Why Social Proof is Your Blog’s Silent Champion
Do you ever get an invite from someone on Facebook and have no idea who they are? What do you do? You look at the their profile to see if they’re real. You look to see if you have mutual friends or if they have a business that you might have interacted with. If you see that they have very few friends (none of which are mutual) and they have a very thin profile, you think they’re some spam profile and you ignore their invite.
When someone sees your blog for the very first time, they’re going to try to figure out whether or not they should trust you. It’s more than about making a good first impression. If you don’t make a good impression within a few seconds, that visitor will be gone and unlikely to ever come back. Showing that you are a credible and trustworthy site is absolutely crucial.
What they’re looking for are trust signals.
And one of the clearest signals of trust is social proof. Social proof is a simple concept, it’s when you use the reactions of others to help you know how you should respond. If someone says a joke and everyone else laughs, you laugh too – even if you didn’t hear the whole thing.
Whether you realize it or not, you do the exact same thing when you visit a blog for the first time. A fellow blogger emails you because they want to write a guest post for you, but you aren’t sure if this person is legitimate or just another linkbuilder looking to publish an article they bought for $3. So you go to their site, you look for signals that a legitimate blog would have – among other things, such as design and age, you will look for social proof. You look for comments, the commenters, subscriber counts, or even traffic figures if they’re published.
What Is Social Proof?
By the strict definition, social proof refers to when people look to others’ reactions to determine how they should react (think laugh tracks on a 90’s sitcom). When we talk about social proof with respect to websites, we’re using the term more like a little mixture of the halo effect and social proof. Visitors are looking for signals that support the idea that a site is believable, legitimate, and worth following.
They do this in a variety of ways. They look at the design of the site and try to determine if it looks like the site is being cared for. A simple design is fine, a free theme is fine, but if it’s too sparse or has broken images – those are bad signals.
With social proof, you’re trying to prove that you have a community. This isn’t a content farm type of site where your articles are meant to suck in search visitors and spit out advertising clicks. Unlike a chat room that will show you all of the people in the room, blogs only have a handful of metrics to show popularity – subscribers and comment counts. A high number in the Feedburner chiclet or a lot of comments on recent posts act as a proxy for community.
If you want to get technical, Techcrunch had this guest post by Aileen Lee, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, about social proof. In it, she breaks down social proof into five types – 1) expert social proof, 2) celebrity social proof, 3) user social proof, 4) “wisdom of the crowds” social proof, and 5) “wisdom of your friends” social proof. I think that’s a great framework to work with though for most bloggers you’ll be relying on #4 (and maybe #5).
Emphasize Good Signals
You want to emphasize any evidence that you have a vibrant readership, that the site is old, gets a lot of visits, and is well maintained. Here’s a recent screenshot of the top of Bargaineering:
I put arrows to the comment count on the post and the number of subscribers the site has. Six comments isn’t a very high number but it’s not zero and if you have a string of posts with good comment counts (6 could easily be 12, if I responded to each comment) then you have yourself a good signal. If you don’t get a lot of comments, start asking for them.
The Feedburner chiclet says 20,000 readers, which is an impressive statistic. 20,000 people can’t all be wrong, right? What’s not pictured is that lower down in the sidebar is the archives list and it goes all the way back to 2005. Eight years of service is a plus.
So you know about comment counts and subscriber/follower numbers, what are some other signals you could leverage?
- Media Appearances/Mentions: Did you get featured in the newspaper? Or appear on a radio show? Make sure visitors know about it. It’s like late night informercials touting they were “As Seen On TV” – it works! At Bargaineering, we had an entire page that listed all the places I was lucky enough to appear in from the New York Times to the Baltimore Sun to, my personal favorite, Marketplace Money. Those add a big shot of credibility because it’s hard to get big media to cover you.
- Awards: Awards never hurt but they have to be awards that are difficult to win. Every week there is someone making a list of the 50 Best XYZ. Those people are trying to get you to add their award banner and link back to them. (reminds me of those Who’s Who letters back in high school!)
- About Us: It wasn’t on Bargaineering but it is on Microblogger. My face, prominently featured in the top right sidebar, means there’s a person behind this site and at least one person willing to associate their face with the site. The About Us also gives you the opportunity to share your credentials.
- Badges: There are a lot of blog directories that rank their members, you could join one, add the badge, and use that as a proxy for popularity. I was never a huge fan of this strategy but I see it used a lot in the mommy blogging community (i.e. Top Mommy Blogs, Picket Fence Blogs).
- Endorsements & Testimonials: If you have a few friends (or clients) willing to vouch for you, ask for endorsements and put their quotes up on your site.
Bad Less Impressive Signals
Since you get to control everything on your site, don’t display information that could be viewed as a bad signal. Guess how many email subscribers we have as of this writing? About 200. It’s low compared to the 20,000 on Bargaineering but that’s fine by me, I love those two hundred subscribers. I just won’t be putting up a Feedburner chiclet or talking about subscriber counts for a little while.
We have a little over a hundred Likes on Facebook – again, not impressive enough to show (but love you guys who liked the page!). Instead, we’ll focus on the good things like the relatively high number of comments compared to site traffic and social metrics. It’s a great community with a lot of engagement, which is more important than one-and-done search visitors.
Avoid inconsistency. If I told you that Microblogger had 600,000 visitors a month, you would not believe me. There simply aren’t enough visible signs, like comments and social shares, to support that number. I would lose credibility even if it were true! If you see too many negative signals, you may not even believe the positive ones.
Absent proof, focus on design and other visual elements. When you’re new, you don’t have a lot of quantitative statistics to lean on. Focus on the qualitative aspects that add credibility, like design and testimonials. It’s good to have friends and family review the design of your site and ask for their honest opinion. Does it convey the right message? I think Microblogger looks clean and professional. My headshot, taken at a wedding, shows me in a suit because suits are awesome (I love the look of a tie, I hate actually wearing ties). Does my vision that match what they’re thinking? Are they willing to be quoted for the sidebar of your site?
Great Examples of Social Proof
I want to leave you with a few examples of great displays of social proof.
I Will Teach You To Be Rich
Ramit Sethi tells you he’s giving you proof he’s legit. He’s written a New York Times bestseller, he’s been featured in almost every major financial news outlet you can think of both in print and TV (those are screencaps, one of which is the Today show). Not shown in the image above are all the testimonials he’s received from people who have taken his courses or read his advice.
Mashable’s stuff is always going to get a ridiculous number of shares but it looks even more ridiculous when you add them all together. 6.5k in big green font looks impressive and then it lets them put six social media sharing buttons without the fear that the low counts on any one of them would be construed as a negative signal. By the time you see “only” 36 pins, you’ll have gone through the 6.5k total, 3.3k shares on Facebook, and 2.3k tweets. It’s no longer a negative signal for Mashable and, if anything, it’s a negative signal for Pinterest!
Marie Forleo’s Branson Interview
Marie Forleo’s sidebar is chock full of celebrity social proof. First, you have her appearance on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday program. Then you have the rotating praise chat bubble. The screenshot shows a quote from Gabrielle Berstein (who was on the same episode of Super Soul Sunday), but you’ll see many quotes from others like Richard Branson. Then, you get to her interview Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island as part of Joe Polish’s Genius Network and it’s shown prominently in her sidebar.
Dan Schawbel’s Personal Branding Blog
This last one is from Dan Schawbel and it’s his About Me box in the right sidebar. You have a professional picture of him, a bit of his credentials (international bestselling author), and five quotes about it from reputable sources. As an added bonus, above that box is one that links to his RSS and social media counts – all of which are impressive as well.
What have you done with respect to social proof on your blog?
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