Ask an SEO professional about 'social' and they will usually start explaining to you everything about social media, how to leverage Facebook, Twitter and why social signals such as Facebook 'likes' and Twitter retweets are quickly becoming a factor that Google and other major search engines account for when weighting the importance of a particular piece of content on the web. They are all correct, however they're offering a narrow view point that is typical of many SEO's. Being an SEO professional myself I too am guilty of always thinking about 'social' from a more technical point of view rather than how 'social' relates so closely to the psychology of our minds. If you mention 'social' to a marketing professional it's highly likely that they will begin talking to you about 'social proof' and how it can be leveraged to build consumer confidence in your brand and how it can work to improve conversion rates for your business.
What is Social Proof?
Wikipedia has defined social proof as 'a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.'
A problem that every new web business will face at the outset is in figuring out how to make their website seem authoritative. If you're selling something and your website doesn't portray your brand as authoritative in your industry then you have to try to directly engage with visitors on your website through a chat application. I'm not saying that is the only reason for using a chat application on your website because even some of the most established brands offer live chat to their website visitors for a variety of reasons. Often newer businesses will resort to using live chat to engage with visitors and use chat to close more sales. The marketers who know what they are doing will use many techniques to build authority. One they use often is social proof - exploiting the fact that people's purchasing decisions are driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation. Here are two examples of social proof used on the web:
1. CrazyEgg.com uses a section in the left column of their home page that highlights some of their more well known clients.
2. ClickTale.com showcases their A-list clients horizontally across the middle of their home page.
Other Types of Social Proof in the Digital World
So far we've talked only about endorsement from recognizable brands as social proof. On the web there are several types of social proof. Some types are easily gamed while others are tougher or very difficult to falsify. Social proof has to be used absolutely above board and legitimately if you want your market to take you seriously. There's fabricating social proof by presenting the true and accurate facts of your customer base in a compelling manner and then there's out right faking it by building a facade of false information around your brand by 'juicing' your numbers in some way or another.
Easily Faked Social Proof
A high number of followers in any single online platform
It is possible to automate an increase in the volume of followers on Twitter for example. There are tools available that do this to build a varying degree of low to high quality followers. As with any tool the quality declines the more you automate the process. On the other hand it is also possible to build a huge list of high quality and responsive Twitter followers in a relatively short period of time by spending more time on research, conversational engagement and less on automation.
'As Seen in' Citing Rockstar Media and Publications
We talked about this type of social proof earlier in this post. This is a pretty easy one to forge. Even so, major publications such as Forbes are allowing guest bloggers and article authors to provide content for the Forbes.com website which gives those authors a credible way to use this type of social proof on their own website.
Internet Influence Scores
Websites that offer a measurement of your personal or brand influence across the web are based on an inherently flawed premise. Usually they make some attempt to describe the benefit of their service using lots of marketing language to make it sound 'official' but their measurement scores are no more useful or accurate than those crazy sites that estimate the value of your website or those that try to assign an SEO grade to your website.
Carefully Scripted Telemarketing Calls
Ok this one is not on the medium of the web, but I had to mention it because just now as I'm writing this the telephone rang at my desk. When I answered it I was greeted by a telemarketer who's pitch was both misleading and made me laugh. First, she's calling to sell search engine marketing services to a search engine marketing company - my company. Gosh! Do these people ever do any homework before they call? Her telephone script was written in such a way as to make me think that she worked for Google. Of course I know better. But if I wasn't savvy her pitch might have given me the strong impression that she worked for Google when in fact she does not. That is using social proof in a largely deceptive way and people don't take kindly to that when they find out what's really going on.
Harder to Falsify Social Proof
Email and RSS Subscribers
It's a little more difficult to fake volume in RSS chicklet counters such as those provided by third party services like Feedburner.
On Topic, Relevant and Unassuming Blog Comments
Legitimate comments posted by real people who are writing intelligent content within their comments, those are more difficult to fake simply for the time it would take to create them. Comments can be turned into fantastic social proof for products, brands and even on places like LinkedIn where your reputation means everything.
QuantCast, Compete.com and Alexa.com
Not the most reliable metrics to begin with, but they can be used as a general barometer that gauges the success of a company on the web. It is possible to artificially influence the data provided by these services, so best to watch for long term traffic trends and ignore spikes.
Insanely Harder to Game Social Proof
Being a Speaker at Credible Industry Events
For a brand to be consistently speaking at major industry events would be difficult to fake. Too many of those event organizers and attendees would cry foul.
Lots of Media Citations
Gaining a handful of citations from major media outlets is not unusual for any business on the web. However a steady continuance of citations and quotes listing a brand as a trusted source across a variety of publications that reach outside of their own vertical would be an amazing achievement and extremely difficult to falsify without being called on it.
Curating a Popular Blog
Each time that we take on a new SEO client I usually will take the time to explain the value and benefit to having a blog on their website. In the few cases where I don't spend time explaining that to them it's because I've decided that they likely won't spend time updating their blog regularly, in which case it's pointless for them to have a blog. Anybody can throw together a blog nowadays and fill it with automatically scraped content from other websites, making it easy to fill a blog with hundreds, even thousands of low quality posts. Managing a blog and writing high quality, original and unique content for each post takes up a significant amount of time. So curating a high quality blog with lots of those types of posts is much harder to fake simply for the time it takes to produce that quality and quantity of content. When you produce that quality of content you will naturally develop a following of regular readers and your blog will become popular. Obviously that would be quite difficult to fake.
Two Ways Your Business Can Build Credibility And be Able to Legitimately Use Social Proof for Your Brand
Start Leveraging the Media and Press
Pick your press contacts carefully and stay within your niche when contacting the press. Trying to get the attention of mainstream media is going to be very difficult for a small new business. However the youth of your company will make it easier for your business to be covered in tech journals and start-up blogs. Some key events that start-up and tech press like to write about include:
- Company and/or product launches
- Funding acquisition
- High profile hires
- Features and version releases that set your business apart
Participate Inside of Existing Communities
Do some research and make a list of the places where your prospects hangout online and offline. Then make an effort to participate in active conversations within those places. Some of these places might include well-read blogs, discussion forums or groups and even conferences and other industry type events.
Have you experienced similar stress related to building legitimate social proof and credibility for your business online? Comment below and let me know how you overcame those challenges.