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How Introverts Feel About "Social Proof"

Results of a Survey Conducted by Marcia Yudkin

March 2014

Your mom: "If everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, 
would you, too?"

Background of the Survey

The term "social proof" as used by copywriters goes back to social psychologist Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.  Based on experimental and observational data, Cialdini put forth social proof as one of six key elements of influence, explaining it as people wanting to do what they see others doing.

Cialdini's examples of effective social proof included a wide range of phenomena, from TV laugh tracks, the naming of people who just donated during a public radio donation drive, and the salting of tip jars with a few starter dollars up to seemingly contagious suicides and accidents.

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Cialdini interpreted our apparent instinct to follow others as a reasonable rule of thumb, on the whole.  "Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do," he says.  On the other hand, he found some copycat behavior highly disturbing.

Influenced by Cialdini's work, marketers and copywriters have invented a host of ways, some honest and straightforward, some dishonest or cravenly manipulative, to capitalize on this rule of thumb.  Social proof includes testimonial quotes, earnings screen shots, case studies, number of followers, "most forwarded" lists, public (or member) rating systems, and much more.

This trend has accelerated with the wide usage of social media.  Many businesses chase desperately after "likes," retweets and positive online reviews in the belief (sometimes justified) that these increase sales.  Some online marketplaces have built sales rank or sales numbers into their very structure, so shoppers can automatically see what's selling the most and how well any particular item is doing, or find the item with the most positive reviews.  Here social proof has an institutionalized impact that is hard to escape.

In March 2014, Shel Horowitz interviewed me on the topic of marketing to introverts, and as I described several kinds of pitches that according to my research were a huge turnoff to introverts, Shel exclaimed, "Introverts don't respond to social proof!"

This got me thinking.  The conventional wisdom is that social proof works across the board and that every marketer should use it.  However, American society takes extroverts as the norm, and extroverts constitute the majority.  

If you go by what works with the majority, yet your customers skew to the introvert side of the personality spectrum, would you be making a mistake to use social proof in your marketing?  And even if a majority of your customers are extroverts, matching the general population, would you be unintentionally turning off introverts, and thus missing out on their business, by using social proof in your marketing?

All in all, are introverts immune or indifferent to social proof, hostile to it or selective in the types of social proof they pay attention to and respect?  This is what I explored in my March 2014 survey.  

Highlights of the Survey Results

More than 300 self-described introverts responded to the survey, and as I suspected, their responses indicated a nuanced approach to marketers' use of popularity, what others are doing and reflected glory from others.

On the one hand, 51 percent of the introvert respondents said that if their utility company showed them data that they were using more electricity than comparable neighbors, they would take a serious look at their energy use.  Another 33 percent said they'd consider doing so.  In this context, respondents overwhelmingly felt what neighbors were doing was relevant.

On the other hand, when told that a website they'd never seen before had 255,000 newsletter subscribers, just 10 percent of introvert respondents found the number of subscribers relevant and impressive.  A solid 69 percent felt the number of subscribers was irrelevant, and 21 percent said they would not subscribe if the website implied they should subscribe because so many others do.

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Likewise, only 7 percent of introvert respondents said they would be more likely to buy from or hire a consultant who had "shared the stage" with top business or military leaders Norman Schwarzkopf, Carly Fiorina and Richard Branson.  Clearly the consultant had included that information in his or her bio thinking it would have a positive impact.  Most said it would have no impact on their buying decisions, but 11 percent said it would make them less favorably disposed to the consultant.

See the Interpretation section below for my reflections on types of social proof and their implications for both sellers and buyers.

Limitations of the Survey

Because I invited only self-identified introverts to take the survey, we can't be certain how extroverts feel on these questions. In addition, I would be the last person to claim that the survey was constructed or conducted with a proper claim to statistical validity.  I hope the responses are suggestive enough for someone with greater resources and training to do more in-depth research.

In addition, you have to keep in mind that what people say they do or like and what they actually do or how they actually respond are two different things.  Cialdini starts his chapter on social proof with the observation, "I don't know anyone who likes canned laughter."  Yet "experiments have found that the use of canned merriment causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier."

Question-by-Question Discussion

Earnings graphic.  "As part of a pitch for a new product, a marketer shows a screen shot of the marketer's earnings spiking to a new plateau after implementing the new product.  Your thinking?"

32% said the earnings screen shot would make them much or somewhat more likely to buy the product.  This is the desired effect, of course, but it was not the majority response.

45% said the earnings screen shot would have no influence on their buying decision.

23% said the earnings screen shot would make them much or somewhat less likely to buy the product.

Many comments for this question showed a high degree of skepticism.  "I usually assume that this type of marketing is a lie" was a representative comment.  "Hype!" was another.  Others pointed out how easily such graphs can be faked.

Credibility by association. "An expert's bio says the expert has shared the stage with General Norman Schwarzkopf, Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and Virgin Founder Richard Branson.  Your reaction?"

7% said they'd be more likely to buy the expert's book or hire the expert.

82% said this information would have no impact on their buying decision.

11% said they'd be less likely to buy the expert's book or hire the expert.

A disparaging expression that came up a lot in the comments was "name dropping."  One person noted sarcastically, "This guy likes to be on stage with big shots.  Good for him."

I was surprised by the number of respondents who wrote that they weren't sure what "shared the stage" meant, exactly, or why it was supposed to be impressive.  Said several, "Who cares?"  Speakers, take note!

Media coverage.   "You're searching for a financial services advisor and come across a local expert who's been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Huffington Post and Money Magazine.  As a result..."

1% said the media coverage would convince them to hire the expert.

39% said the media coverage would make them lean toward hiring the person.

37% said the media coverage would have no influence.

23% said the media coverage would get them leaning against hiring the expert or would convince them not to.

Reasons given for negative responses to the media coverage indicated that it wasn't a reaction to the media coverage per se, but rather that certain assumptions were operating:  "With all that fancy-schmancy media coverage I probably wouldn't be able to afford him, so I'd tend to look for someone else" or "Because of all the buzz, I'd worry I couldn't reach the person if I had a question" or "They might be more hype than substance, and I'd want Steady Eddie for a financial consultant."  (These responses hint at a definite niche for advisors who are competent "nobodies"!)

Quite a number of people rightly pointed out that self-promotion success doesn't necessarily prove financial competence.  However, hardly anyone expressed scorn for this publicity-savvy expert.

Popularity #1.  "The home page of a website you've never visited before invites you to 'Join the 255,000 subscribers who eagerly open our newsletter every Wednesday.'  What do you do?"

Less than 1% would sign up, convinced by the number of subscribers.

9% would lean toward signing up, influenced by the number of subscribers.

69% said the number of subscribers would be irrelevant to them when it came to signing up or not.

21% would not subscribe, finding the implication that they'd subscribe because others do offensive.

The overwhelming majority of the introvert respondents did not find this popularity pitch persuasive. 

One person remarked, however, "The idea that the suggestion to join 255,000 subscribers could be offensive is beyond laughable."  Yet more than one in five checked off exactly that option!

Popularity #2.  "While you are shopping on a website containing many items of interest to you, you see a link promising to take you to another page listing 'Our Most Popular Products.' Do you click on that link?"

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55% would probably or definitely click to see the site's most popular products.

45% would probably or definitely not click to see the site's most popular products.

Introverts found this popularity pitch a good deal more acceptable than the previous one.  A typical note said, "It's a nice feature to have, even if it wouldn't make me want to buy those products."  Another common remark was, "I'd be curious to see what's most popular.  It helps me stay informed on trends."  

In the comments, not one person declared this tactic offensive.  I think that's because the invitation to click left it to the visitor to decide whether or not the popularity was relevant to them.  Those who didn't want to see the most popular products said things like, "I'm interested in what I'm interested in, not what's popular."

Recommendations.  "The same day, three different people you follow praise a new book to the skies in their blogs or tweets.  Your response?"

83% would be somewhat or very interested in checking out the new book.

10% said they'd be unmoved by the recommendations.

7% would be somewhat or very much NOT interested in checking out the new book because of the posts/tweets.

Here we're not talking about popularity but about influence.  Several respondents thought the close timing might indicate a marketing campaign and incentives behind the recommendations, which they felt might negate the value of the praise.  Many said it depended on the topic of the book or on who the recommenders were and why they were following them.  One wrote, "I like to listen to others' opinions if I know where they are coming from, but of course I still make my own choices."

With the scenario in this question, introverts were much more willing to check out the products than with simple popularity.

Neighbors' actions.  "Your utility company sends you a chart showing that you using more electricity than your neighbors with comparably sized properties.  This prompts you to..."

51% said they'd take a serious look at their energy use.

33% said they'd consider taking a look at their energy use.

16% said they'd toss away the mailing and do nothing.

Do introverts care what others are doing?  In this question, there may be a rational basis for knowing what's up with the Joneses.  If the Joneses consume less electricity and have a comparably sized property, maybe I could also use less - and save money too.  My husband and I receive a mailing like this every so often from Hawaii Energy, comparing the electricity usage for our Maui condo to neighbors', and I actually find it useful information.

Several people clarified that they would pay attention to the mailing not because of peer pressure or a desire to compete with the neighbors but out of care for the environment, and because the chart indicated they could probably do more to help.  A few people said they found it invasive or inappropriate for the energy company to be giving out this information.  One wrote, "Those charts are obnoxious."  Another wrote, "I'd dislike the utility company for trying to chastise me by implication."

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Sales figures.   On this question, I intended to ask whether or not you would sign up for an on-demand online course that so far had next to no signups, in contrast to others that had hundreds or thousands of students.  However, I could tell from the comments that I didn't state this question clearly.  Many people were answering with a classroom-like course in mind, where a low-enrollment class could feel rather dreary and where it might risk cancellation.  

Would introverts be brave enough to eat at the restaurant with an empty parking lot or to buy the book that looked from the ratings like only one or two people had purchased it, ever?  Alas, I don't have good data on this issue because I messed up in asking about it.

A majority of those responding to my poorly worded question did say they would probably or definitely take the course regardless of the student count, if they were interested in it.  Sentiments expressed by several of the commentors included:  "I'm not afraid of being an early adopter," "I'm most interested in the subject, not the student count," and "Reviews would influence me more than the student numbers."  

Interpretation from Marcia Yudkin

This survey convinced me that it's too simplistic to say that introverts are indifferent to or hostile to social proof being used by marketers.  Rather, I would classify forms of social proof on a continuum from sheer cheerleading on the basis of popularity at one end to rationales that have logical grounding at the other end:

Bandwagon Appeals  <- - - - ->  Rational Relevance

Social proof falling on the left side of the continuum does a better job of enticing extroverts than introverts, while social proof falling on the right side of the above continuum has higher odds of swaying introverts. 

Bandwagon appeals explicitly refer to something's popularity in an attempt to get more people climbing on board.  When such pitches offer nothing but the numbers or rank and either enthusiasm or fear-mongering, then this is a big turnoff for introverts.  This includes fervent references to endorsements by authority figures.  For example:

"9,000 Coaches Can't Be Wrong!"

"Read the #1 Best-selling Career Book - or Finish Last"

"Get the Gadget That Oprah is Raving About"

"Who Wouldn't Want the #1 Brand?" 

"You Can't Ignore Someone With 107,522 Facebook Followers"

Remember what I said at the start about extroverts being in the majority in the US?  That's why lines like those above may test well, overall.  If all you care about is influence over the majority, bandwagon appeals may win the day for you.  But if you aim to earn the loyalty of introverts as well as extroverts, the above are treacherous headlines.

Bandwagon appeals minus the emotion do not usually persuade introverts, but they don't necessarily offend them, either, as we saw in the scenario where a site invites visitors to check out its most popular items. 

Introverts don't mind appeals to public or expert opinion as long as they believe the opinions are most likely genuine, from people like themselves or those they respect and there's some credible connection between opinion and reality.  Ditto for information on the neighbors.  It also helps if these appeals have a low-key tone rather than in the equivalent of bright colors and all-capital letters.  For example:

A national poll of car mechanics indicating a preference for a certain brand of tools.

A factual summary of 1- to 5-star user reviews where readers can drill down and read what the users actually wrote.

Customer stories that describe exactly how a product or service solved their problem.

Expert endorsements giving the reasons for the praise.

Also relatively innocuous and possibly helpful where introverts are concerned, I believe, are social-proof tactics like:

Number of people who shared an article or blog post.

List of media mentions achieved by a company or individual.

Roll call of client companies.

Written or video testimonials from customers as long as these are not merely emotive ("Love it!" "Awesome").

Selected Respondent Comments on Social Proof in General

"People are lemmings, even we introverts. We just don't want to be on stage in the spotlight as 'Top Lemming.'"

"I think social proof has some validity, but in many areas it is overused and tends to look scammy."

"Social proof is an important way to cut through the 'noise' of the overload of information sent my way daily."

"I am much more likely to pay attention to social proof if I respect the source and am interested in learning more."

"I would steer clear of implying that people would be more likely to do something because it's popular.  No one wants to be assumed to be a mindless robot.  But so long as your social proof remains centered just in expressing other people's satisfaction, you'll be good."

"I think social proof may be persuasitve for more social, outgoing people, and perhaps introverts are more influenced by facts, figures, features and benefits."

"Personally I resist it when it's pitched to me that 'everyone' is doing it."

"Social proof influences me to do more research, not necessarily to purchase."

"I would be embarrassed putting the implication before potential customers that they were herd animals!"

"I think social proof is powerful because of competition and the logic that if many are using something it must be for a reason."

"Even if social proof has little effect on me, I need to use it in my marketing because it is relevant to others."

"Social proof isn't a factor for everyone.  At best it has a mild effect on people accustomed to making their own decisions."

"Not because I want to fit in, but it helps me feel safer buying something, feeling it's likely something I'll be glad I purchased."

For more critical thinking about introverts, sign up for my free Introvert UpThink newsletter.


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