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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Focus social proof on the desired action, not the action you want people to avoid.
- Reframe negative social proof to highlight those who are on board rather than those who are not.
- Characterize the undesirable action as isolated, out of touch, uncool, aberrant, etc.
- 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.