Making Social Proof Work for You

We live in a skeptical world.

Your prospects grow more skeptical … bombarded by ads of all sorts. 5,000 of them, in fact … every day.

Print ads … TV spots … radio … magazines … newspapers … ads in social media. Ads in movies. Even ad-free public radio and television have ads now.

So, it’s no wonder your prospect’s skepticism builds every day, making it hard to believe you when you tell them about your great product.

Doubt … uncertainty … disbelief.

Here’s the funny part about this disbelief: Your prospects will believe you if you give the right kind of proof. Like we talked about last week, I made the wrong assumption when I started copywriting. For me, data and scientific studies would make my prospects believe.

I hadn’t thought about my father-in-law in those days. If I had, I would have rethought my assumption. Frank was a marvelously intelligent, thoughtful man. But all the science and data could not convince him to wear a seat belt.

What did it take for him to change his ways? Not statistics about people surviving car accidents. Not descriptions or data about people who didn’t survive not wearing seat belts. None of that.

It took the birth of our son and Linda telling Frank she needed him to be a good example for Joaquin as he grew up.

Linda didn’t know the name for what she used to convince Frank, but she used social proof.

Last week we talked about social proof and the different kinds of social proof you have in your copywriter’s tool box. Click here to read that article if you haven’t yet. But, as we also said last week, your success in convincing your prospect to buy your product is not a sure thing just because you use social proof.

So, let’s take a look at some “best practices” and some things to avoid when using social proof.

Better than saving money …

Let’s say you’re selling a nutritional supplement called SuperEnergy. Of course, at some point in your copy, you’re going to have to give facts and figures proving your claims. But, like we said, those numbers won’t really do the convincing.

So, you decide to use other proof. Which of the following approaches do you think will work better?

  1. “If you use SuperEnergy daily, you’ll save as much as $38 every month over the cost of the drugs you’re currently using.”
  2. “We did a study of people in your town, and we discovered that your neighbors choose SuperEnergy 6 to 1 over other similar drinks.”

You might think that the cost savings would be the strongest inducement, but not so.

The Wall Street Journal told about a study done by psychologist and author Robert Cialdini in San Marcos, California. He had hung four types of public service messages on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes. The messages urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but gave four different reasons for doing so.

Group 1 messages focused on saving money. Residents learned they could save $54 a month on utility bills.

Group 2 messages focused on saving the environment. These messages said residents could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month using fans.

Group 3 was told using fans was the socially responsible thing to do.

And Group 4 was told 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning. This message was bolstered with the line that using fans was “your community’s popular choice!”

The “everyone’s doing it” argument beat out all others by over three times as shown by subsequent meter readings.

Cialdini said that “people don’t recognize how powerful the pull of the crowd is on them. It’s a fundamental cue as to what we should be doing.”

Now, you won’t always be able to use this approach all the time. But work hard to get this very effective type of social proof into your writing. As powerful as it is (over three times more than saving money), you’ll want to make it work for you.

Avoid being negative …

When you use social proof, avoid taking a negative tack, even if it seems the best approach at the time. Here’s an example from research done by Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin at the Petrified National Forest.

Not surprisingly, some visitors to the park were stealing petrified wood. The researchers tested different signs to discourage theft. One took this approach …

“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, destroying the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”

Makes sense. If you’ve travelled many miles to see the natural state of the park, you wouldn’t want to be one of those barbarians destroying that natural state.

When this sign was up, the amount of theft tripled.

Goldstein and Martin hypothesized this: Telling people that many visitors steal was making the case that stealing was normal. The idea that “everybody’s doing it” made the bad behavior easier for more people.

The signs that had far better results made people believe removing petrified wood was the rarest and most pitiful of actions taken only by the worst of losers, of which there are fortunately few.

This example may seem out of the range of copywriting and direct marketing. But, far from it. I (along with many other copywriters) have wrongly used negative social proof in my call to action. Here’s an example from a fundraising letter I wrote to get people to donate to a swim program for children who can’t afford the entry fee.

“We badly need your support so these kids can swim safely in the pool. Unfortunately, not enough people are doing their share. So, we’re counting on you.”

That approach seemed innocuous. But in fact, I was giving people the message “everybody’s ignoring these kids’ needs … so, just go along with them.”

Put a real face to your social proof …

We talked about testimonials last week. They are without a doubt one of the most persuasive forms of proof. Even if your prospect doesn’t know the person giving the testimonial, reading it gives him the sense “this guy sounds like me.”

Want to make that comparison more compelling? Put a real picture to the words. Smiles are particularly convincing.

Where do you get the pictures? For that matter, where do you get testimonials?

From your client. Ask to see his file of testimonials. In the old days, that meant digging through actual letters. In some cases it might still mean that. But most companies digitize their testimonials, so don’t be shy to ask for them.

If your client doesn’t have testimonials? You become the marketing advisor in this case and encourage him to get as many as he can.

Here’s what my friend and Master Copywriter John Forde says about getting testimonials:

“There’s no way to get good testimonials without applying a little elbow grease and a little creative harvesting.”

So, harvest away … and fill your copy with proof that really works … positive social proof and compelling testimonials.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


Click to Rate:
No ratings yet
Published: August 10, 2015

Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)


This name will appear next to your comment.


Your email is required but will not be displayed.


Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters


Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)