New Experiments Question the Power of Social Proof on the Web

In a lot of my presentations and research, I’ve talked about social proof, and I’ve hypothesized that it has an effect on social and viral behavior online, but I had never actually proven it. So a few weeks ago, I began a series of experiments designed to test the assumption that the effects of social proof and social conformity can be exploited on the web.

In the first two experiments, I split tested ReTweet buttons with different ReTweet counts shown on blog posts. First I compared “0 Tweets” with “776 Tweets.” The results were exactly the opposite of what I expected. After 36 hours, the button showing no Tweets had been clicked more than double the times the other button had. The sample size and variation performance are statistically significant, and the results show a 96% confidence level.

While discussing these results with Alison, she suggested that they may have been due to a “first post” effect, where people want to be the first to share a piece of content. So I tested a button showing “15 Tweets” against one showing “776 Tweets.”

While the post I used for this test was more popular, the results of the experiment showed a far less significant difference between the two buttons. The “15 Tweets” button performed marginally better, but the low confidence value means there is probably no meaningful difference between the two buttons.

The results of the first two tests had me questioning whether or not social proof has the effect online I thought it did. My next step was to test the Feedburner subscriber count RSS button, which I believed was perhaps more likely to exhibit traditional social conformity effects.

I began by testing a button displaying “12 Subscribers” against one that displayed “62172 Subscribers.” The higher variation was clicked on a slight .13% more, and again this experiment’s confidence interval is too low to really be significant.

Finally, I decided to test the “first post” effect on the RSS button, by comparing a “0 Subscribers” button against the “62172 Subscribers” button. Again, the 62172 version did a little better, but failed to reach a statistically significant level.

In spite of the insignificant results I found in 3 of 4 tests, I believe my findings are interesting for a few reasons. First and perhaps most importantly, they represent a first step towards “contagiousness testing” which would allow marketers to apply split and multivariate testing methods to content virality.

An elongated test may reveal that higher showing a higher subscriber count on an RSS button, does lead to a small, but significant click-through increase.

These 4 experiments also suggest that there may be a powerful “first post” effect that marketers can leverage in certain situations. I plan to do more research into this in the future.

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7 Social Media Marketing Lessons Learned from Hypnosis

For over a hundred years people from charlatans to respected academics have been studying the power and uses of hypnosis. Two forms have emerged recently as the most well-researched and effective: clinical hypno-therapy and stage hypnosis, in fact there are many therapists who dabble in entertaining stage hypnosis. As social media marketers, there are many lessons we can learn from the field of trance and suggestion, below are 7 of my favorite.

1. Suggestibility

Suggestibility is a measure of how inclined a person is to act on the suggestions of other people. Research has shown that there is a correlation between how suggestible a person is and how hypnotizeable a person is.
Stage hypnotists spend a lot of effort on identifying the most suggestible people in their audience to bring up on stage. They’ve developed a wide range of quick tests to highlight those people who will demonstrate their abilities to the rest of the crowd, making them more suggestible as well. Clinical practitioners also have tests and scales of suggestibility and hypnotizeability.
In social media it is somewhat difficult to administer traditional stage or clinical tests, but once we understand that people who comply with initial, small requests are likely to engage in later, larger requests we can begin to identify the most suggestible of our audience. Simply asking people to joining mailing lists, ReTweet links, or supply comments are rudimentary forms of suggestibility tests.

2. Social Requests

Experiments conducted on highly suggestible people in 1998 showed that subjects who were given non-hypnotic social requests to send a series of postcards to the experimenters did so more often than those who were given hypnotic suggestions. While the social request subjects said their actions felt more “planned and effort-ful” and less “compulsive,” this seems to indicate that simple social requests can be just as powerful with subjective people as full-on hypnosis.
As marketers we should remember this research when we are constructing our calls-to-action. We can achieve the same levels of compliance as professional hypnotists with well formed social requests, especially when accompanied by the other lessons in this post.

3. Expectancy Manipulation

Clinical studies, including ones done by University of Connecticut researcher Irving Kirsch have shown that by creating the expectations of suggestibility, subjects can be made more suggestible than they’d otherwise be. Experiments were done in which subjects were given baseline suggestibility tests, then shown “evidence” that they were highly suggestible. When the subjects retook the tests, they registered as far more suggestible than they were before. Expectancy manipulations like this have also been show to work for pain, blood pressure and nausea reduction as well as increasing the effect of placebo medications.
One of the most common motivations for sharing content on social media is that people want to increase their personal reputations. As marketers we can take advantage of this, by increasing the expectation that sharing our content will do wonders for our audience’s reputation. One example would be retelling stories of how other people who’ve shared your content got more followers or Facebook friends.

4. Authority

Stage hypnotists work hard to establish an image of authority or “prestige and faith.” They rely on their audience’s belief (and expectations) that they are gifted hypnotists who always get results. They are also very quick to eliminate non-responsive subjects who would erode their effective image.
Memetics researcher Francis Heylighen has pointed out that for an idea to spread it has to come from a source that is authoritative in some regard, so did WWII rumor-weapons experts.
In social media we should work to always appear authoritative, without saying so much our self often. Subtle indications of social proof like high subscriber or follower counts can help.

5. Psychological Barriers

Stage and clinical hypnotists engage typically have a speech they give to their subjects prior to hypnosis called a “preinduction talk.” The idea of the talk is to establish rapport, remove the fears, about hypnosis, and establish favorable expectations.
Developing rapport with your audience as a marketer is generally a long-term strategy, but the more you can align your own interests and motivations with your audience the better. To make your audience identify with you, you need to make it clear that you understand their problems and desires. It is also useful to ingratiate yourself with your audience by remaining humble and frequently commenting on their intelligence. Remarks like “you guys are smarter than I am, so I need your help,” satisfy both the identification and the ingratiation demands.
Our readers understand that every piece of content they share in social media will be viewable by their friends. If you’re asking them share something they might be embarrassed by, do your best to anticipate their social fears and assuage them before you ask them to share.

6. Direct Suggestions

In their 1956 book on hypnosis, Charles Edward Cooke and A.E. Van Vogt discuss how to structure therapeutic suggestions. They give three “rules” that can be applied to social media calls-to-action: “Be Positive,” “Be Specific,” and “Be Detailed.”
In explaining how to alleviate phobias through hypnosis, they explain that by saying “you are not afraid” you are creating a large mental image of “fear” with a small label “not.” Negation requires higher level mental processing to understand, so avoid calls-to-action like “don’t hesitate to ReTweet,” state everything in the positive form.
They also direct the hypnosis operator to be as specific and detailed as possible. For social media calls-to-action this means that we should say things like “ReTweet this article by clicking on this link.” Avoid vague calls to “share” content, describe the action you want your reader to take as specifically as possible.

7. Repetition

Most hypnotic subjects reach deeper levels of trance each time they are inducted by a practitioner and the suggestions they are given likewise increase in power through repetition.
As marketers, not only can we enhance the power of our calls-to-action by repeating them more than once in a single piece of content, but we can also build on their effectiveness across touches with our audience. Each time a person interacts with you, the effectiveness of the above techniques will increase.

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How to Use Novelty to Create Contagious Ideas

Every time I’ve looked at the contagiousness of ideas, be it online or off, one of the most frequent characteristics I come across is novelty. I’ve found that ReTweets tend to contain less common words than normal Tweets, and I’ve found that survey-takers highlight “news” as the most common type of content they share.

In 2007, researchers at the Hewlett-Packard’ s Information Dynamics Laboratory in Palo Alto studied social news site Digg and found that “novelty within groups decays with a stretched-exponential law, suggesting the existence of a natural time scale over which attention fades.”

And Free University of Brussels research professor Francis Heylighen lists “novelty” as a criteria for a successful meme, saying “New, unusual or unexpected ideas or perceptions tend to attract the attention, and thus arouse the cognitive energy which will facilitate their assimilation.”

In our everyday lives we are exposed to many more stimuli than we could ever hope to consciously digest, so our minds have evolved to include a sophisticated filtering mechanism by which our attention is drawn only to the important bits. This selective attention can be triggered by things like hearing our name over the noise of a loud party, or by a change in something familiar.

We’ve all had the experience of noticing something different about someone or something we see every day. Perhaps a co-worker got a hair cut, or construction on our daily commute changes it. Were it not for the difference, we would have never actively focused our attention on these things since they’re so common place.

I follow several thousand people on Twitter, I’m subscribed to a few hundred blogs and I get a hundred or so emails a day. I (like nearly every one else on the web) am exposed to lots of ideas every day, in fact, many more than I could ever become consciously aware of and ponder. Before I ever have a chance to spread one of these ideas, I have to be come aware of it. Remember my Hierarchy of Contagiousness?

If someone wants to get my attention as an individual, they’d do best to personalize the message to me, and use my name to trigger my selective attention. But, if they (like most marketers) want to get the attention of many individuals they need to rely on novelty.

Many of the other characteristics of contagiousness I’ve come across, such as social proof or scarcity, contain fairly obvious ways for marketers to use them to our advantage. But novelty isn’t quite so easy, we don’t always have an endless supply of breaking news at our disposal.

As an individual, I’ll consider an idea novel if I’ve never heard of it. It doesn’t have to something no one has ever heard before, just new to me. This opens up an entirely new set of possibilities for being novel without being breaking news.

In a 2002 study on attention and memory in advertising in the Management Science journal, researchers found that: “advertisements that were both original and familiar attracted the largest amount of attention to the advertised brand.” This means that we should use a tactic I like to call “new/old” to design novel content that is also intuitive for readers.

“New/old” is a structure where either new content is put into a old structure, or old content is put into a new structure. An example of the former is steam punk, where sci-fi gadgets are constructed from steam-age technology, and an example of the former the Newest Romeo and Juliet movie, where an old play was set in the modern day.

So if you have existing content or ideas, try fashioning them into a new structure, as the authors of Tough Love, a business book written as a screenplay have done. Conversely if you have an entirely new idea you’re trying to communicate, reach for a familiar structure.

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Writing For Facebook? Use Nouns and Verbs

Many decades ago William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White told us to:

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place… it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.
The Elements of Style

And now we have the data to prove that they were right all along.

By analyzing my Facebook data set to study the relationship between parts-of-speech and Facebook sharing, I found that adjectives and adverbs don’t perform as well as regular, plain old nouns and verbs.

So re-read your Strunk & White and remember that when you’re writing for Facebook, use nouns and verbs.

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The Least Shareable Words on Facebook

Continuing my series of Facebook data, here’s the flip side to last week’s post on the most shareable words on Facebook.

What I found was that techie and social-media dork favorite topics like Twitter, Google, and the iPhone aren’t very popular with the mainstream Facebook audience. These topics might be hot with the bleeding-edge Twitter crowd, but when you’re targeting the much larger Facebook audience, lay off the trendy web geek stuff.

If you want to know more about my dataset and methods, read this.

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The Most Facebook-Shareable Words

It’s another Facebook sharing data post.

I analyzed the words that occurred most often in titles in my dataset and their effect on Facebook sharing and found a set of “highly shareable” words.

What I found was that list-based superlatives like “best” and “most” work pretty well on Facebook and that contain that explains something “why” and “how” also does.

If you want to know more about my dataset and methods, read this.

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Data Shows: On Facebook, Sex Sells

As promised here’s another post in my Facebook sharing data series.

This time, I applied the two linguistic algorithms (RID and LIWC) that power TweetPsych to my Facebook sharing data set and found an interesting, if not entirely surprising phenomenon.

Articles in my dataset that include sexual references in their titles, are shared on Facebook far more than the average story. Additionally, positivity is more shared than negativity. If you want to your blog post or article shared on Facebook, it’s a trying writing (positively) about sex.

If you’re curious about my methodology and dataset, read this page.

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Simple Language Gets Shared More on Facebook

Continuing my series of Facebook data points, this time I looked at the readability of titles and how that was related to the number of times articles were shared on Facebook.

What I found was that as the reading grade level required to understand the title of an article increased, the number of times it was shared on Facebook decreased. The takeaway? Use simple language if you want to get shared on Facebook.

If you’re curious about my methodology, start by reading this page.

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Help Boston Innovate This Wednesday #FutureBOS

I’m pleased and honored to be able to tell you that over the next year, I’ll be serving on a new committee organized by Boston City Council President Mike Ross: Citizens’ Committee on Boston’s Future. The committee’s mission is spelled out in a recent press release:

The first-of-its-kind committee will be chaired by Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser, and will meet four times in 2010 to discuss how Boston can attract and retain the skilled labor workforce that will enable our city to compete in the 21st century.

I want to tap your brains, what ideas do you have? We have a wealth of smart, tech-savvy people (like you guys) in Boston and it’s time to start putting our money where our mouth is to make Boston a seriously leading-edge place. How can Boston become a more innovative city?

The Hashtag for the committee will be #FutureBOS, so if you want to tweet your ideas, use that.

The list of committee members reads like a who’s-who of Boston innovators:

  • Klare Allen Environmental Activist and Boston Housing Authority Resident
  • George “Chip” Greenidge Executive Director of National Black College Alliance & The GREATEST MINDS
  • Pat Johnson President, College Democrats of Massachusetts Chairman of Governor Patrick’s Statewide Youth Council
  • Bryan Koop Senior Vice President, Boston Properties
  • Ted Landsmark President and CEO, Boston Architectural College
  • Barbara Lynch Restaurant Owner
  • Jill Medvedow Director, Institute of Contemporary Art
  • Diane Paulus Artistic Director, American Repertory Theater
  • Rocio Saenz President, SEIU Local 615
  • Kairos Shen, Ex Officio Director of Planning, Boston Redevelopment Authority
  • Greg Bialecki, Ex Officio Secretary, MA Housing and Economic Development

The first meeting will be held April 7th, from 4 to 6pm at the Skywalk Observatory at the top of the Prudential Building, so if you have any interest in how the city can leverage web and social media technologies to make Boston a more innovative place, be sure to attend if you can.

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Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness

If you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the title of this post will ring a bell.

I first began to formulate this framework as a model for understanding how ReTweets work (If you’re interested in my Science of ReTweets study, check out my live webinar Friday). But I think the concept extends far beond just Twitter in fact, it is a framework for understanding criteria required for an individual to share any kind of content. Each of these criteria has a corresponding action we as marketers can take to increase the contagiousness of our content and ideas.

As you can see there are three criteria and together they form a funnel of decreasing volumes, like a sales conversion rate funnel.

  1. A person must be exposed to your content to ever have a chance of spreading it. This means they have to be following you on Twitter, fans of your page on Facebook, on your email list etc.
  2. The person must become aware of your specific piece of content before they can spread it. They have to read your Tweet or open your email.
  3. That person must be motivated by something (generally in the content itself) to want to share it with their contacts.

Every piece of content, social network and campaign has vastly different conversion rates at each step of this process but, to understand the scales involved, it helps to visualize a hypothetical set of percentages. The gray boxes on the left of the graphic above represent assumed numbers: if you email 900 people and 20% of them notice and open the email and then 10% of those readers are forward it to a friend, your email was shared 18 times.

At each step we can change the numbers in our favor:

  1. Increase the number of people exposed to your content by building your reach. Get more email subscribers or Twitter followers.
  2. Create attention grabbing content. Do lots of testing on your subject lines to increase open rates.
  3. Include powerful viral calls to action.
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