May 2, 2023

How to make the most of your hard-earned social proof

Why should I believe you?

Loudly or quietly, that’s the question running in the background at every act of decision-making. Why should I give you my money? Why should I sign up for your list? Why should I vote for your candidate? Anybody can make big claims – but why should I trust you?

The way you answer that is called social proof. Popularized by psychologist Robert Cialdini in his landmark book Influence, social proof is effectively this: we decide what to do based on what other people do. We are apt to follow the crowds to choose the most popular or the best-reviewed. Absent a reason to choose otherwise, we tend to do what “everybody else is doing.”

If everybody else is drinking a beer, we’re probably going to order a beer. If everybody else is parking nose out, we’re probably going to park nose out. If everybody else is reading the newest best-selling book, we’re probably going to pick one up at the airport. Everybody else can’t be wrong, right?

In marketing, social proof helps establish trust, build your case, and trump your competitors. But while it’s one of the most valuable assets any brand has, it’s also the one I see most frequently squandered. It drives me mad.

This proof can come in a lot of flavors. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Client or partner logos
  • Media mentions
  • Testimonials or reviews
  • Statistics and rankings
  • Awards and other honors
  • Credentials and certifications
  • Company size
  • History and company legacy
  • Celebrity endorsements

Earning these takes a lot of work! But if you want them to matter, you must use them correctly. Here’s how we do that.

Three different types of movies, three different types feelings conveyed by the on-poster quotes

Think movie poster, not Amazon review

The primary goal of verbal social proof, including testimonials, press clippings, reviews, and other forms of written praise, is to give the receiver a feeling, not an assessment. Of course, there’s a time and a place for more in-depth reviews and evaluations, but it’s not on your home page or in your pitch deck.

Movie posters are the best examples of how to do this effectively. Instead of pasting the full review on their banners, they pull out a key word or phrase that evokes the feeling they want to convey. “A joyride!” “An instant classic!” “Dazzling!” While sometimes these extracts go a little far (most New York Times articles don’t include that many exclamation marks), these are much more effective at selling the idea and emotion of the movie at a glance.

Don’t link, but don’t lie

If you’re building out your portfolio or pulling press mentions, it’s tempting to link those logos to the work you’ve done or the article you were in. Adding a link is a trivial technical task, and what’s better than pointing somebody to the full thing to see it for themselves?

There are two problems with linking. First, you are throwing users off your site and into the distracting abyss of the web. If you’re trying to make a sale or grab a lead, you just gave your prospect a neatly paved off-ramp from that journey.

Second, you don’t control what’s happening on the other end of that URL. Maybe you built a beautiful website for a client, but since you’ve handed off the keys, a new summer intern uploaded an ugly pixelated photo to the home page. Maybe you had a snappy interview on a morning news show, but now the network’s site is leading with an unflattering headline about some recent tabloid scandal. Do you really want to leave your reputation to chance?

Though you shouldn’t link, you most definitely shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to embellish the truth, either. For every brand of media logo you include in your materials, you need a credible story that backs up why you have it there.

Maybe every bite delicious

Have you ever had a great chocolate chip cookie? Remember how every gooey bite had both a little bit of melty chocolate and crumbly cookie?

That’s what we want when it comes to social proof. Every part of your user journey should have a little bit of this magic. Put logos and awards on your home page. Add a pull quote to your contact page. In your decks, showcase impressive statistics on your About slide, and call out big-time resume lines on your team slide.

If you sequester your proof away on a testimonials page or media archive, nobody will see it. If, instead, you use it to support your case at every step of the receiver’s journey, you’ll build an unimpeachable case for yourself.

Only show where you want to go

If you build out a media slider that shows CNNFast Company, and the Harvard Business Review – congrats! That’s an incredible list.

But if you show those three logos, then added Hometown TribuneBayside High Gazette, and, you made your case weaker, not stronger. So instead of being impressed by the big names, visitors will ask themselves, “Is this the kind of company that gets name-checked by Harvard Business Review, or the kind of company that gets profiled in the local high school alumni newsletter?”

The same goes for client or partner logos. If you have Nike, Google, and Disney, that’s a killer lineup. But if the next line down shows Sal’s Italian Subs, Main Street Barbers, and Jane’s Dog Walkers, the same question comes to mind. Do you work with giant brands, or do you work with local businesses?

Nothing is wrong with either the big names or the little guys. There are lots of excellent small businesses out there that need your help and lots of small media outlets that do stellar work. But if you include both wildly different ends of the market, you confuse everybody and weaken your case.

Social proof is definitionally backwards looking, but it's necessary for building your future. Awards, press mentions, reviews, and case studies are all things that already happened. Your task in using them is to build a line that shows your audience where you go next. Connect the dots in a way that make choosing you feel inevitable.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

Read Next

Got it. You're on the list. 🍻
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Ben Guttmann
Copyright Ben Guttmann
Privacy Policy