Don’t Make This Social Proof Mistake

Trusted by 300000 salespeople
Every marketer knows that social proof – showing that other people use your product, support your cause, etc. – is a powerful persuasion tool. It’s one of influence expert Robert Cialdini‘s six main principles, and may be the best-known and most-used of them all. But not all uses of social proof are equally effective.

After reading an enthusiastic review of Yesware by fellow Forbes contributor Alexander Taub, I decided to take a closer look. Yesware is a sales software plugin for Gmail, and has apparently achieved some level of traction.

When web visitors are pondering whether to download a product, showing that “everyone is doing it” is one key way to increase conversion. Even free products (or freemium-model products) encounter resistance. There’s always a chance the product will prove to be useless, or, even worse, will somehow cause problems with the user’s software or hardware. To build confidence, Yesware uses the illustrated odometer-style graphic showing that the product is “Trusted by 300,000 Salespeople.”

That’s an impressive number, and should encourage on-the-fence visitors. I like the use of “trusted” – not only does it emphasize trust (these guys won’t break my mail program or steal my contacts), but it finesses the difference between downloads and active users.

Where this social proof effort goes wrong is the counter-type display with an extremely round number. Research shows that precise numbers tend to be more believable – see Precise Pricing Pays Off, for example. The counter with a perfectly round number like 300,000 lacks precision and looks improbable. The visitor’s non-conscious doubt may be increased by the very precision one expects from an odometer – when was the last time you saw an odometer reading ending in five zeros?

I’m sure that including the 300K number, even presented as they do, causes a higher conversion rate than no number at all. But, I’d test these options against the current design and see if any converted even better:

Good: Lose the counter display, and go with prominent text: “Trusted by more than 300,000 salespeople!” While not precise, this avoids the counter imprecision issue and has the positive implication that a major milestone has been passed.

Better: Keep the counter, and update it daily, or every few days, with the actual number, e.g. “Trusted by 305,226 salespeople!” Now, the counter looks plausible and precise – exactly the reason why you’d use that font instead of traditional type.

Best: Keep the counter and make it dynamic. Either update it in real time, or, if that’s impossible, calculate the average rate of change and use a simple script to increment the count after a specific number of seconds. This has the advantages of the “Better” approach and offers even stronger social proof with its motion.

As any conversion expert would tell you, of course, my suggestions are hypotheses to be tested rather than 100% certain CRO boosters. But, I’d be surprised if at least one didn’t beat the current page design.

Do you use customer counts on your website? Have you found a way to use them that works best? Share your experience in a comment!

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— who has written 984 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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10 responses to "Don’t Make This Social Proof Mistake" — Your Turn

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David @ Growth Hero 20. October 2013 at 8:16 pm

Great article, Roger. How do you know WHEN to start showing off this number? How do you know if the number is “impressive” enough to show off? Should someone use this when they’re starting out and only have dozens of customers?

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
20. October 2013 at 9:12 pm

David, it’s market and product dependent. If you are selling jet aircraft, a dozen or two might be impressive. For free downloads, many thousands could look wimpy. It’s a judgment call, IMO.

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Megan McCormick @ Toronto Wedding Photographer 22. October 2013 at 8:12 pm

David – There are times where you are selling the exclusivity and not the mass product sales. Some people want to know “Used by only the top 1% of the industry”… It really depends on how you are trying to market your brand and your product.

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John S C 21. October 2013 at 8:23 am

Just double checked the Yesware website, as I couldn’t believe that they’d made this social proofing faux-pas. I mean, perhaps you got to their website just at the critical 300,000 sale!

No, of course not. And while I agree with you 100%, as a marketer, I get turned off of the wording too (although I understand, as you mention, the reasons for);

- “Trusted by 300,000 Salespeople.”
1) I don’t use my account for sales reasons.
2) Trusted. Who said I, or any of the 300,000 trust it?! Perhaps we’re all just testing the waters. ;)

I know, it’s the old age story, but there’s reasons, for example, you can’t use the word, “best” in Adwords ad copy. I wish organisations such as IAB could clamp down on this absolute tosh of sales talk!

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
22. October 2013 at 1:01 am

Puffery is pretty much fair game, John, irksome as it is sometimes! (So, I guess they’ll have to make it 299,999 salespeople, as long as they are striving for precision!)

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Steve 24. October 2013 at 6:52 pm

Hi Roger, I agree that social proof is an important persuasion tactic, but this case feels a little fishy to me. First, the use of the counter implies something is being counted, and the count changes whenever a new ‘event’ occurs. If they’re just saying they have around/at least/more than 300,000 users, maybe it would be more persuasive just to say that! Then the rounded number makes sense, because it’s a general magnitude, not pretending to be a “live” count. If they are referring to “downloads” rather than “users,” and are translating that act into “trusted by,” then I think they are getting into a grey area on the far side of puffery.

To me (and maybe it’s just me), unless they have a survey where 300,000 people said they “trusted” this product (and I didn’t see any asterisk and footnote to that effect) they shouldn’t be using this kind of language. It signals that they are slick sales folks who play fast and loose with language, and makes me less, rather than more, likely to trust them. So this feels like a backfire to me.

There is some interesting research on “reverse priming” effects (Laran, Juliano, Amy N. Dalton, and Eduardo B. Andrade. “The Curious Case of Behavioral Backlash: Why Brands Produce Priming Effects and Slogans Produce Reverse Priming Effects.” Journal of Consumer Research 37.6 (2011): 999-1014.) You pointed out similar research in a 2007 post, ‘”Don’t Buy” Button Located in the Brain’ (see, I’m a long-time fan!).

In the Laran study, they found that people were reversed-primed by marketing stimuli that were too obviously persuasion attempts (that is, they acted in the opposite direction from the persuasion message), and further, that this effect occurred even when people were unaware they had seen the stimuli (subliminal presentation).

I think this built-in resistance to persuasion in consumers is something that marketers need to understand better. It is one reason why consumers, even when they use predominantly nonconscious processes, don’t turn into zombies and follow marketers blindly.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
26. October 2013 at 11:00 am

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis and the study info, Steve! In general, I’m a big fan of using social proof, but this one is a bit off. I’m not totally uncomfortable with “trusted” – I guess if you give a tool access to your Gmail account, you trust it. But I do agree it’s somewhere near the limit of credibility.

Roger

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Usman Malik 26. October 2013 at 7:07 am

Great article, Many Black hatters and liers use this as a TRICK to increase sales and promote business. It should be avoided..

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Wan 30. January 2014 at 4:01 am

Great post, Roger.

A dynamic countdown certainly looks enticing and believable.

And I agree that the rounded numbers is off-putting.

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Anupam Bonanthaya 23. March 2014 at 7:50 am

Good point. If you can do a dynamic counter then don’t show rounded numbers. If not, then rephrase it so that it does not look a fake.

Example – the Yesware snippet above could have been – trusted by more than 300,000 sales folks OR trusted by more than 0.3 million sales folks ( agree 0.3 mil does not look as impressive as 300,000 … But if it does)

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