I take a shuttle to work. It comes to the front of my apartment building every morning at 7:35. So, every morning I call for the elevator at 7:25, and usually arrive at a bench where I sit and wait for the shuttle at around 7:30. Again, every morning.
There is a young English guy, Stephan who reports for Bloomberg, that always gets to the bench before I do. I quite enjoy his company, and look forward to seeing and chatting with him everyday.
Then this morning happened. I walked out of my building to cross the street and wait on the bench, only no Stephan. I didn’t expect it, but my whole world unraveled quite quickly. Was there no shuttle today? Did it come early? Did they change the schedule, which they occasionally do? Is my phone’s time wrong? Is it a holiday?
My mind raced through a million different reasons why I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you that I’m actually writing this post while on the shuttle. It came just as it does every morning at 7:35, the only difference was this time I didn’t have social proof.
After so many mornings, as soon as my fellow commuter was gone, I suddenly started questioning myself. This same phenomenon happens all day with the tools we use online. If we feel like we’re the only one there, then we will not trust that it’s somewhere we want to be. If the new visitor hasn’t been there before, they’ll question it. If they have been there before, just like me sitting on the bench wondering why the shuttle wasn’t coming, they will find ways to doubt it.
What every product needs is a Stephan. A familiar, cheerful face that reminds them that they have come to the right place at the right time. Social proof for online tools, be they on your smartphone or the web or even in the enterprise, often need a lot of testing and creativity, but I’ll offer some rough ideas here in this post.
Everyone Is Doing It
Yes, that infamous peer pressure line from junior high is back. Peer pressure is really what “grown ups” call social proof for bad things, but if companies can scale peer pressure for their products, they’ll win. That’s all social proof really is.
We humans love things that we think everyone is doing. We like to fit in. Think Germany in 1938. Think teen smoking. Think Instagram. Be creative on spreading the word, but using the press to discuss really vague usage stats is a common place to start. People love reading things like “millions have already tried.” Never mind the fact that that means almost nothing, it’s a way of saying “there’s a party here, and you’re late.” People need to know that they are in danger of being left out of something everyone is using, and the media is square one.
Another place to offer this “everyone is doing it” mentality, is through showing potential users that cool people are already deeply involved. You’ve seen this before a million times. Celebrity endorsements, sexy hipster YouTube/Vimeo videos of people from Banana Republic catalogs. This shows that everyone is doing it: people you know or can relate to solving their problems.
I’ve been seeing more and more “Tweet to download” white papers and digital assets. The concept is that if you tweet about something through a little interface they have available, they’ll give you something “for free.” This was a clever development to me, and emphasizes the “everyone is doing it” philosophy, both for those tweeting out the link, and those reading the tweets.
Works Both Ways: Negative Social Proof
One of the most powerful sentences offering social proof I ever read is the following: be the first of your friends to Like this. You’ve read that before. You’ve probably read it today. It is the sentence following most Facebook Like buttons when no one you know has Liked something. It’s a failure. I don’t know why Facebook has it as an option and I don’t know why companies choose to display it.
It is saying to every would be customer or user “there is no party here”. It’s the opposite of “everyone is doing it”. It is saying “we’re the one who eats his lunch alone and has B.O.” One of the best ways to offer social proof FOR your product is simply by removing social proof AGAINST your product, and a great place to start is by removing all “be the first of your friends” lines from your tool. If your product is young in age or social experience, simply display a raw Like-count for now. Only companies with wide distribution and adoption should be tapping in to the names of friends next to the button.
If you’re in commerce, show some products with low quantities or even out of stock. Not so much it displays a problem, but enough so that people get the idea that so many people are buying that you can’t keep everything in stock. It isn’t showing people buying things, but it implies it. It is removing negative social proof.
There are a million ways of adding a Stephan to products, many of them will need to be unique to each individual tool, but they are crucial for initial and longterm loyalty. If Stephan isn’t there, they’ll doubt the whole thing even if they’ve been taking the shuttle every morning forever.