral network of positive and negative social proof makes it necessary for companies to constantly monitor and engage with customers on social media, provide social customer service and implement new social proof techniques. To assist in these regards “specialists” and supporting technology have been launched related to customer review, online reputation and social media management. Among the social review management companies are: GetFiveStars, CustomerLobby, Local ViewPoints and ReviewTrackers; online reputation management companies: Brand.com, Reputation911, Reputation.com, ReputationMarketingArmy, and social media monitoring tools and services like HootSuite and Trackur.

Some companies, like Charter Communications, have gone backwards in their efforts to manage social proof as evidenced by the elimination of their social media customer service team according to the Consumerist. I had the pleasure of reporting on the good work that this team had been doing in an earlier article at the Web Chef’s Café, only to now experience its demise when I was seeking some assistance with remotely accessing my Charter Communications email. Given the direction that social business is going, this decision to force customer service and consumer interaction primarily through “older” channels like phone or in person, seems to be a poor business decision, albeit an effective short term financial decision.

Social proof is generated by social following, likes and sharing of content through channels like Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and other social media sites. As such, it is important that your social media and content strategy incorporates not only social icon links for individuals to follow your social sites, but also the social sharing tools (Pin It, Like, Tweet, Share, G+, etc.) to allow and encourage easy sharing of content to social media sites. The metrics related to sharing (# Pins, # Likes, # Tweets, Shares, etc) should be revealed as part of the social validation on your site.

Social proof is also being generated by product and service reviews at review sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, UrbanSpoon, OpenTable, BazaarVoice and Angie’s List. Monitoring these review sites is increasingly important to your company not only to stay apprised of consumer feedback and competitor’s positioning, but to directly respond to customer sentiment both positive and negative. In deciding how, when and to whom to respond, evaluate the veracity and content of the review, the social currency of the reviewer and whether it is an existing customer or not – after all there are an awful lot of comment trolls out there.

One thing to avoid as part of your social proof marketing is the use of paid third parties to create positive reviews about your products, or negative reviews of competitors. Research done at the Harvard Business School estimates that 25% of Yelp reviews are fraudulent, often created to shine a favorable light on the business. Among the companies that have been hit with allegations of fake reviews are Samsung, which was recently accused of posting anonymous positive reviews about their products and negative reviews about competitor’s products according to Marketing Pilgrim.

Social proof is also being generated at many commerce and content sites through the reviews and comments enabled on those sites. If you allow outside reviews and comments on your site, it is important that you moderate this user-generated content to ensure it is accurate, non-prejudicial and useful to site visitors.

Data on social reviews provided by PeopleClaim, suggests that 75% of reviews are positive, that reviews are 2nd only to search as a web site feature and that 82% of consumers find them valuable or extremely valuable.

Business actions and market reactions are also generating positive and negative social proof as can be seen by the recent social media blow-up over Barilla Pasta’s CEO’s Guido Barilla comments during an Italian radio show interview where he said:

“I would never do an advert with a homosexual family.”
“If they like our pasta and our message they will eat it; if they don’t like it then they will not eat it, and they will eat another brand.”

The CEO’s comments led to a barrage of consumer boycott demands, creative social media protests (see below) and competitive social media responses from other pasta purveyors including from Bertolli and Buitoni.

The uproar quickly led Guido Barilla to apologize and more recently to establish a diversity initiative that includes creating a Diversity and Inclusion Board, the appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer and a decision to participate in the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) Corporate Equality Index according to Buzzfeed. His initial apology can be seen below:

Some other ideas worth considering for your social proof marketing include:

  1. 3rd Party certifications by organizations like BizRate or Better Business Bureau
  2. Letting visitors know how many others have purchased or viewed a product or service, much like eBay does in letting bidders know how many others have a particular product on their watch list
  3. Providing Google maps showing the locations of comments, purchasers or other social metrics
  4. Encouraging votes for the best design or product like Threadless or Modcloth.

Beyond figuring out social proof techniques, it is important to recognize and work with diverse sources of social proof. As noted by Aileen Lee in a TechCrunch article “Social Proof is the New Marketing”, these sources include:

  1. Expert social proof – testimonials, reviews from subject matter experts, whitepapers, webinars, case studies
  2. Celebrity social proof – testimonials, reviews, other paid and unpaid media using celebrities to validate social proof of the product, service, idea
  3. User social proof – testimonials, customer reviews, community bulletin board interaction from actual users
  4. Wisdom of the crowd social proof – validation through numbers of followers, subscribers or other metrics
  5. Wisdom of your friends social proof – validation through the sharing of content with friends

The key to social proof marketing is to encourage, monitor and track social interactions with the goal of engaging with your customers over time through enhanced insights and loyalty.

For more tips and techniques for social media marketing, follow my Pinterest Boards, Twitter Account or Join me on Google+.

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