Rory of A Guy Called Bloke alluded to this recently, and I wanted to talk a little more about the psychological phenomenon called social proof, and how it applies to blogging.
First off, what is social proof? It’s a cognitive bias that means when we’re in a situation where the action we should take is ambiguous, we tend to follow what others have already done. The actions of others serve as social proof that they may know something we don’t know about the situation, and since we naturally want to conform to social norms anyway, seeing what others have already done brings out our inner sheeple.
So, what does this have to do with blogging? Let’s start in more general terms.
Social proof and marketing
A Buffer article talks about the benefit of sharing milestones, like follower/viewer counts. WordPress likes to show you fancy little badges to make it easier to share those kinds of things.
A post by marketing company Hubspot mentions “wisdom of the crowds” as a form of social proof. If you see lots of people are into something, that can trigger your inner FOMO. Ratings/reviews also matter. The popularity of the site Yelp is an indicator of how much we care about what other people think. The way Amazon displays reviews also taps into this.
Marketing guru Neil Patel identifies several more social proof strategies that tend to be effective, including influencer endorsements, badges/certifications, “as seen in” logos, and visible stats.
Those visible stats are where blogging platforms and social media platforms go to town. While the terminology varies by platform, on WordPress, it’s easy to see how many followers a blogger has, along with how many likes, comments, and social shares a post has gotten. Those little verified check marks on some social media accounts? Social proof.
Search engines also like social proof, in the form of backlinks (other people linking to your site) and social media shares, because their algorithms think that if people already like your content, searchers are likely to be interested in it too.
How this affects individual bloggers
If that all sounds a bit contrived, that’s probably because it is. Where it gets interesting, though, is that we’re not necessarily aware of why we’re reacting in a certain way as viewers. We may be responding to social proof without even realizing it.
Let’s say you’re reading a post by a blogger that you either haven’t come across before or you’re not very familiar with. You see that a handful of people have already left comments, and the blogger has responded to them. This can make it more likely that you will also leave a comment.
Obviously, it’s not as simple as that, and that’s where the ambiguity aspect comes into play. If your approach to blog reading includes a specific approach to commenting, that makes the situation less ambiguous, and therefore social proof is less likely to be a factor.
In a lot of cases, though, there is a fair bit of ambiguity when we’re considering how to interact with an unfamiliar blogger’s post. That’s where there can be some benefit in having a few people that you regularly exchange comments with. Even if the numbers don’t matter but you like interactiveness, having a couple of comments reliably showing up on most of your posts can lay out the psychological welcome mat for others.
Passive benefits of social proof
If there’s some good that can come out of serial likers, it’s that they bump your social proof. It’s completely contrived, but genuineness isn’t a requirement for social proof to catch our notice. If a post has been up for a while and has zero likes, whether you realize it or not, that’s likely to be a little bit of a turnoff, unless the post is written by a blogger you’re pretty familiar with, or you’re deliberately looking for newbie bloggers to connect with. Both of those decrease the situation’s ambiguity for us, which decreases the need to see what others have done.
For any newer bloggers who are self-critical over low numbers on their blog, keep in mind that larger blogs have social proof already working to their advantage. Someone running a blog with 10,000 followers could put in 1% of the effort of a newbie blogger with 20 followers and still do better at bringing in ever-increasing numbers, because social proof is passively working to their advantage. It can be difficult and slow to get to that point where it’s passively working for you, and this is a good example of how little meaning absolute numbers have.
Anyway, this post turned out to be a little more rambly than I had expected it to be. Do you notice social proof playing much of a role in the blogosphere? Do you think it might be playing a greater role than people consciously realize?