While researching my new book Return On Influence, I immersed myself in the world of the Internet elite and concluded that on the social web, the badges of “social proof” really do matter … probably more than real achievement! So it may come as a surprise that I have made a decision to ignore them, for good business reasons.

Social proof is a critical concept behind influence in both the offline and the online worlds. In the absence of enough information to make our own decision, we turn to signals from others to help us find a way forward.

Here’s a simple example — Let’s say you are at the site of a terrible car wreck and two people are shouting orders. One is wearing a doctor’s lab coat and one is wearing a pizza delivery uniform.  Which directions are you likely to follow?

A social proof “badge” can bestow authority whether it is deserved or not.  Somebody who wears a doctor’s lab coat, has an office decorated with diplomas, or drives an exotic car is communicating “power” — even if they are a fake.  It’s a type of herd mentality, and it can be both dangerous and useful, depending on the situation.

Social proof is even more important in the online world 

A badge like number of Twitter followers or a Klout score may be the ONLY mechanism we have to determine influence in the online world.  Offline, we may have the chance to meet people, or ask a mutual friend to help us determine credibility.  But this type of validation is often not possible online, so we seek a shortcut, and on the social web, there are plenty of them!

We are all suffering from information overload in this data-dense online world. We simply don’t have the energy to do any more digging and will gladly accept a “badge” as proof of authority.

When establishing online influence, social proof matters … even more than real achievement.  I’m sure more people know how many Twitter followers I have than any aspect of my career, education, or charitable work.

Driving the wrong behaviors

So it probably doesn’t make sense to you when I tell you that I have eliminated many typical elements of social proof from my blog. Look around at other social media blogs and they are decorated with more badges than a five-star general.  It makes good business sense to do this.  And while {grow} has been on its fair share of “Top 10″ lists (I was recently named on of the “Top 50 Power Influencers” by Forbes), I have decided  to take down the badges.

The reason is simple. Like any good business person, I’m competitive.  And these often meaningless numbers were driving the wrong behaviors for me and my business.

Here’s an example of how social proof can be important and meaningless at the same time.

The AdAge blog ranking has been rendered virtually useless after the changes they made last summer but it remains the most popular “badge” you see on social media blogs.  But the ranking has nothing to do with the quality of your content or the vibrancy of your community. You can climb the list by buying backlinks and gaming StumbleUpon. 20 percent of the ranking is an arbitrary rating given by a guy named Todd. One blog in the top 100 has not even been updated since 2009.

So this numerical ranking is just plain dumb.  Social proof like this is fool’s gold — sparkly but meaningless. It can’t buy you a cup of coffee. And yet, due to my competitive nature, every time I dropped a few spots, I started to scheme about getting more “Stumble votes” or whatever.  This is absolutely the wrong thing for me to be focusing on! This is gaming a number to establish social proof, not engaging in an activity that is directly serving my customers and driving income.

I need to focus on three priorities in my business: Clients, Content, and College Classes.  Anything beyond that is a distraction. I don’t have the resources to game social proof badges like the silly AdAge system every week.

A personal decision

Social proof is important, but it was driving the wrong behaviors in me personally.  So I have simply decided to ignore the numbers … for the most part.  I literally have no idea how many Facebook, LinkedIn, or YouTube followers/friends I have.  I have a rough idea of the Twitter followers because it is so prominent on my profile.  I only check the number of blog readers I have once a month or so.  I have not looked at my AdAge ranking in three months. And the blog?  All the “buzz badges” are gone. The one number I do pay attention to is the social shares for each blog post because I think that is a good sign of feedback — those are your “votes” on what content is working for the community.

So I’m not following my own advice around social proof — but it is the best advice for me at this point in time of my life.  I’m hoping that if I put that “social proof energy” toward delivering consistently great content that the results will follow.

At least that is the theory.  Maybe someday I will eventually re-join the crowd and focus all my attention on “likes,” followers and popularity contests!  After all, isn’t that what really matters these days?

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