Too much of a good thing? The weird truth about social proof.

Too much of a good thing? The weird truth about social proof.

By Mark Schaefer

I put a tremendous amount of work into my latest book The Content Code. It’s my best book, arguably my best life’s work, so I am very proud of the fact that it has won some awards and impacted a lot of people. It also has nearly 100 five-star reviews on Amazon.

One reviewer recently wrote … “I didn’t trust the fact that this book had all those five-star reviews. But I bought the book and was pleasantly surprised that yes, it is a five-star book.”

Isn’t that weird? The book had great reviews and he didn’t believe it? In fact, arguably the five-star reviews hurt my credibility.

That, my friends, is the bizarre world of “social proof.” Sometimes too much of a good thing is, well … a bad thing!

The magic of social proof

In our busy world, we constantly look for clues that can help us determine the truth in uncertain situations. Here are some examples:

  • I was in a new town and judged the popularity of a restaurant by the number of cars parked outside.
  • Two people were shouting directions in an emergency. I made a judgment that a man had more authority because he was wearing a doctor’s lab coat.
  • I visited a client and tried to learn a little about her personality by the items she had displayed on her desk and on her office walls.

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people reference the behavior of others to guide their own behavior. We have a natural desire to behave “correctly” — whether making a purchase, deciding where to dine, or deciding whether a person is credible.

The fact is, symbols of social proof are even more important on the web than in the “real world.” In this information-dense world, we’re starved for clues on what to read, who to follow, and who to believe. We may very well make a decision on the best content entirely based on the number of tweets it has received!

There seems to be no question that social proof will continue to be critically important to the consumer experience and ultimately our commercial success. But it’s not always so simple …

The enigma of positive reviews

But as I illustrated in my book review example, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. According to recent data from Northwestern University’s Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center, too many five-star reviews for a product or service can actually steer people away from your product.

Part of this enigma is due to the fact that we’re taught that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Another reason is also entirely logical — we know that there are services out there that allow you to buy positive reviews, followers or anything else to boost visibility. Too many five-star reviews is a signal that something is amiss. (And just to be clear, I have never purchased reviews!)

Ultimately, reviews are essential to many businesses. Research done by The New York Times showed that people believe content shared on the web — even from a stranger — before they will believe your advertising.

Social proof can come in many forms — ratings, reviews, testimonies, badges, referrals, and associations with influential people, to name a few. It is becoming an increasingly important part of marketing strategy and the thinking behind user interface.

So while it may feel counter-intuitive to some, it’s actually beneficial to get a few negative reviews.  According to the Northwestern University data, products with reviews between 4.2 and 4.5 stars get the most purchases. Sure, those negative reviews can bruise the ego, but the truth about social proof is that they’re nothing to lose sleep over—and can actually help your sales.

 

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Jurgen Appelo 

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