The Importance of Social Proof for Contagious Blogging

In 2007 the Washington Post conducted an experiment. They had one of the best musicians in the world to play one of the most expensive instruments in the world (a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin) on a subway platform during morning rush hour. Most people simply ignored him, “the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.”

There were no tuxedos or playbills or expensive tickets. No sold out concert halls or rave reviews from jaded critics. Just some of the best music in the world, but without the social cues to the quality of the performance, nobody noticed.

So even if you’re the best writer in the world, writing on a world-class web platform, with a groundbreaking design, without social proof, you’ll be very lonely.

Social proof is the idea that people rely on the reaction of others to make decisions, and we assume that others (individuals and especially groups) know more about the choice than we do. When social proofs start to accumulate you have an informational cascade. In a post a while back, I explained Information Cascading as such:

Suppose there are two restaurants and a group of people on the street outside deciding which one to eat at. The most well-informed individuals (those with higher precision in making these types of decisions) will decide first and everyone will see some people start to line up outside of one restaurant. If the others know this person is of higher precision (and even if they don’t) a few people will follow their lead and join the line. Each new person who lines up outside of the restaurant sends a signal to the rest of the group (and in particular their friends and family) that this is the restaurant to pick. The more people who follow the signal, the stronger it gets and you have an Informational Cascade.

When I studied email chain letters I wrote that

Every time someone forwards one to his or her address book, another list of recipients and senders is attached to it, creating essentially a list of people who implicitly give authority to the message.

Even if you may think an email is a hoax, who are you to think that you know better than hundreds of your peers?

Examples of this effect are numerous, from voting to investing to fashion and music– we notice, trust, and share things more when we notice that others did before us.

When I asked on Twitter what factors influence perception of a blogs “authority.” The two overwhelmingly central answers were subscriber and comment counts. Social Proof.

When people first visit a blog these two details matter as much (if not more) than professional and clean looking design and good content, spelling and grammar in an evaluation of that blog’s authority. And I’ve found from my study of applied memetics, email chain letters, and viral seeding that authority and trust are crucial factors in deciding whether or not to pass on a piece of content. The bottom line is that you must leverage social proof to establish an air of authority if you want to “go viral.”

There are a number of ways to leverage your blog readers into greater social proof indicators:

  • Prominently display your Feedburner count.
  • Use the “Recent Comments” widget.
  • Display the number of comments for each post.

Of course for any of these tactics to work, you’ll need to have sufficiently impressive numbers, so work to increase those two metrics. Don’t forget to promote your RSS feed (I really like the WWSGD plugin for that) and end every post with a question or request for comments.

And of course to take my own advice, what do you guys think? Do subscriber and comment numbers matter to you? What is your favorite way of leveraging your visitors into social proof?

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