Secrets of a Master:
John Forde on The Power of Social Proof

May I ask you a personal question?

How do you feel about laugh tracks?

I mean the tapes of a laughing audience that TV producers play behind scenes in sitcoms.

You hate them, right? Most people say they do.

Telling people when to laugh is insulting, stupid, unnecessary.

But did you know that three different studies have shown canned laughter makes test audiences laugh longer – and more often – than they do when shown the same show without the laugh cues?

In his book, "Influence: The Power of Persuasion," psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this potent phenomenon "the power of social proof." It goes well beyond laugh tracks. Used right (morally as well as strategically), it's a powerful tool for selling.

Faster, More Credible Selling With Much Less Work

Just by supplementing your sales package with "social proof," you can do more selling in a single paragraph than you'd otherwise accomplish in a full page.

How so? The theory behind "social proof" is simple. It's also rooted in science.

All animals – including humans – have a tendency to act as those around them act. If our neighbor in Cave 2 eats the red berries but not the yellow ones, we follow suit. If everyone is buying biotech stocks, we want to buy biotech stocks.

This response is almost automatic.

Dr. Cialdini gives plenty of examples in his book: Bartenders encourage tips by putting folded bills of their own in tip jars. Preachers plant "big donors" in their congregations. Ads boast "fastest-growing" and "most popular" near the headline. The list goes on.

Some of the most powerful "social proof" comes in the form of the testimonial.

With testimonials, you sell faster – and more effectively per word – because it's a powerful way to show your product working.

It's also an excellent way to gain credibility without bragging. Why? You get to showcase your client's strong points, but with someone else – a peer of your prospect – doing all the talking.

Success stories from satisfied customers are pure gold. They can pull much better than long lists of product features or product rationalizations.

But beware. Along with the good news, there's some bad …

The Dark Side of Testimonial-Driven Sales

In my experience, testimonials almost always enhance a promo package … except when they're not good testimonials.

What makes a testimonial bad?

When it's emotionally unsatisfying and vague: "I found your book very useful."

When it's too gushy: "I love your newsletter! It's the best one I've ever read! The exclamation point on my keyboard is stuck!!!"

When it's too polished or pretentious: "We delight in your intrepid and yet profitable handling of territory so treacherous as options investing."

When you've used stock photos instead of real ones. (Rule of thumb: Models with bleached teeth and pressed t-shirts aren't people. They're robots.)

When they're a legal risk or just plain fake: "I've secretly used this newsletter to pick stocks for years." Warren Buffett, Omaha.

When you've used initials underneath the quote, instead of personal details: "G.B., D.C." is weaker than "George Bush, President, Washington D.C."

How Great Marketers Harvest Testimonials That Work

In most cases, it's up to your clients to supply you with testimonials. If they're lacking in this department, you should encourage them to do what they can to keep their files up-to-date and persuasive.

Bottom line: There's no way to get good testimonials without applying a little elbow grease and a little creative harvesting.

Here are a few strategies recommended by well-known copywriters Rene Gnam and Galen Stilson in the June 2001 issue of "Inside Direct Mail" that you can pass along to your clients to help make this process easier for them:

  • Invite your best customers to join a panel of advisors. (Gnam)
  • Follow up detailed customer service calls with a survey. (Stilson)
  • Call repeat buyers and ask them why they repeat. (Gnam)
  • Call customers who write in and conduct a phone interview. Offer to write up their words then send it to them for approval and a signature. (Stilson)

Copywriting legend John Caples used this simple ad contest for years:

"Finish this sentence in 25 words or less: I like (name of product) because … "

Participants won a small prize – and Caples got more testimonials than he could use in a single campaign.

For more on the power of social proof, I recommend that you read "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell in addition to Robert Cialdini's "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion."

And here's my advice on making up testimonials: Good marketers/copywriters don't do it.

Not only would it be deceptive, it can be dangerous. Remember what happened to Sony. In full-page New York Times ads for seven Sony movies, some guy named "Dave Manning" gushed about how much he loved the company's flicks.

Turned out that Manning works for Sony. In a marketing role. Sony got caught and now they look foolish. What's more, the movies featured in the cover-up quickly lost credibility as movies worth seeing.

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Published: September 10, 2001

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