4 Ways to Use Social Proof More Effectively—and 1 to Seriously Avoid
You’re sauntering down the street on a warm Saturday afternoon when you turn a corner and see a long line of people in front of a French bakery. Your first thought is, "What’s going on here?" You glance at all the people. You glance in the window. You think, "The pastry chef must be brilliant." Next thing you know, you’re standing in line too, eager to order a baguette, a brioche and a couple of chocolate croissants.
You’ve just experienced social proof, as well as its related concept—fear of missing out. Admit it, there have probably been lots of times when the behavior of the group influenced your actions.
That’s because we think that if a lot of people are doing something, then it’s the right thing to do, according to Robert Cialdini in "Influence: Science and Practice." We encounter social proof in almost every area of our lives—from what to do and say at a party, to how fast or slow to drive, to whether it’s OK to eat barbecue with your fingers. Social proof is why, for example, there’s canned laughter in TV sitcoms, why a novel is labeled as a best-seller, and why bartenders salt the tip jar with a few dollars at the beginning of the night.
What’s more, social proof tends to be self-reinforcing. As greater numbers of people deem a behavior or idea to be the correct one, each individual becomes more stridently convinced of it—even to the point of clinging to the belief despite evidence to the contrary.
That’s partly because what’s underlying social proof is fear. In many cases, it’s the fear of missing out. Nobody wants to be the one who’s lacking what all the others have. But it’s also the fear of being embarrassed, looking out of step or making a mistake. As most marketers know, the fear of loss is often more motivating than the promise of gain.
Social proof is powerful. It’s hard-wired into us. And it works in fundraising.
But the social proof used in most appeals is fairly basic. It often consists of simply adding a circle around a dollar handle on the response device, with a callout, saying, "Many people give this amount."
Highlighting a gift handle like this can boost response. It’s also a good way to upgrade donors by targeting an amount that is a little-above-average gift. But you can go a step further.
Research suggests that social proof is even more effective when the array of choices is greater. So if your gift string consists of the usual three or four gift handles, try increasing that to eight or 10, and circle the upgrade amount. Within a bigger-gift array, the target amount will stand out even more, and the social proof will be even stronger.
Another way to add social proof is localization—adding in the name of the donor’s city to your appeal. Perhaps in a headline or in the beginning of the appeal, you can say something like, "Join your neighbors in [city name]." Again, this can work well, especially when combined with the "Many people give this amount" callout described above.
But you can go further, if you have reliable data about your donors. You can determine the number of donors on your list for a particular city or region, and add that number in—provided the quantities are reasonable. So, in your appeal, you can say, "Join X of your neighbors in [city name]." You’re adding more specificity and power to social proof.
Then there's the donor testimonial. No doubt you’ve used this technique in an appeal, quoting a donor saying something like, "I think XYZ is a fantastic organization, and that’s why I give." Fair enough. Testimonials are classic social proof.
But there’s another approach that can work even better. Instead of a testimonial, you can create a donor story. Interview a donor to get the information. And in your appeal, you can tell the story of how Mary Smith looked for a way to do good, found your organization, learned about it and its mission, vetted it for transparency and effectiveness, and then decided to become a supporter. Reading that story, your prospective donor sees the path for support clearly laid out. It then becomes easier to follow.
These three ways to use social proof—the highlighted gift handle, localization and the testimonial—almost always boost response, sometimes dramatically. But there’s another way to inject social proof, and it involves only a simple shift in the way you present donor benefits.
Donor benefits usually are written in the second person, using the word "you." For example, in your appeal, you might say, "You can see your gift double in impact," "You can save lives around the world," "You can make a big difference for suffering people" and so on. These are strong, you-oriented donor benefits.
But by changing "you" to "they" in some instances, you inject social proof. That’s because the shift to "they" reinforces the idea that there’s a mass of people out there who are giving to your nonprofit and doing all kinds of good. This is social proof at its core.
Copy might go like this: "Your neighbors in [city name] are giving donations of $25, and they’re seeing their gifts double in impact. These folks are doing good and saving lives in poverty zones all around the world. Look at how they’re helping. They’re sending medicine. They’re sending medical care. They’re taking positive action to make a real and lasting difference in the world."
The message is that "they" are good, humanitarian people doing all these admirable things, and before long, your prospective donor starts thinking, "Hey, I want to do those things too."
Once you’ve presented they-oriented donor benefits, you can switch the focus back to you-oriented benefits in order to move your donor into the ask. For example, you might say, "Now you can have this kind of impact too. Your gift of $35 will do $50 of good," "Your gift of $50 will do $100 of good” and so on.
The message to donors is clear: Here’s your opportunity to do good, just as the others in the group are doing. It’s another, more subtle way to enhance your appeal with social proof.
So, what kind of social proof should you avoid like the plague? It’s negative social proof. You see it copy like this: "We’re sending out thousands of these letters, but sadly only a few people will respond. Please be one of those special donors." Or: "Just a tiny fraction of people who believe in our cause actually give."
These fundraisers are trying to use guilt, but instead they’re unwittingly signaling that most of their supporters don’t give. The subtext to the donor is, "Most people don’t give, so it’s OK if you don’t, either."
The example of negative social proof just shows that trying to apply donor psychology in appeals can be tricky. But when you stick with proven techniques for social proof, you can expect not only better response but also happier donors who give for deeper, more emotional reasons and find their giving personally gratifying.
An agency-trained, award-winning, freelance fundraising copywriter and consultant with years of on-the-ground experience, George specializes in crafting direct mail appeals, online appeals and other communications that move donors to give. He serves major nonprofits with projects ranging from specialized appeals for mid-level and high-dollar donors, to integrated, multichannel campaigns, to appeals for acquisition, reactivation and cultivation.