How to Change the World
Using Social Media


The right message at the right time can start a movement that changes the world, in both big and small ways. And social media has the ability to spread that message and organize that movement in ways not possible in the recent past.

Of all the psychological triggers that lead to persuasive messages that spread, one stands above the rest when it comes to social media. In fact, this one element of influence drives the entire concept of social media.

What is it?

Well, if you’ve been a keen observer of social media (or simply read blogs about blogging), you’ve probably come to accept some realities of the social media space.

Things like:

  • Blog posts with lots of comments get more comments.
  • Digg submissions with a high Digg count (combined with a catchy headline and summary) get Dugg before the content is viewed (even if the content is never viewed).
  • Items that are heavily bookmarked at Delicious get even more bookmarks.
  • Blogs that display high subscriber counts attract more subscribers faster.
  • Content is often viewed more favorably when recommended than when found independently.

Well, that makes sense… social media is all about users deciding what’s worthwhile instead of relying on mass media or advertising to dictate to us. But the real issue is that users often decide to give a message a chance based on initial indicators that have nothing to do with the actual quality of the content.

What we’re talking about is called social proof. Here’s how Wikipedia defines social proof, which is pretty spot on:

Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.

Social proof is also known as herd mentality or the bandwagon effect. People tend to follow the crowd without evaluating the true merits for themselves, especially when the merits are ambiguous.

In a more positive sense, social proof can be the proverbial foot in the door. It can be the difference that leads to attention and acceptance, which turns a message into a movement.

The Key to Social Media Attention and Acceptance

So, social proof gives us important cues about how to behave in ambiguous social situations. But what’s ambiguous about social media?

First of all, we’re not sure if we should pay attention. Given the vast amount of information we’re exposed to daily, we naturally look for quick cues about the quality of what we come across. And we’re wired to look to others for those indications of quality.

Secondly, we look for cues as to whether or not to accept the message itself. If you’re reading something in your area of expertise, you’re less likely to look for external indicators. But if the topic or position is new to you or novel in any way, you’ll likely be influenced by the raw popularity of the piece, plus the specific comments of others who’ve come before.

Again, this is normal human behavior, so you can’t expect social media to operate differently. This is incredibly cool for web publishers, because great content gets rewarded in social media, and the rewards tend to compound as attention and acceptance grows.

But here’s where it gets quirky.

Sometimes your message inadvertently convinces people to do or accept the opposite of what you want—thanks also to social proof. And it’s easier to make this mistake than you might imagine.

The Negative Side of Social Proof

Studies have shown that mass media coverage of a suicide soon leads to more suicides. The simple explanation is that people who are contemplating suicide feel validated by the suicide of another, so they act in kind.

In other words, social proof also tells us it’s okay to do what we already want to do. This isn’t all bad, especially when it involves the acceptance of your message. But it can also result in negative social proof, in that it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof.

Take a look at these well-intended messages:

  • “This year Americans will produce more litter and pollution than ever before.” ~U.S. Forest Service
  • “4 years ago, 22 million single women did not vote.” ~Women Vote
  • “42% of college graduates never read a book again.” ~Dan Poynter’s ParaPublishing

These messages point out important problems. But what are some people really hearing?

  • “Everyone litters, it’s not just me.”
  • “Voting is a hassle, and others like me think so too.”
  • “I don’t enjoy reading, and I’m in a lot of good company.”

These are all examples of negative social proof. Instead of prompting people to change, it encourages people to stick with the crowd that hasn’t changed (especially if the change is inconvenient or undesired). It can even lead people to engage in behavior they otherwise wouldn’t, once they know others are doing it.

How to Reframe Negative Social Proof

A team of social scientists decided to test the impact of negative social proof while also examining more effective message strategies. The test is highlighted in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, and involves the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

The park faced a threat due to people taking pieces of petrified wood as souvenirs. It became such a problem that warning signs were erected throughout the park:

“Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”

Can you spot the negative social proof? 14 tons of wood (one small piece at a time) equals lots of people taking petrified wood.

Was the park inadvertently encouraging wood theft?

The scientists set up a test using marked wood along alternative paths. One set of paths had no sign at all, another set of paths used a negative social proof message highlighting how many people stole wood, and a third set of paths took this approach:

“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”

This sign also featured a graphic of a lone thief reaching for wood, with a red circle and line superimposed over the thieving hand. This aimed to stigmatize and isolate the behavior as socially unacceptable.

The results?

  • No sign – 2.92% of wood pieces stolen
  • Negative social proof sign – 7.92% of pieces stolen
  • New sign – 1.67% of pieces stolen

In this case, a social proof element dramatically increased the undesirable action compared with doing nothing at all, because it demonstrated that lots of others engaged in the behavior. The new sign, however, did better than nothing at all by isolating and stigmatizing the behavior.

Here are some tips for avoiding negative social proof that works against your message:

  1. Focus social proof on the desired action, not the action you want people to avoid.
  2. Reframe negative social proof to highlight those who are on board rather than those who are not.
  3. Characterize the undesirable action as isolated, out of touch, uncool, aberrant, etc.
  4. Enjoy the positive social proof that results from social media acceptance.

Can You Really Change the World With Social Media?

Whether you want to launch a business, promote a cause, or elect a President, the answer is clear:

Yes you can—when you turns to we.

But given the way social proof drives social media, the way you frame your initial message is critical. You want the momentum of social proof aligned with where you want to go, not with where things are.

What you say matters. Just remember that how you say it is what you say.

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of DIY Themes and Lateral Action. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (118)

  1. says

    Brian, this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever read on Copyblogger. It’s so, so true. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, but it’s best when there’s assembly for the right reasons.

  2. says

    Unfortunately it’s so true. We can never take the “Social” out of Social Media. And as Social beings, we are going to act as a herd. So taking nothing away from this behavior, its more important that we gather/flock/assemble for the right reasons – be it in Digg, Delicious, RSS etc.

    Great Post by the way! One of the best from CopyBlogger.


  3. says

    With the increase in the amount of information available on any given subject it becomes almost impossible for anyone, even if they have the time or inclination, to study it all and come to an informed judgement.
    So we tend to get out information and form our judgements from packaged sources. And the sources we are most likely emphasise with are the blogs of like-minded individuals.

  4. says

    It’s sure nice when a cause gets attention because it’s a genuinly good cause. I recall hearing about the Dove compaign a while back, and it was only mentioned in good terms because it saught to identify people for qualities other than their looks. It spread because it was good. So many other things spread because they’re shocking, or because everyone else is doing it. Like WD says, it’s best when it’s for the right reasons.

  5. says

    Social media provide great opportunity to learn and network. IN this info era, information comes hurtling like never before in human history. Its just not possible to learn everything or read every line. Many get overwhelmed and quit too early and those who stick around, would shine.

  6. says

    This has been on my mind for some time-how one idea or social proof element can change minds, motivate groups, and accomplish the impossible for an entire society.

    Right on!

  7. says

    Brian, is any of your stuff under Creative Commons or attribution type stuff? I know Chris Brogan does that with entire blog posts, but I wanted to ask you first and see before I used paragraph portions of your blog posts and linked back to you.

  8. says

    What an awesome article. It reminds me very much of the same or similar point that the Heath Brothers make in Made to Stick when they talk about the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign. The young, single, male truck-driving litter offenders that they were trying to persuade had to see that other people like them that they would admire had taken a stance against litter.

    As soon as the don’t litter campaign switched from garden variety public service announcements to campaign based on self-identity and social proof, the litter dropped dramatically.

    I thought this post was at least as insightful and actionable as that section of the book. Great post, Brian.


  9. says

    Thanks everyone for the kind words.

    Jeff, the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign is a perfect example, and it totally slipped my mind. And you’ve perfectly described why it worked… it stigmatized littering by appealing to a totally different form of emotional group identification, and that’s why it worked well beyond expectations.

    As a movement, “Don’t Mess With Texas” went beyond reducing litter and became an iconic cultural catch phrase that supports all sorts of marketing and merchandising (notably the University of Texas Longhorns). But it didn’t stop Texas Tech. :-)

  10. Andy says

    Great article and I think a case study could and should be done on how President Elect Obama’s campaign used social media to win an election. They did an outstanding job of everything you explained in this post.

  11. says

    Well everyone else is commenting, so I guess I will too. :)

    Just finished a book last week called Iconoclast, which discussed how the function of social proof is rooted all the way down to our genes. Following the herd is evolutionarily efficient, so those who were inclined to do so survived while others didn’t make it.

    Great post.

  12. says

    Excellent post. I made sure the comments here and on Twitter supported my initial impression before commenting [ 😉 J/K ]

    But I do think the legitimate side of high volume comments deserves further treatment.
    If a post is legitimately superb, and many thoughtful people see it and are inclined to comment, that is best case scenario,
    with no reduction in validity to the number of responses
    elicited as a ‘herd reaction’

    Thank You,

  13. says

    I love that you also went into Negative social proof. There’s so much emphasis on the positive, but we really do need to be mindful of the negative, too. Great work!

  14. says

    “Yes you can—when you turns to we.”
    I like this. So true. The power of growing consciousness!
    And there is also the energy feedback. We often get ideas from the collective consciousness, express it (sometimes hesitantly as we often think the idea is so new or out-of-norm), and find it is not that new at all.
    You are so smart, Brian.

  15. says

    Great post. I’ve been reading a book about Traffic called “Traffic” that cites research which suggests we’re evolutionarily wired to look at each other’s faces when moving through…um…traffic.

    I have no data or whatever to back this up, but I do find myself gravitating toward those in social media with a ‘face’, a clear vision, a clear personality, etc.

    I’m not talking about a strong personal brand, but those who have something to say and are different from the crowd. I will also typically follow the people I gravitate toward onto other social networks, like following someone on Twitter and then becoming friends on Facebook.

    Social media is still so new that we’re just figuring out how we move through the web of services and why we do so. It’s interesting and exciting. Looking forward to what the future holds. M!

  16. says

    This is an article I will be sharing with all of my friends.

    In the UK they had the similar results from drink driving campaigns that actually had the opposite intended effects.

    thankfully recent government campains have used social stigma and ridicule as a way to get accross a message. One that comes to mind is about a group of teenagers talking about sex and using condoms. The hero is shown in both situations and the polarized response of his friends drives home the message that wearing a condom is cool.

  17. says

    Very good post. It reminds of things I read in the books Blink and Persuasion, which I remember had some crucial explanations and examinations of human behavior. Social proof is an interesting concept. I also find it quite humorous when I think about things on this level and the fact that our click-whirrr “lizard” minds latch onto these things and encourage use to behave certain ways. Very interesting.

  18. says

    Great stuff. The “social” in social media is both what makes it amazing and what makes it so aggravating. The more conscious we get about how we’re going to harness that social energy, the better stuff we’ll be able to do with it.

  19. says

    Great post Brian. I highly recommend Yes!, along with Robert B. Cialdini’s other books on influence and psychology.

    Understanding how and why humans think and feel the way we do is a very important skill to have when trying to persuade others.

  20. Leslie says

    This was a fantastic post clearly highlighting one aspect of social proof that most of us may not think about. It is quite interesting how simple phrasing can encourage behavior from one extreme to another.

  21. says


    Very interesting article. These two are the ones that I use(not in the same exact form but having the same principle – presenting the half of the glass that is full – being positive):

    1.Focus social proof on the desired action, not the action you want people to avoid.

    2.Reframe negative social proof to highlight those who are on board rather than those who are not.

  22. says

    Agree Brian. It’s the same way a restaurant that has no one in it is considered bad in people’s mind, or on the flip side to go with your suicide analogy, they were afraid of repeat school shootings with all the press that the VA Tech attacks were getting. I think in those situations companies, people, etc need to do what’s socially responsible or just use a different line with their content to avoid negative social proofing.


  23. says

    great stuff! thanks. it reminds me of law of attraction. what we pay attention to grows. so, even when we thinks we are using language that is contrary to what we want, we are most likely still attracting more of it because the focus is one what isn’t there.

    what a trip!

    and YES, i am right there with changing the world through social media. it’s about webs, relations, interconnectedness.

    in joy,
    kendra :)

  24. says

    Hey Brian,
    Many People + Small Acts of Kindness = Change the World!
    I too believe Social Media has the potential to Positively influence our society. In fact our company is founded upon this idea and our Social Network promotes it.

    See we believe that change is generally seen as something difficult to accomplish because the process of Change begins with ONE person and at that level it just seems impossible for it to spread to 100s or 1000s.

    However, if the action required for the change becomes EASY and FUN then that same individual can initiate the movement and pass it forward to others to follow.

    This is essentially what has happened with Social Networking Sites (SNS). Through clicks of a mouse we get to share information, opinions, pictures, causes etc… and our friends and our network follow us because they too see their participation as easy as a click of a mouse.

    Well what if there was a SNS that challenged people to take on one small act of kindness everyday and all the users had to do to participate is to Accept that Challenge with a simple click of a mouse.

    For instance the challenge would be:
    “Buy a stranger behind you a cup of coffee today!”
    “Tonight turn off the excess lights in your home!”
    Now imagine the impact of 1000,000 people in your community doing that small act all in one day!
    That can have an enormous impact in our communities, our world and our lives.

    If this is something that has gotten your attention, then take a few minutes to check out

    Keep up the amazing and inspiring posts!

  25. says

    I read this post with interest. The comments about negative social proof were of particular interest.

    I see some parallels with NLP studies which teach us that the subconscious mind can’t process negatives.

    For instance, you tell a child to not to do something and what do they do? They go and do the very thing you asked them not to…

    It’s very powerful. For instance if you respond to the question “How are you?” with “not bad” and you get asked enough times during the day, you’ll end up feeling low. Change it around to “pretty good” and watch the difference.

    Mike Ashworth
    Marketing Coach and Consultant
    Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK
    Boosting Sales for Small and Medium Sized Businesses by
    helping them find, attract and keep Customers.

  26. says

    Hi Brian,

    This is a great post because it both highlights the problem and gives a solution for it. I hate it when people just point out problems with no solutions attached. If we can trust these studies it really does just make things worse to focus on the bad. Focus on the desired action and the rest will take care of it self. I will be linking to this post.


  27. says

    If there’s one word I could use to describe this post, it would be accurate. Although the term ‘social proof’ is one that is relatively new to me, I definitely can attest to its validity. The social media space lends itself to word-of-mouth marketing. You figure that if one person took the time to recommend a site or a product, then it must be worth it for you to follow suit. Great explanation! Thanks for posting this!

  28. says

    Phenomenal and timely article. Ahh, what an interesting species, us humans! It’s amazing to see how the growth of social media is allowing us to discover more and more about ourselves and our habits by redefining both the scale and interaction styles within social communities.

  29. says

    Wow a nice article. So many new things about social media that i never thought about. social media’s negative use is something i never thought much about

  30. Marc Vermut says

    Timely post, NPR had a story today about this as well, with respect to the little bathroom sign cards trying to get people to reuse towels instead of replacing them everyday. And the most effective signs were the ones which framed keeping towels as an activity “a majority of our guests” do.

  31. says

    Taking social media is good way to get all attention to promotions and traffic required, but following steps still needed, niche markets, your audience, the best way is by making forums and it can be leverage into realisations as promotions tools, it’s known to an offline and put benefits for your online business.

  32. karalynia says

    The importance of social media for society – Social media can change minds, motivate society people and accomplish the impossible for an entire society.

  33. karalynia says

    Social media is Trustworthy sources: Instead of buying a product from any unknown company, buy from a company, which people recommend. You get to meet the initiators through Social media marketing, who played a major role in the overall purchasing process.

  34. says

    I blogged about this a few weeks ago but being considerably less popular than CopyBlogger I doubt any of you guys have read it :) All of which kinda proves the point.

  35. Andy Williams says

    It’s probably sheer coincidence, but your observations on negative social proof contains echoes of what is promoted in the current hit book ‘The Secret’. There it promotes the idea that to get what you want you should not think about what you don’t want on the basis that what you project is what you get more of! Think/talk/project negative and you get more negative. I’m reading bits of the book over my wife’s shoulder, but this general principle always felt right to me – now you appear to be providing parallel and validated evidence that it’s right. Or, maybe ‘The Secret’ was there all along, and now we’re beginning to realise it under different names :-) PS: I’m not promoting the book, I’m just intrigued by an apparent similarity of ideas

  36. says

    Just to clarify, since people have brought up The Secret and The Law of Attaction… “positive” social proof has nothing to do with “positive thinking.” It’s that we look to others for indications of how to act, and if your message is actually pointing out that others are acting in the opposite way of what you want, they’ll often go in the opposite way.

  37. says

    So true the herd mentality is what makes people stand in line for an hour at a new trendy bar, to get in and drink a warm beer and maybe been seen by others who also really want to be seen. This long comment roll proves the point about lots of comments attracting more. I had to scroll right to the bottom to tell you your post is spot on

  38. says

    The problem as I see it is one of cognitive schema … everyone should have to take the Clinical Methods course I did … we tend to frame questions in a manner that presumes the answer we’re looking for. Best case our results seem like just noise; worst case our process is self-confirming … and, ultimately, self-defeating.

    What I like about this piece is that it addresses more than “increased sales” … decreasing vandalism is a social good, and heaven knows we’ve a long list of social goods in need of new energy. Maybe we’re coming to see that citizenship is comprised of more than lists of buying decisions?


  39. says

    It’s also called Groupthink, Brian, and you’re absolutely right to point it out. It’s the reason why they say “there’s no such thing as negative PR in entertainment.”

  40. says

    I came across this post right when you published and instantly sent it through email to several friends of mine. I love how you incorporated Social Proofing and how it ties in with how people react to specific topics or events.

    I have been thinking about this idea ever since I read the post initially so I had to come back and re-read the post again.

    Very nicely done. Keep up the great work!

    -JR Farr

  41. karalynia says

    we should try to change the Mentality of people. We should such type of work which can impress the society.

  42. says

    Unfortunately, this is very true with social media, the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer. Hope people gets more intelligent rather than participating in only the most famous rather than the most intelligent forums.

    Great post, I agree with most of the comments here, this got to be one of the best here in CopyBlogger

  43. says

    Your blogs hits on every aspect of what we do. We write copy for clients, from web content, articles landing pages, blogs etc. I cannot tell you how many clients think if you upload a blog then they weill come. You’re familiar with the language used: “act now and we’ll send you two pieces of junk you don’t need, but wait there’s more, call in the next ten minutes and we’ll add a third useless item.”

    Does any intelligent person really respond to this kind of pitch, and what self-respecting business would actually behave in this manner? The fact is, if you sell something of value at a reasonable price, and you treat your customers with some respect, you will get your share of business.

    You may not get all the business, nobody does, but the business you do get, will result in more satisfied customers, more word-of-mouth referrals, and ultimately more sales.

    Same here you have valuable information thus, your following. Thanks for your input and energy in this ever growing and changing online community!

  44. says

    A friend tweeted today about Harvard Business Review’s list of breakthrough ideas for 2009. Among them was an article entitled Harnessing Social Pressure. I remembered that I’d seen the same example of the petrified wood over here some time ago so I came over to refresh my memory and I’m glad I did!

    Now it got me thinking? Why is it that telling people about the theft of wood actually encouraged them to steal?

    Let’s say a bunch of us go out for a meal together and agree to split the bill equally among all of us, regardless of what we order. You can see that it’s most rational for everyone(I’m not commenting on the niceness of it) to order the most expensive meal of all. Whoever orders a cheaper option will still hardly benefit from the reduction in the total cost AND he’s now paying for a share of everyone else’s meal.

    So it could be the same with the wood: whether I steal a small piece won’t make the slightest difference to the whole forest. Since lots of other people are stealing, I only stand to lose out by not taking my own souvenir. Why should I be the only sucker?

    Again, I’m not talking about ethics here, just a little simple economic theory.

    Now, add a little altruism and social approval and that’s already enough to overcome the small desire to bag a souvenir. That’s why the new sign worked. It focused on empowering the visitor with an altruistic mission: preserve the natural state etc., and also made him feel that taking the wood is wrong.

    I think the same thing’s going on in the HBR author’s observation about electricity usage. My own usage makes no difference to the whole conservation effort so if I’m using less, I’m only losing and not gaining. Just a little social approval seemed to tip the balance there in favour of conservation.

    As a leader you’ve got to figure out what are the key motivators in your niche – is it altruism or money or social approval or something else altogether? What are the counter factors – in this case it was feeling like a sucker? How can you leverage the positive factors by how you tell the story or write the sign? Can you test and optimise your message by adding another angle of motivation to tip the balance?



  45. says

    Great Job Brian, The negative social proof you pointed out has sure helped me. I’ll be paying more attention to how my words may impact the reader.

  46. says

    Fantastic post, Brian. There is a related article in the October 5 issue of the New Yorker called “Rational Irrationality” by John Cassidy. He talks about social proof and how it relates to our economic system. Same principle as stealing from a petrified forest, but much scarier.

  47. Hashim Warren says

    Brian Killiam,
    It’s probably not a good idea to display your subscriber account until it’s a big number.

  48. Fouad Al Zomir says

    My dear Brian,
    In order to Chang the world WE MUST ” Keep going & Keep practice “!

  49. says

    Great post going through your articles make me change my mind on social media marketing even though i was thinking i know most of everything on SMM you prove me i was wrong and i learn so many new things i will have to make in practice btw thanks for sharing this post

  50. says

    I was dead set against the whole FB, Twit and GPlus stuff until I became an Internet marketer. I realize now, that social proof is important and necessary, even to the point of buying traffic. It’s no different than buying advertising as a way to influence the “bandwagon” effect.

    But the point of negative social proof… I hadn’t thought about that at all. Thanks for the heads-up!

  51. says

    I really enjoyed your article on social proof. This is also why so many ecommerce sites have feedback sections. People are so much more likely to buy something when they see other people have done so. I think the phenomenon of the importance of social proof explains the enormous success of To rephrase the old saying, people really do put their money where OTHER people’s mouths are!

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