Social Proof is Important

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I would like to start this chapter off with a story. When I was a young graphic designer, one of our clients was a regional auto dealer association. A Ford auto dealer association, to be specific. I was working on a flyer for Ford trucks and the layout was very crowded — with a lot of information. There was a particular line that I felt we could omit from the flyer: “the #1 selling truck in America.” I thought to myself, This isn’t important. Who cares if this truck is the #1 selling truck in America. People aren’t sheep. They want to know if the truck is right for them — not the rest of the country. 

So I asked my boss about deleting the line and it turned out that he had the same question: was that line really important? Long story short, my boss ended up having a conversation with one of the car dealers, a very experienced guy who had been selling cars since way before I had been born. This old timer told my boss that the line “the #1 selling truck in America” was indeed important and that he knew for a fact that customers responded to it. The car dealer explained that it wasn’t that people were sheep, it was more that people like to be assured that they have made the right decision. And one way to do that is to remind them that lots of other people have made that same decision.

That’s the essence of what we now call “social proof.” At its very fundamental level, social proof tells shoppers that “it’s safe to choose this product because other people have made the same choice and have evaluated it already.”

As a side note: much later in my career it finally sunk in. Marketing essentially was helping potential buyers make a choice. These days people have so many choices that it becomes easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why Costco generally only sells three different choices for any product (good, better, best). They have a wide selection, but not a deep selection. This proliferation of choice is especially apparent in the book business. As of this writing, there are over 8.5 million Kindle books listed on Amazon.

Okay, back to our regularly-scheduled program. Social proof actually comes in a few different varieties:

  • Lots of people like this
  • People similar to me like this
  • Someone I know and trust likes this
  • A famous person likes this
  • An expert or an authority likes this

Let’s break down each of these subsets of social proof.

Lots of People Like This

In the Ford truck example, the line “the #1 selling truck in America” was used to convey the idea that lots of people have chosen Ford F Series trucks–more than any other truck in America. And all that is true (Google it). Humans are social animals and we are wired to be aware of how our greater tribe or community behaves. We also believe, on a primal level, that what’s good for our tribe is good for us individually. So we unconsciously make many decisions based on the belief that the “crowd knows best.” 

Here are some examples identified by scientists who study social proof:

  • A crowded restaurant is perceived to be better than one with just a few patrons
  • When other people laugh at a joke, we’re more likely to find it funny. This is why canned laughter was added to sitcoms
  • Anything with a wait list or deemed to be “exclusive” is perceived as desirable

In publishing you see things like a strapline on a book that reads “Over 3 Million Copies in Print” or “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author.” These are both examples of communicating that a lot of people like this book or author and implicit in that is the message “…and you should like it too!”

People Similar to Me Like This

Narrowing it down a bit, we find that some people are more influenced by those who belong to a similar group. The “similar group” could be your neighbors (“Did you know that 81% of homeowners in Orange County are reducing their energy bills by using ceiling fans?”). A book example might be “Voted #1 People’s Choice by Readers of Romantic Times.” Not sure if that award even exists, but you get the idea.

Someone I Know and Trusts Likes This

Another variety of social proof comes from the recommendations of friends, family, and co-workers. We may value their opinions even more than a larger group since we feel we know and trust friends and family and believe that they wouldn’t steer us wrong. It’s common to see manifestations of this kind of social proof on social networks like Facebook, where Madeline might see a post from her aunt who has great taste in books raving about the new John Irving novel. 

A Famous Person Likes This

Whether it makes sense or not, we are swayed by what celebrities think, do, and buy. That’s why a lot of companies hire celebrity endorsers. Sometimes there is an obvious fit between the celeb and the product, like Michael Jordan and Nike. But other times the connection in tenuous (What does George Foreman really know about grilling? Wouldn’t Gordon Ramsay be a better choice?). A head-scratcher for many people is how and why Oprah became the grand anointer of books, but she is. If Oprah likes your book, you have nothing to worry about.

An Expert or an Authority Likes This

The endorsement of someone who is an expert or authority in a particular field can be extremely powerful if there is a natural connection between the expert and the product. Many people would eagerly buy a novel that Stephen King calls “the hands-down scariest story I’ve ever read.”

Of course, endorsers don’t have to be people. They can be publications as well. Usually the endorsement comes in the form of a pull-quote from a review. Who wouldn’t want these blurbs adorning the covers of their books?

  • “Indiana Jones meets James Bond. Non-stop thrills! –Kirkus Reviews”
  • “A beautiful, moving novel that may just change the way you look at your next waitress. –Publisher’s Weekly”
  • “Best Novel of the Year. No, make that Best of the Decade! — TIME Magazine”

All five varieties of social proof are important in book selling, but the ones that are most often used in book descriptions are:

  • Lots of people like this
  • A famous person likes this
  • An expert or an authority likes this

But there are some nuances that you need to be aware of in order to maximize the effectiveness of any social proof statements you include in your book descriptions. 

Book daily deal site Bookbub has a done a great service for authors and publishers by sharing the results of A/B testing that they have conducted on their own site. If you are not familiar with the term ‘A/B test’ just think of it as a test between two similar options. Usually you send half your website visitors to Option A and half to Option B and see which option gets a better response rate. 

In a post titled “How to Improve Your Description Copy to Sell More Ebooks” author Diana Urban shared this from Bookbub’s own A/B tests:

If you have the choice between quoting a review from a bestselling author (or other authority figure) and a publication, choose the author’s quote. Bookbub found that social proof from other authors was over 30% more effective.

What does that mean? If you are so lucky to have the option of deciding which of these two quotes to include:

  • “Gripping! I couldn’t put this book down. –Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code”
  • “A rip-roaring story! The tension and excitement never lets up! –Publisher’s Weekly”

Go for the Dan Brown quote.


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