Why Negative Social Proof Does More Harm Than You Think

August 3rd, 2015

Why Negative Social Proof Does More Harm Than You Think

We’re all selling something. An idea. A product. A service. A dream. Rainbows and unicorns. Maple sugar lollipops.

Whatever is it you’re selling, it likely doesn’t sell itself. And neither does you just talking about how great it is, which is where social proof comes in. From testimonials to number of customers you’ve worked with to social media presence, social proof is a mighty powerful force.

Until it’s not. Until you as the seller botch it entirely, and social proof becomes your biggest enemy, slowly undoing everything you’re working so hard to do.

In the words of the Wham! song “I’m Your Man,” “If you’re gonna do it, do it right.”

The Basic Types of Social Proof for Sellers

The type of social proof you use should largely depend on what you’re selling and your audience.

A good place to start is testimonials, because people like to be able to see that you’re legit. More importantly, a little thing called implicit egotism means they like to do things that people just like them do. So if people “just like them” buy your product or service, they’ll be able to see themselves doing it, too.

Aside from testimonials, we’ve got a lot of other options for social proof, including:

Media Logos – The bar or box with media logos showing you where the company or personal brand has been featured.

Subscriber Counts – How many subscribers are on your email marketing list.

Social Media Proof – Boxes that show the number of followers or likes on various social media channels.

Endorsements – Celebrity endorsements that show your product or service is worth noticing.

Ratings/Reviews – For product-based businesses in particular, this shows satisfaction and real user feedback.

Social Shares – For blog posts or other content, how many shares you have of a specific piece of content.

Client Logos – If you work with recognizable brands, you can feature their logos or case studies.

There are so many options, so you have a hope of avoiding what I consider the cardinal sin of social proof, the place where it all goes wrong, and you actually do yourself a disservice: negative social proof.

How Negative Social Proof Trashes Your Credibility

Surely, any social proof is good, right? Having even a wee bit should help encourage people to trust you.

Wrong. So wrong.

The book Yes! 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion shares the results of countless tests of theories around persuasion. In the book, there’s a rather famous study on negative social proof, where they tested three different signs in the Arizona Petrified Forest to stop people from stealing the petrified wood. The sign that included negative social proof actually tripled the number of thefts.

Crazy, right? Basically, negative social proof isn’t good for anyone.

There are countless tests that demonstrate how this plays out online. The gist of all of them is that low social proof makes people not trust you or perceive that your product or service is of low quality. 

If you’re selling anything, you must having a good understanding of how using social proof incorrectly can mess with your ability to close the sale.

Here are a few key places to audit for how you stack up with social proof.

Poorly-Executed Testimonials

Testimonials can go wrong in a lot of ways, but the biggest one is simply not having enough of them. If you have a praise page on your website, you need to have at least five or more testimonials on it. Having less than that makes your visitor wonder if you’re inexperienced or, frankly, not that good.

Instead of placing them on a single page, use the quotes on your site where they support a service you are trying to sell and are in context. Having no proof is actually better, in this case, than so-so proof that’s pointing out you don’t have a lot of testimonials.

If you have a lot of testimonials, here are a few things can help you amp up the social proof:

  • Use quotes that are short (two to three sentences max) and share an impactful message. People are lazy readers.
  • Make sure the quote is specific about the value you deliver.
  • Include pictures of who’s giving the quote, as people trust testimonials much more if they have a picture.
  • Ensure they match who your customer is. They need to see themselves, so if all you have are “big names,” and you actually target mere mortals, you’re missing the mark.

Social Sharing Gone Wrong

From social sharing buttons to a Facebook badge in your sidebar that shows how many page likes you have, these can be very effective ways to share that you have an audience.

But if you turn around and look at it from your site visitor’s (and potential buyer’s) perspective, how impressive are nine tweets on your last blog post? Or the fact that you have 372 Facebook likes? It’s not saying, “Hey, this person is so freakin’ good you must buy from them.” It does just the opposite—it’s depressing and doesn’t instill confidence.

This is a simple fix. Get rid of your social sharing plugin. Kiss your Google+, Facebook Like Boxes, and all that jazz goodbye. They probably just make you feel bad, anyways. Clean things up, and focus on what you do have.

Celebrity Endorsements

There’s no doubt a celebrity endorsement can help you. In the online entrepreneur game, we see this all time, with well-known personal brands lending their name to help someone they are connected with or has been a client. It isn’t a problem in a lot of cases.

The problem comes from three places. Proceed with caution in these areas when it comes to celebrity endorsements:

  • When the person is someone who hands out endorsements constantly, and you see them splashed all over the web.
  • The person hasn’t ever worked with you or used your service.
  • That person is not aligned with your business or approach and will actually repel your audience.

If you’re going to use celebrity type endorsements, be wise to how it makes your visitors feel. Does it get them excited and make them trust you that much more? Or does it make them roll their eyes?

Watch out for negative social proof, and don’t let what’s supposed to help actually hurt your business. Get smart about your social proof as a seller, and make your job that much simpler.

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