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The Power Of Social Proof

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May I ask you a personal question?

How do you feel about laugh tracks?

I mean the tapes of a laughing audiences TV producers play behind scenes in sitcoms. You hate them, right? Most people say they do.

Telling people when to laugh is insulting, stupid, unnecessary. And shockingly effective.

At least three different studies have demonstrated that using canned laughter makes test audiences laugh longer and more often.

Plus, when the identical show is shown to audiences without the laugh track, it's rated much less funny than the same show shown with the track.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini. in the book I've mentioned here more than on
ce "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," calls this potent phenomenon "the power of social proof". It goes well beyond laugh tracks. Used right (morally as well as strategically) it's a powerful tool for selling.*


Just by supplementing your sales package with 'social proof', you can do more selling in a single paragraph that you'd otherwise accomplish in a full page.

How so?

The theory behind 'social proof' is simple.

It's also rooted in science.

All animals - including humans -- have a tendency to act as those around them act. If our neighbor in Cave 2 eats the red berries but not the yellow ones, we follow suit. If everyone is buying biotech stocks, we want to buy biotech stocks.

This response is almost automatic.

Used right (and with the right motives), it can be a powerful selling tool. Dr. Cialdini gives plenty of examples.

For instance, bartenders encourage tips by putting folded bills of their own tip jars. Preachers plant "big donors" in their congregations. Ads boast "fastest- growing" and "most popular" near the headline. The list goes on.

Some of the most powerful 'social proof' comes in the form of the testimonial.


Colleague Bryan Botterelli writes in with a powerful example... "Today, I had my investment trading service subscribers sell their 10th winning pick out of the last 11. I wanted to get some customer
testimonials from them.

"So, I emailed a few of the loyal subscribers... and simply asked them how they did on the last play. The responses were all positive. What I didn't expect was all of them enthusiastically expressing heart-felt thanks for me checking up with them to see how everything was going... . you wouldn't believe how much one simple email meant to these guys. It was unreal.

"One guy in particular said he gained $50,000 on the play - but seemed more happy to talk to me then to even mention his gains. In my book, that's relationship building at its best."

Definitely. Great stuff.

Testimonials like this are pure gold.

You can see how customer success stories can pull much better than long lists of product features or product rationalizations. This is why I include it in our series on over-writing.

With testimonials, you sell faster -- and more effectively per word -- because it's a powerful way to show your product working.

It's also an excellent way to gain credibility without bragging. Why? You get to showcase your strong points, but with someone else -- a peer of your prospect's -- doing all the talking.

But beware...


In my experience, testimonials almost always enhance a promo package... except... when they're not good testimonials.

What makes a testimonial bad?

When it's emotionally unsatisfying and vague:
"I found your book very useful."

When it's too gushy:

"I love your newsletter! It's the best one I've ever read! The exclamation point on my keyboard is stuck!!!"

When it's too polished or pretentious:

"We delight in your intrepid and yet profitable handling of territory so treacherous as options investing."

When you've used stock photos instead of real ones:

(Rule of thumb: Most of your customers probably do NOT have bleached teeth or airbrushed faces. And most of them do not wear t-shirts that have been pressed and dry-cleaned before the photo shoot either.)

When they're a legal risk or just plain fake:

"I've secretly used this newsletter to pick stocks for years." - Warren Buffet, Omaha.

When you've used initials underneath the quote, instead of personal details:

"G.B., D.C." is weaker than "George Bush, President, Washington D.C."

There are many ways testimonials won't do what you want them to do.

You'll have to cultivate your instincts to identify all of them. And, if you're a business owner and not just the copywriter, you'll have to apply those instincts around the clock, even between promo writing efforts.

Here's a truism based on experience:

As a copywriter, every time I've been asked to write for a product in need of advertising copy... the best products, the easiest writing experience, and the best results have always come from product owners and marketing managers who have a ready folder jammed with great testimonials.


Bottom line: There's no way to get good testimonials without applying a little elbow-grease and a little creative harvesting.

*But well-known copywriters Rene Gnam and Galen Stilson (Target Marketing, June 01) chime in with a few strategies that might help make this process easier:

.. Invite your best customers to join a panel of advisors (Gnam).

.. Follow-up detailed customer service calls with a survey (Stilson)

.. Call repeat buyers and ask them why the repeat


.. Call customers who write in and conduct a phone interview. Offer to write up their words then send it to them for approval and a signature. (Stilson)

Copywriting legend John Caples also has a tip. Have a testimonial-gathering contest. Caples used this simple technique for years.

He would give customers a chance to fill in the following line:

"Finish this sentence in 25 words or less: I like (name of product) because... "

Every participant won a small prize.

And Caples got piles of great testimonials.

For more on the power of social proof, read two books I've recommended here before --

"The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell, and "Influence: The Psychology of Persuassion" by Robert Cialdini.
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John FordeAuthor: John Forde, Editor - The CopyWriters Round Table

John Forde is editor of the Copywriter's Roundtable, a published writer, and has been a direct mail copywriter since 1992. John currently works from an office in Paris. You can sign up for his free weekly e-letter, the Copywriter's Roundtable, at