Which is More Powerful: Social Proof or Social Pioneering?





When I give my Science of Social Media Marketing presentation two of the most common threads are the ideas of novelty and social proof, arguably oppositional concepts. So which motivator is more powerful for social marketing?

A little while ago I did a series of experiments to test the concept of social proof on the web. I found that on the article level, being the first person to Tweet something seems to be a more powerful motivator than sharing an article that’s been posted many times already. On the site level however, visitors had a slight preference towards subscribing to a site that had a large number of subscribers, rather than one with very few.

Imagine two prehistoric people, looking for berries to eat. One person is a pioneer and goes out to the forest and starts eating the berries he finds, learning by trial and error which are good to eat and which are unhealthy. The other person is an imitator and simply watches the first person and eats only those berries already shown to be edible.

The pioneer (and subsequently her genes) will benefit because she’ll always be the first to know the best food sources, not only will she have access to the food first, but her status in her social group will be raised because of her valuable knowledge. The imitator benefits because he won’t run the risk of eating a poisonous berry.

Social exchange theory teaches us (in George C. Hohman’s 1958 “Social Behavior as Exchange”) that “the more valuable the sentiment.. the members exchange… the greater the average frequency of interaction.” People who have reputations for sharing valuable information first tend to become central to their social group.

Social proof on the other hand taught us (in Robert Cialdini’s 1993 “Influence”) “we view a behavior as more correct… to the degree that we see others performing it.” When we see someone pioneering ahead of us, we assume the actions they’re taking are safer or “more correct.”

The important of novelty as a motivator has surfaced repeatedly in research that I’ve done over the past few years. When I surveyed people and asked them what types of content they shared online, “news” topped the list.

When I analyzed how common the words in ReTweets were compared to words in random normal Tweets, I found that ReTweets used many more novel words.

And when I asked people why they Tweeted or blogged about presentations, they cited both “news” and “novelty” as some of the most important reasons.

We can see then that evolutionarily, social proof is a defensive mechanism design to protect us from harm, where as pioneering holds reputation-boosting first-mover advantage. In the context of my experiments, social proof told visitors that my site was a trusted source of content, safe to be shared, but the lack of social proof on new articles told them that there was an opportunity for them to be the first to share valuable content, almost guaranteed to increase their reputation as a source of appreciated information.

As marketers, we can take advantage of this phenomenon through a tactic called “Expectancy Manipulation” by working to create the expectations that our content is going to have the signs of social proof in the future (because all of our other content has been popular), but that each visitor has the potential to be among the first to share it.