Social Proof vs Authenticity

People say that social proof is what others say. No. It’s what you say – publicy – that others react to.

As you may know, you must present “social proof” of the value of your complex solutions. The more complex and/or expensive the product or service you sell, the more important is this proof.

But what kind and why?

I see that most marketing professionals gloss over this subject without having thought through the specifics. What types of social proof make sense for their customers?

Let’s plot social proof on an authenticity spectrum. The spectrum runs from generic and unverifiable on the low-authenticity side to personal and verifiable on the higher-authenticity side of the spectrum.

You might be surprised at what the highest-authenticity proof looks like. More on that later; first let’s talk about the villain in this story.

Generic proof. In consumer goods marketing, this includes statements like “4 out of 5 dentists recommend X toothpaste”. Or quoted words such as, “it really tastes like chicken”, attributed to no one in particular.

It’s not proof at all in the most prevalent sense of the word, but it still works because that’s how we’re wired as a species – we value a thing based on what others in our tribe say about it. These made-up statements trigger that phenomenon, even when our rational mind knows they are BS.

Providers of business services and products, like you and I, also use generic or impersonal proof.

An example is stock photos of models in biz-casual attire at a conference table. Or an image of a trekker, photographed from a rear angle, contemplating the vastness of the Himalayan mountains. We see this all the time. When you overlay words over a photo like this on a website or a deck, you imply a connection that doesn’t exist. Those office workers aren’t you; those mountain climbers aren’t your customer. They didn’t say the things that seem to be attributed to them.

But it is expensive and psychologically taxing to put up a real photo of yourself, on your homepage. Especially when it’s of a group of people. But what are your customers buying? Whether you sell software or services, they are buying solutions and the people behind them, as discussed here. 

Another example – testimonials that real words from a real customer but hide their name, for whatever reason. This actually works if the testimonial is long enough and has some other qualities.

Which is to say, generic social proof isn’t always a bad idea; it can be easier to create and it can still work. But there are better options.

Personal and verifable.

It’s amazing how well numbers work. And how much better they work if they come from a verifiable source, such as a study conducted by a name brand organization, a university, a government agency, or a person associated with one of the above.

A small-print citation at the bottom of a screen is effective marketing copy.

Personal social proof is another effective hack. People confuse personal social proof with authority. A name, photo, and bio, or a real person goes a long way without that person being a known authority. Any real person will do.

And that brings us to the best kind of social proof. You.

The proof we have discussed so far tends to materialize as testimonials or case studies, whatever medium that comes in. It also comes from other people. 

But the most effective social proof I have experienced comes from publishing my own content. It is verifiable (it comes from me, really!) and it’s very personal. 

Interestingly, it’s not actually entirely authentic. When you publish a lot, you realize that you’re speaking on behalf of your professional self. Your professional self and your true aren’t the same; they have different interests and goals.

Now technically speaking, creating content isn’t by itself a form of social proof. But when you publish on the Internet, and people react to it in some way, it becomes social and it becomes proof.

Testimonials and case studies still matter. But we really want to hear from you – we want your take. That’s all the proof I need.

Have a wonderful weekend