Laura Petrolino

Creating False Idols: Does Social Proof Have a Place?

By: Laura Petrolino | March 28, 2016 | 

Social Proof on Influence and ValueBy Laura Petrolino

A couple of weeks ago I came upon an article on #TwitterCasting posted on Facebook by my friend Will Gressman (who is also an amazing LA-based actor).

The article called out casting directors, directors, and producers for using the “social proof” provided based on the size of an actor’s Twitter following as a qualification for casting them—a qualification which might usurp the actual skill level and best fit of the group of auditioning actors.

As communications professionals, we think about the value of social proof in our daily operations.

The good, the bad, and the ugly it provides.

We know it’s an important part of everything we do—whether that be media relations (we’ve had reporters tell us they wouldn’t write stories about clients unless they had a strong social media presence to help distribute the story), content distribution, influencer marketing and relations, or simply as a trust factor and superficial measure of who and what is valuable and trustworthy. 

Social Proof as an Indicator of Value

The #TwitterCasting article made me think about how deeply threaded social proof is in everything we do and the decisions we make.

Whether we like it or not, it is used as a primary indicator of value—often inaccurately.

Think about it.

I’m willing to bet you do it yourself.

How often have you read or (possibly more likely) shared (with or without reading) an article simply because it was widely shared?

Does the amount shares indicate the quality of the article?

Sure, it might….but it might mean the title is good clickbait, the author has a large following, or the social shares are fabricated.

Does the size of a person’s social following (on Instagram or Twitter) indicate their level of influence?

It might….or it might mean they are a big name without a trusted community, it might mean they bought a bunch of fake likes, or it could mean (especially on Instagram) they post a lot of half-naked pictures (often accompanied by motivational quotes and messages).

The problem is—as the #TwitterCasting article suggests—we assign value to these people and things, simply because of social proof.

And, by doing so, we put them in a position of influence.

This can be a dangerous dynamic.

Creating False Idols

Think about what happens when you assign influence to someone whose biggest qualification is social proof?

You have a bunch of social leaders who are unqualified or lack the depth of skill and knowledge to properly lead.

Let’s take an example from bodybuilding and fitness world.

There is an epidemic of “Instagram Trainers,” who perhaps have done one show, or maybe have only mastered booty posing and Instagram filters…and have somehow built large followings.

They then use this following to gain clients and lead athletes (or inspiring athletes) down a very dangerous physical and mental path because of their lack of expertise and knowledge.

But their clients follow exactly what they say, no matter how outrageous and absurd (and trust me, some of the advice I hear out there is ABSURD) because someone with 100,000 Instagram followers MUST know what they are doing, right?

This same thing happens in every industry—even in our own. And it can be disastrous for both unexacting clients, and the industry reputation as a whole.

You add in brand endorsements and sponsorships and the false sense of influence simply multiples, until you create demigods—unprepared (or aware) of the responsibility of the influence provided them.

Social Proof throughout History

The use (or misuse) of social proof in this way is nothing new and isn’t just based around social media—although social media makes it more omnipresent.  You can see examples of this same idol-making dynamic of social proof bias throughout history—in big ways and small.

  • Canned laughter on sets of TV shows and theater events.
  • McDonalds signs that let you know “Billions and Billions” have been served.
  • The mere act of signing-up for waitlists.

Not to mention larger social movements and political events.

When we are uncertain, we look to popular opinion.

When we want to reaffirm our own opinions, we look to influencers who do so.

This is a part of human nature we will never change.

As marketers we must accept social proof affects everything we do and look to how we can work with it or around it. As humans we must acknowledge the bias and be aware of how it affects our decisions (so we can evaluate them based on additional factors).

How do you see social proof affect how we assign value? How have you overcome misplaced social proof in your communications campaigns?

(Also…HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my amazing father, who doesn’t need social proof to be awesome.)

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • I’ve definitely been hesitant to share an article based on the lack of previous shares.

    A funny social proof example – trending hikes. During the summer I noticed one friend would take hike, post an epic picture, and then over the next few weeks my feed would be filled with friends taking the same hike and posting the same “epic” picture. On one hand this is great because it gets people outside. On the other hand, if can lead people into dangerous situations if they aren’t familiar with hiking, trail reports, etc. So, similar to your Instagram Trainer example.

    • Hahaha! That’s funny about the hikes! I think I’ve totally taken a hike after learning about it from a friend’s feed.

      Or look at all the stupid stories that become popular and then trend in the Facebook newsfeed….which make them more popular (when most of the time these stories didn’t deserve the initial ink they received). Likewise, I’ve had people ask me to RSVP positive to their events (even if I wasn’t going) just so it would show up in my feed!

  • Okay. As I said on Twitter, I agree with this piece, so much (and I love the graphic!). Two things come to mind as part of my reaction. I have a friend … “Healthy Heather” … she is AMAZING. Down to earth, knowledgeable, one of those people who walks the fitness walk and talks the talk. She has a local column in the paper, a great e-newsletter, and many other commendable things to her credit. She posted that she was invited to speak as part of an online health summit, and then when the inviter asked her the size of her mailing list, she was told (after stating the size), “Oh, I thought it would be bigger given your website and social media” and UNINVITED HER. It’s their loss but I am positive in her case any “lack of social proof” is compensated by her integrity and what a contribution she would have made to that event. // Secondly, this is possibly a little squishier and a bit distant from social proof but ……… another thing that has been a true social proof check and balance for me is how people behave on, for instance, Periscope when you’ve given them (in your mind) a great deal of social proof based on their previous social media interactions. I’m referring to people who have made the effort to interact (tweeting back, email interactions, instagram, chit chat) and then make it pretty clear that they really only want the followers who can do something for THEM. As that lady in a commercial that’s out says, “that’s not how any of this works.” (At least in my optimistic view of the world, I hope it isn’t!).

    • Laura Petrolino

      Ugh…both of those examples are so sleazy they make me queasy. I cannot believe they UNINVITED her! That’s not just sleazy, but bold and sleazy.

  • So a few months back, I ran an experiment where I removed the social share buttons from my blog, to see of people would manually copy/paste a post, or stop sharing.

    Turns out more people were inclined to share when buttons/share counts weren’t active.

    I think social proof is down to individuals, versus being a generic standard.

    There’s also danger of reverse social proof. A couple of social media bloggers in the US have accounts on Patreon, and request their readers/subscribers/followers to donate money to their blogs.

    After a few months, both only have around $200-$300 in monthly donations. Which suggests perhaps their content isn’t actually valued by their readers, otherwise they’d have thousands of dollars per month, given the size of the communities the blogger’s are always boasting about.

    Pros and cons to both sides.

    • Laura Petrolino

      I remember that experiment and agreed on the fact social proof is individual, as well as communal. To your credit, I think you’ve fostered a different type of community in many ways, and that is reflected in that experiment.

      And yes on reverse social proof. You see that same dynamic super clear in kickstarter and crowdfunding campaigns. It’s like pushing a barrel up a hill, if you can get to that tipping point, you’re golden…if not, you’ll soon roll back down, and the barrel will roll right over you.

      • And if you’re on a hike you’re ill-prepared to take, just because someone with a bunch of followers on Instagram was taking a hazardous hike ….
        then a barrel rolls over you ….. you’re doubly victimized. 😉

  • Shares on Twitter are less of a signal than on Facebook, as that’s essentially the default setting.

    On Facebook, you just like the story as the minimal engagement, comment as a medium, and share if you really believe in it.

    Great article!

    • Laura Petrolino

      Yes, that’s a really great continuum of real social interest. It takes A LOT for me to share something on Facebook, where as I’ll tweet much more freely.