Using Honest Social Proof to Go Viral

Among my many pet peeves, marketers who make clumsy appeals to science are close to the top. You may, at some point, have read a blog post from a marketer who talks about “social proof” like it’s some kind of Jedi mind trick marketing gurus pull on their customers.

Not only does the “psychology of manipulating people to buy stuff” irk me on a moral level, but it can lead to some really poor marketing decisions. Using psychology as a tool to manipulate people misses the true marketing value of psychology: understanding people and what they want.

The following are commonly cited examples of social proof:

  • User-generated reviews for products and local businesses
  • Celebrity endorsements from famous actors, musicians, or other public figures
  • Endorsements from doctors, scientists, or industry experts
  • High counts for tweets, likes, shares, +1s, and comments.
  • Word of mouth recommendations

It is true that these are (or at least can be) types of social proof. All of these types of social proof can increase sales or engagement. Now the question is, “what are you going to do with that information?” If you view your customers as pawns, you’re probably going to:

  • Buy user reviews or have your friends post reviews
  • Pay a celebrity for an endorsement
  • Find an expert willing to take payment for an endorsement
  • Artificially inflate social metrics

This is not marketing; this is fly-by-night sales.

The Psychology of Viral Marketing

Rather than trying to trick people into buying products, we have much to gain by using psychology as a tool to understand our customers and what they want. If done correctly, this should lead to a brand and method of marketing that makes customers happier and businesses better.

Social proof has its limitations: it only works reliably in situations where we have limited direct knowledge. Social cues work, but not because people are stupid sheep. Instead, we (quite reasonably) look to others for help when things are ambiguous.

Getting User Reviews

Positive reviews on a site like Amazon will increase your sales – sometimes drastically. On the internet, the quality of the product is almost always ambiguous until we actually buy. High-traffics like Amazon and Yelp boom based on the ambiguity.

It's nearly impossible to fake a stream of valid, honest reviews long term.

If your product or restaurant actually sucks, every sale creates a probable negative review for each sale. Selling a lot of a bad thing may be the best way to create your very own army of angry customers and anti-brand evangelists.

Instead, you could be incorporating user reviews to make a better product or service. It should stand to reason that selling is much easier when you’re not working against your buyers. If you satisfy your users, you can jumpstart the positive review cycle in several ways:


  • Do a product giveaway and ask for reviews.
  • For verified reviews, try using gift cards intended for your product.
  • Include a flyer or reminder at the point of receipt.
  • Follow up by email asking for a review.


  • Run local discounts, coupons, etc.
  • Host active local reviewers at a special event.
  • Include a reminder to review at the point of purchase.
  • Gather names and emails through a loyalty program.

Getting Expert Reviews

Depending on the field you’re in, expert reviews can be extremely helpful in helping users deal with ambiguity. A comment from Wolfgang Puck means a lot to a restaurant, and endorsements from well-known marketing figures helps lend credibility to an Moz's SEO tools (you have to be logged out).

You can pay for expert endorsements –but it’s not going to be cheap. And no expert deserving of their expert status is going to endorse your product if they think it could hurt their reputation or standing. Paid expert reviews can also blow up in your face if it seems manipulative.

The best kind of expert endorsement is one that comes free of charge from someone who honestly believes in you or your business.

  • Have an awesome product or service.
  • Identify key experts and connect with them tactfully. Klout and FollowerWonk can provide a starting place online.
  • Give your very best away for free, delivered with all the fanfare you can manage.
  • Once you do obtain expert commentary, display their endorsement prominently.
  • Use past expert endorsements to encourage additional experts to look into what you’re doing. Yes, even experts respond to social proof, sometimes better than the average consumer.

Book publishers are the masters of the process above. They identify experts who might like the book, deliver early version of the book (sometimes by hand with elegant trappings), and then ask for endorsements. Those quotes go straight onto the back of the book or into a prominent e-location. Publishers then appeal to the top expert reviews when seeking reviews on publications.

Celebrity Endorsements

Because many celebrities are experts and many experts are celebrities, most of what I’ve said above applies. But how do you get an endorsement from someone who is not an expert, but is a celebrity? For most companies, “you shouldn’t and you don’t.”

Rihanna Vita CocoThe fact is that you’re going to pay handsomely for celebrity endorsements, and the financial risk for small to medium sized businesses doesn’t make sense. It works: there’s a reason you saw Rihanna selling coconut water, and Vita Coco knew what they were doing. In the rare instances that you have a celebrity your target audience likes, a large ad budget, and an enormous market, go for it. Just don’t look to me when you can’t afford enough ads that reach your audience.

Social Proof in Social Media

Let’s not over-simplify the complexities of human nature and society by saying that lots of tweets lead people to think the article is awesome or worth sharing. It’s not that simple – we are not that simple.

The desire to be popular is often a far stronger driver of tweets and shares than social proof. Largely in a desire to be or appear popular, we try to attach ourselves to others who are well-connected. Connectors are often (and often erroneously) viewed as social king-makers on social networks.

To increase the number of tweets, shares, and other social signals:

  • Write about/to well-known people and companies.
  • Turn counts off at least until you have a few on each piece of content.
  • Be interesting and passionate. If you have the facts to back it up, be controversial.
  • Stay active on your social accounts. Reply to people and share more than your own work.
  • Follow the many, many other guidelines for social success. We have a whole category on social media, as do dozens of other blogs.
Flaunt it if you've got it.

Comments are a slightly different beast. When we take the time to write a comment or talk, it’s generally because we want to be heard. The first few comments are key, as no one wants to talk into an empty social space. By the same token, comments decline as noise increases - it’s like trying to talk to the group in a noisy bar. On increasing comments, I recommend reading Jacob Klein’s recent post on getting more comments.

Your Customers Aren’t Stupid

You can (and should) create viral pieces of content, but to be a viral company you need to help customers understand your value, and then prove it as honestly as possibly by showing the endorsement of experts and users.

It has been said and written that social proof has replaced SEO or even online marketing as a whole. This is like claiming that the spork will replace all utensils. It’s not true or even possible. Any claim that social proof has or even could replace marketing fails to consider what “marketing” really means.

Of course there is value for the marketer in understanding psychology as a whole and the concept of social proof specifically. But psychology doesn’t apply because the average customer is not stupid – the average customer is of average intelligence. Treating customers as blind followers leads us to create companies that are blind to their wants and needs.

Attempting to use concepts in psychology to manipulate people doesn’t just make us look really silly (you are not a Jedi), but it makes us overlook the real value that we should be adding instead. Try to create honest social proof, and you’ll find yourself understanding customers better and building a better business.

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