Social proof and your battle for credibility


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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  • Scarycath

    I’ve never believed in the ‘badge’ of ‘social proof’. I’ve often found those at the ‘top’ to be the most repetitive, boring, non communicating types. So what you’re doing makes perfect sense to me. I’m all for the listening, sharing, engaging route. Way to go Mark!

  • Another excellent post, Mark, thank you.  I had something similar when I recently backed away from paying undue attention to ym Klout score.  I had not been involved with Klout for very long but realised I was spending time each day worrying about whether my Klout score was up or down, looking at the component parts and then, worst of all, acting in a way that I analysed would push my Klout score up.
    Don’t get me wrong.  I am not vehemently anti-Klout, although I can certainly see some weakenesses, but, much as you have described, it had got me distracted into an activity that was doing nothing to drive forward those projects I should have been focussed on.
    I found it quite invigorating to walk away from my Klout score and focus again on my main priorities.  I gather that you flound the same ?

  • Kerry Drewett

    Mark, your post is really refreshing! The  cacophany of everyone blowing his out of tune horn on the internet is deafening! I truly admire your courage to take a stand on a a very important issue. The tremendous potential value of the internet is constantly being jeopardized by all the BS, lies ,misinformation and hype. Thank you for your inspiring integrity!

  • Mark:

    I am impressed with your self awareness… and your ability to harness your competitive nature.  Most people are oblivious to their real-time behaviors, much less the results produced.  But  this falls in line with what I discovered about you some time ago.  While you are certainly ‘social savvy’ it doesn’t define you.  Social is only a part of a much larger idea set you deliver on a daily basis. If only I could keep myself from competing in games that don’t matter… maybe some day!

  • Certainly being social cannot be proved by badges. But to not show them is a privilege of the successful but humble blogger.
    Kind regards from Germany

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  • Content wins out! I’ve lost count of the blogs and ebooks Ive engaged with only to then drop at some point a few weeks down the line. Usually because I simply dont have time to wade through the bragging and sales spiel to get to the juice!
    I used to feel bad about it, but now as my Twitter followers especially grow on their own account I have the confidence to block and drop those that don’t offer value
    I’d imagine most ‘real people’ are the same when not hide bound by the requirement to ‘reseach’ the topic as us ‘media types’ are!
    The internet as the ulitmate democracy, where value is key, and content is king.
    Same as it ever was?
    thanks Mark, this is one blog I keep coming back to time and again

  • I hear you, and we’re dumping the badges in our new redesign as well. More for user interface reasons, but also to some degree based on what you’ve articulated here. 

    However, to play devil’s advocate, I’d argue that it’s MUCH easier for you to dump the badges now that you are a well known social media player, have two books out, etc. The less you need social proof, the less you want it. The more you need it, the more you want it. I’m neutral on your decision, but I wonder whether you would have made it a year ago. That doesn’t make you wrong, just human. 

  • Anonymous

    “This is gaming a number to establish social proof, not engaging in an
    activity that is directly serving my customers and driving income.”

    Totally get it and totally agree…but there is one interesting use for these faux measures of relevance and true influence. They are a sort of “critical thinking Rorschach test” for your clients, colleagues, and executive teams.

    As you’d noted in Return on Influence, people are awash in data and are looking for the faster path to wisdom-from-data. Badges give the impression of being that faster path.

    Those who do the digging know enough about how these scores and badges are compiled to know their weakness, and then choose to use or not depending on their personal and business needs.

    Those who don’t do the digging, or fail to apply critical thinking skills, are the people who make it possible for the badge-makers to blossom. (Badge-Maker to Minions: “Hey, let’s start some new influence rankery! It could make us squillionaires!”)

    I’ve worked with people who devalued potential job candidates based on Klout scores without taking the time to do a phone interview. And I know more than a few marketing folks who pump up their badgery because they truly believe those badges show they have worth.

    Since it’s more fun for me to work with people who have awesome critical thinking skills, I try and use the whole badge thing to find such folks. 🙂

  • You’ve got a good point here Jay about playing devil’s advocate. I’m sure some would jump at the chance to have a badge in the first place. 

    Personally I haven’t needed a badge thus far, thankfully, but if business runs dry I’ll be out there hunting one down :=)

  • As a child I never realized how smart Dr. Seuss was but as a grown up I have learned that we are all Sneetches.

  •  Of course I don’t find it in the least bit awkward that I now see you were guest blogger on the Klout blog today !

  • Well, I want to empahsize that it does mean something to people so dumping the badges is not for everyone!  Thanks Cath!

  • I do have integrity but I don’t think that had to do with this decision. It was just taking too much time and distracting me. I don’t begrudge anybody who does it though.  Thanks very much Kerry!

  • Now there is this little thing called Words With Friends I’m addicted too … : )

  • I always appreciate your wisdom, friend!

  • Thank you friend. I appreciate the fact that you took time out of your busy day at the radio station to comment today! 

  • It is amazing to see people making up awards and badges. It’s become a cottage industry : )  Superb comment as always!

  • Oh what a comment. I’m dying here Jack. Beautiful.

  • Ha! Talk about timing. I do not obsesses about Klout score. I spend literally zero time on the Klout site. I wrote a guest post in hopes that it would sell a few books. : ) Thanks for commenting Matt!

  • I’m weird. I never really participated in the mainstream game and badges thing any way. I didn’t put badges up there even when I earned them. I have done a lousy job marketing myself, my blog and my books and I consider it a small miracle that any one is here at all! 

    Like most things, I give better marketing advice than what I put into practice and for new people starting out, I would actually recommend putting a few badges on there if they mean something to you. It’s much more fun being in a crowded restaurant than an empty one. Social proof absolutely makes a big difference in real life and especially on the social web.

    Look forward to seeing your redesign by the way!!! Always an honor to have you comment Jay!

  • I have some extra badges Jon. Just name it. I even have some in Swedish.

  • Anonymous

    In critical moments always remember where you came from. In today’s fast moving market it seems that anything can happen anytime. I’ve been following Mark now for quite some time and I just love to see his passion for his community and the way he has been posting awesome content over the past months and years. Especially his human side and trustworthy blog posts are rare to find these days. 

    I am fully supporting your decision and hopefully you don’t ever need to worry about the “likes”, followers and popularity contests so you can keep focusing on great content.

  • I have to say that badges never really impressed me … what does peak my interest are testimonials – especially from well known people in a niche. 

    Even then, content demonstrating your abilities, your successes (and mistakes) and HOW you can help trumps the biggest brightest badge you can display!
    Like you I’m not interested in playing games … 

    The only number that is ever any concern/relevance to me is that of my bank account. Yes, I said it, I blog for dough, NOT for show. 

  • An interesting point, Jay. I don’t display any badges on my blog because, well, I’ve not risen to that level of recognition! 😉

    There are bloggers that I read and respect who have the buzz badges displayed, but I know that they’re not trying to chase paper tigers of social proof. The work that they do speaks volumes.  

  • “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

    Mark, Once again you have had a great idea before I even knew enough to have the question. We don’t have that many “merit badges” on our MLT Creative site but I’m thinking we could probably put that space to better use now that you’ve caused me to think about it.

    Your post reminded me of my scouting experiences as both a young boy and later as a father of two young boys.

    When I joined scouts in elementary school I couldn’t stand the title of “Tenderfoot” and I was determined to make it to “First-Class” on a fast track. But once there, I was intrigued by the older guys with their sashes and belts full of badges and pins. I would’ve surely spent time pursuing my share of the glory if I hadn’t first learned girls weren’t the least bit impressed by merit badges.
    I spent one last summer scouting contently with my First-Class rank and then retired my uniform.

    My sons never made it past cub scouts. I tried, I really tried to be a scouting dad. I was even the assistant cub master. But every meeting was spent hustling kids through some 30 minute achievement so they could all be paraded up repeatedly at the next big troop meeting for multiple awards. It was ALL about the badges. Those little kids would have had more fun kicking the can on a dirt field than clinking around with all those badges, pins, medals and medallions. I retired all of us from scouting again.

    I have nothing against scouting. Great organization and many great leaders got their start as scouts.
    It was just my opinion that the awards had become more of the focus than the experience of earning the awards.

    Speaking of earning, I need to follow your lead about that too and get back to the business of creating the best content we can for our agency and our clients. We don’t need no stinking badges.

  • Great post Mark, loved the reference to the real world.

    We are all looking for clues about how to make decisions. When fear gets in the way of a decision we want proof. We don’t trust our gut so we start looking for external clues.

    My husband just did an interesting research project, they were able to demonstrate increased levels of trust in a guy based on nothing more than a photo and the medical instruments and equipment he had on or near him. There is a reason Dr Oz wears his theatre blues on TV!

    So true about the badges. Some of the best blogs I read obviously don’t have big followings but the content is original and stimulating. If I ever did ‘earn’ one (unlikely since I mostly don’t write SEO friendly post headlines) I’d be very reluctant to spoil the aesthetic of my blog design and experience for visitors.

  • Interesting point Jay. Agreed not so easy for someone who is starting out who may actually need proof to convince and convert. Whatever we think personally badges build a level of credibility and trust.

    I wonder if it also depends on the perceived value of the ‘badge’ to us personally too?

    For example Mark if ROI becomes a NYT number one bestseller you’d quite rightly want to should that from the rooftops… no?

  • Great association Billy.
    The acts lost all meaning, the only thing that was important was the badge.

  • Great comment Jason. Thanks! 

  • I can’t say it won’t EVER happen, but this is what works for me right now : )  Thanks Claude!

  • You are my hero Ameena! : )

  • You are one of the gifted writers and storytellers I know.  We will all be wiser with more of your content Billy!  You made my day with this story. Thanks!

  • The design piece of it is very true too. When i see a blog that looks like Times Square it is an immediate turn-off. It looks like people are trying too hard or trying to push something at me. Nice contribution to the discussion Bernadette. Thank you!

  • I am not familiar with Sneetches, but the term seems appropriate.

    I’m in a particularly great spot to make a comment on this. I play a little game called Empire Avenue, and it’s as much a social network as it is a game, but there is a lot of social proof on there.

    I have a low score on EMpire Avenue, a low Klout score I assume, a low everything, but I would bet that through my combined onlined Interests I have a better bottom line than most. I just don’t care that much about the scores, and like you I had found myself trying to improve them or keep them steady etc. for a long time. It just came to a point where I don’t care, and I didn’t have an epiffany, I didn’t really reach a level where it wouldn’t be useful (I actually do have some buttons and such on my personal blog, mostly as a connection point – I even own the site that renders one of them. I haven’t dumped it completely, but I would figure that I care less about it than even you now, it was just some personality change or something). I am still at a level where my influence pays bigger dividends than the influence of people who follow me, and I think that is probably where it becomes less important as a badge.

    Lately I’ve been trying to tell other Empire Avenue Players and really anyone who uses social networking that will listen that not only is spending time doing the things you’ve mentioned a waste of it, but the behaviors themselves are usually at odds with what you’re trying to accomplish. I just launched a new website that’s on our favorite little topic here, and I made sure that several of the first pieces published talked about ROI and how not to play around in social media.

    I think that you’ve said it best here though. You said what I tried to say, clearly, and it makes sense. I do a lot of things online everyday, sometimes the result is an increase in a certain PI metric too, so I guess the actual habits and behaviors didn’t seem damaging or costly to me because of their similarity to other web development tasks. I truly need to audit the things I spend my time on better. Do you think it would help someone with less notoriety to write a phenomenal blog post, or find themselves listed as one of the most important social media influencers on Klout though?

    Funny though, on the new site I mentioned I launched an application similar to the AdAge list. I developed a shiny button for people to display (Even I was impressed with my graphic lol) and I’m betting that the social proof is enough to get them to use it. It ONLY measures the enthusiasm of your social networks though, that and your enthusiasm in asking your network to vote and move you up the list. I think that my lack of enthusiasm for social proof may have stemmed from the ethical obligation not to game my site on my own list. Isn’t psychology fun?

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  • Claire Axelrad

    Were I a Gospel choir I’d be singing AMEN in multi-part harmony.

  • Mark, removing the badges is probably good because they aren’t offering social proof.  The social proof you are using is the list of groups under “Groups we believe in”.  You are absconding with some of their credibility – likely with their knowledge and permission.  But, nonetheless a valid use of social proof.

  • My memory must be failing – I was sure you used to have a bunch of badges in your sidebar. Isn’t the image in the post (the one with all the badges) from your earlier choice?

    This part of the post would also suggest you did have the badges up there:

    “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.

  • Hi Mark, thanks for the insightful (as ever) post 🙂 what comes out very strongly from what you’ve written and from others in the comments, is that we should all be actively making decisions about how we maintain our reputations online, just as we do offline. By actively I mean in full awareness of the implications of what the various measures of success or progress we are using to guide our efforts. Are the things we’re worrying about actually helping us achieve our goals? Are they helping or hindering us to coherently express our own voices and styles?

    I tend to agree with you about the badges not being the right way to go, but then I’ve never been a fan of being overly ostentatious about anything and prefer to let my actual results or something much more personal to me be my credentials. But then I guess that means I have to work harder to help people understand what I am about. I don’t see that as a hardship though.

  • Claire Dunford, @rainbowclaire

    You’re so right Ameena. It’s testimonials that have the real influence, not some pixels arranged in a pretty pattern.

    There is this confusion online that a badge is simply a visual representation of a testimonial. Clearly that’s just not the case. A testimonial gives you insight, a personal reflection, an opinion, a situation. All a badge gives you is an algorithm.

  • No the image in the post was not my blog. The only badge I had on my blog was the AdAge one and some top PR thing.

  • So, in summary, you don’t care aout social badges, but are creating social badges : )

  • Many thanks, Claire.

  • That is a very interesting idea. I never thought of it that way but in an indirect way you are right. I do this to lend support to these organizations but you are correct that I do choose to associate myself with these “brands.” great observation.

  • Badges actually are important. This is how people make quick decisions, whether we like it or not. As I say in my book, these icons of social proof and presumed achievement are perhaps more important to many pele than actual achievement. But all I can do is make the right decision for me. I don’t begrudge anybody else using these badges. Its probably gooopd business! Thanks so very much for your thoughtful comment!

  • I went back to Cialdini to get his definition of social proof.  In short, it is “Convince and ye shall be convinced”.  He also links it to Festinger’s notion of cognitive dissonance.  So, I am wrong.  The list of groups is probably more of an appeal to authority than social proof.

  • I think these social media badges are here to give positive impressions to your visitors and potential customers, and I think there’s nothing wrong if it helps in building your brand and exposure.

  • I think there is no other way to show your authority than by showing some badges specially online. These badges shows how quality person you’re and how great you work. though many freaks use it as a way to trick innocent people.

  • Hi Mark

    Great post – I personally think a lot of the need for badges/social proof comes down to self-confidence. When you first started out you’d have gladly hung your hat on any badge you could as social proof and to boost your confidence. Now I’m guessing your self confidence is a lot higher than it was, you know you’re respected by many and so the badges become ancillary.

    Ultimately, the only proof needed is a) your bank account and b) how you feel – are you happy, do you feel you’re adding real value and can you sleep at night.

    I’m a very little fish in this big online pond, my bank account is doing just fine and I absolutely love what I do (and I sleep like a baby). That’ll do for me: badges, if I ever get them, are a bonus.

  • i still think you are right. If I list charities on my blog, this is an indirect social proof indicating a caring person. So it is an indicator. I had not thought of it, but I do think you are right and it would be in line withe Dr. Cialdini, too I think!

  • I’ll have to think about that a little but at least to some extent you are correct. I think the first “badge” I ever got was being listed on “AllTop” and I was really pleased to post that. It was kind of a sign of acceptance. After that, I had the AdAge badge and that’s about it.  It was starting to create dissonance with a fundamentally humble personality. I didn;t want my blog to look like a NASCAR driver : )  Thanks! 

  • Thank you for this, Mark. I do agree with your points, namely that content is what drives people to come back to you. Btw have followed a “little idea” that you mentioned at lunch last week 🙂 Thank you for the inspiration! Books have arrived, by the way, love 1st world and free Amazon 1-day delivery!! Ana

  • Good for you. So awesome to see you in the comment section. Social media rocks.

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  • Mark, I love your work. But I was confused by your reasoning in this post. You write that social proof is even more important in the online world (I agree). You go on to say that it is often poorly measured (I also agree). But, how is it driving the wrong behaviors of your clients/students when you admit that it can matter more than achievements itself? I agree that it is poorly measured, but that doesn’t stop people from judging us by it.

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