Imagine that you stumble upon two restaurants at the perfect time: lunchtime.
The first restaurant has three people waiting in line. They look related. There’s no menu outside, and you can’t tell if Lampade is Italian or Greek, so you’re not sure what food they have.
The second restaurant has 45 people waiting in line. There’s a valet to take your car and a lunch menu podium. On the wall is a signed portrait of Rod Stewart, who wrote, “The first cut is the deepest. The steak was excellent!”
Which restaurant do you want to eat at? You probably want the restaurant that 45 people and a famous singer will vouch for – that’s where the quality’s at!
In marketing, social proof is evidence that other users or consumers have found value in the content, product, or service you offer. Social proof can take many forms, such as reviews, testimonials, comments, case studies, click counts, share counts, total subscriptions, and more.
With the emergence of social media and online sharing, social proof became the bedrock for a strong online marketing foundation. Businesses no longer have to find, transcribe, and print their customers’ satisfactions – customers will flock to public spaces to make themselves heard. Sometimes, the internet feels like it mainly exists for people to give their opinions about everything under the sun.
While we might not call social proof an industry on its own, it’s been an important component of online marketing for many years – but it’s gradually being diminished by the social media platforms that made it essential in the first place.
As the two lines show, social proof cuts both ways, and it can be just as effective at destroying consumer interest as it is at creating it.
Here are four reasons why social media is killing the value of social proof.
Social Media Giants No Longer Care
Like it or not, social media giants dictate the terms of engagement within their ecosystems.
In recent years, Twitter, Facebook, and more have minimized the transparency of social proof by gradually eliminating or minimizing share counts from their platforms, making it more difficult for people and businesses to evaluate feedback online.
Share counts used to be a powerful tool for building credibility, as they provided a visible metric for gauging the popularity of a post. Now, however, Facebook has removed its share count completely, making it impossible to directly measure the popularity of shared content. Google+ was among the first to dismiss share counts back in 2017.
The reason for these removals may surprise you. In the early 2010s, an entire market was built around the gamification of social shares. Social media analytics companies (such as the now-defunct Klout) would harvest data around social share counts and popularity. The data from these companies combined with “bot armies” created a market for users to buy “genuine” social share counts.
Social media popularity began to devolve into a “purchased popularity” contest, where people would spend enormous sums of money to artificially boost their content! And let’s not forget to mention share gamification. Do you remember Empire Avenue? The platform was literally a game that encouraged others to share content for high scores to be featured on the coveted influencer leaderboards.
These markets became one of the cited reasons that some platforms used to shut down their share counters, and with their disappearance, companies like Klout and Empire Avenue vanished as well.
Will social proof one day be eliminated from native platform functions? We don’t know, which is why users will increasingly have to rely on third-party solutions to share the content and metrics they want.
If you’d like to learn more about how to improve your positive social proof, check out our blog post on 10 Ways to Improve Social Media Engagement on Any Platform.
Click Farms and Bots Make Everything Feel Unreal
Fake accounts have made it easy for people to artificially inflate their social proof, especially when it comes to number counters for shares, likes, and replies. Bot armies can crowd out the potential for meaningful engagement by forcing individuals to sift through artificial filler and nonsensical comments.
These fake accounts can even pretend to engage with content, giving the illusion of larger followings and increased interactions. While that might sound enticing to organizations that rely on public engagement, these manufactured interactions have made people more skeptical of the social proof they see on social media.
In fact, the general public is more aware of bot problems now than ever before. As a result, they are growing more judgmental about the quality of humanization in their online interactions (or lack thereof). You can’t automate relationships, and you can’t fool people by trying.
We’ve written before about how the best social media accounts strike a balance between automation and being a real, conversational person. It’s increasingly important to demonstrate the authenticity of engagement to your audience, and it’s a task we often discuss behind the scenes at Warfare Plugins. Cutting through the white noise requires a delicate human touch, and we’ve tried to make Social Warfare the best media management tool for putting your fingerprint on the way you share your content.
Whether you’re a representative for an industrious business entity or a lone wolf blogger paving your own path, the authenticity of interactions is the key component to fostering organic engagement and growth.
The Risk of Negative Social Proof and Review-Bombing Is Everywhere
While social proof can be a powerful ally, it can also become a formidable enemy. Negative Social Proof occurs whenever poor feedback or hostile engagement deters people away from your content.
The phrase “any publicity is good publicity” is a bit of a lie. Take testimonials as an example. These can be great social proof, saying, “See? People like us!” But having only one or two testimonials can actually harm your credibility. Why? Critical viewers may not ponder whether the testimonials are true but ask themselves why a company only has one or two they were proud enough to show. In other words, too few testimonials can backfire and make it seem like someone is highlighting only positive experiences and deliberately hiding negative ones.
Engagement can be negative social proof as well. Fifty-seven likes on a status with 200 followers are impressive. But in the context of 10,000 subscribers? Suddenly, not so fantastic. Rather than improving your brand’s image, these low engagement ratios can deplete your credibility. “I guess no one found this blog useful enough to share. Next, please.”
Unfortunately, negative social proof is increasingly easy to come by, as anyone who looked up reviews for the 2019 live-action adaption of Cats can remember. People get review-bombed too; ask any of the thousands of famous-for-a-day users who suddenly became the main character of Twitter.
(If you happen not to use Twitter, we’ll just say that becoming the main focus of hundreds of thousands of users on an entire social media platform is rarely a positive experience).
No one can know what the internet’s collective attention will seize – or why. Negative social proof can become like a snowball rolling down a steep bank, quickly gaining size and traction. In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, British journalist Jon Ronson suggested that social media engagement may be “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”
But brands don’t thrive on blandness – great brands thrive on positive engagement, creativity, and dependability.
With so many keen-eyed skeptics trawling the internet, it’s important to have tight control over the content you post and the way you post it. Our Social Warfare plugin was designed to allow website owners to manage their content across social platforms, including when and how other people share their content to include hashtags, headlines, images, SM descriptions, and so much more.
Short-Form Content Is Replacing The Value of Social Counts
When social sharing, content creators usually provide a “snapshot” of their content to entice viewers. Articles on Facebook get blurbs and an image. Tweets have 280 characters and some hashtags. Reddit headlines only make “the front page of the internet” when the title attracts people in a single sentence.
You get one chance to preview your content to audiences and say, “This is worth clicking through to read the rest.” Since most social media platforms are built around short-form content sharing, you have to make that snippet you post as enticing and attractive as you can. It’s a tall task with a short character limit.
Previously, social share counts helped to bolster the value of content – both short-form (statuses, tweets) and long-form (blogs, articles). As social share counts diminish, content now remains key. Whereas viewer attention could previously be captured by social proof, it now must be captured by content.
Social proof in marketing was once about extensive letters, full-page ads, and case studies that would describe a product’s or service’s benefits. Today, social proof is all about instant affirmations, reviews in 5 stars, single-sentence testimonials, and share counts and subscription totals, all of which need to be immediately understandable.
Of course, social share counts aren’t gone everywhere, and they aren’t gone forever. There are workarounds for including social share counts with your content (click the button below at the bottom of this page to learn more).
With or without social proof, it’s important to remember that successful social sharing relies on a combination of form, function, and content. Having the tools to master all three will help you succeed even as your social environment changes.