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Negative Social Proof: Pitfalls to Avoid on Your Website

Social proof is a method often used to build trust with website visitors. You see it everywhere online in the form of reviews, testimonials, endorsements, impressive social media statistics, and more. It’s based on our tendency to trust and want to emulate the positive experiences we see others having. 

Used smartly, social proof can directly impact your bottom line by encouraging visitors to become customers. But, just like in a galaxy far away, there is a dark side to consider. Negative social proof influences people in the opposite direction. Unfavorable reviews and other negative social proof can reduce credibility and even convince potential customers not to do business with you.

Daniel Burstein of MarketingSherpa uses the term “Social Doubt” which really gets to the heart of the unintended consequences of negative social proof:

…I think it sums up the challenge for marketers of having the tide of social proof move against them. Doubt literally means “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction”… And that’s really what happens. That slight uncertainty enters a customer’s mind while journeying through a conversion path, and prospects are more likely to bounce.

Daniel Burstein, MarketingSherpa

So how can you tell if negative social proof is sending the wrong messages to visitors? Here are some things to look out for. 

Negative Messaging

Phrasing is important, especially when used to create a sense of urgency. What you choose to emphasize can backfire, such as the example in Robert Cialdini’s book Yes! 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion. He shares that visitors were stealing wood from the Arizona Petrified Forest. To combat the problem, they experimented with multiple signs.

The signs ranged from “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” to “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” The latter sign actually tripled the number of thefts, most likely because the phrasing made it sound like a popular activity and reduced the stigma of the crime.

Another example is Wikipedia’s yearly fundraising campaign. The sitewide banner used to include the phrase, “Only a tiny portion of our readers give.” By highlighting the negative, this is much less effective than a direct request to donate.

Your messaging should focus on the desired actions you wish your visitor to take and include examples of them actually performing that action. Avoid “don’t” or “not.” Positively direct them to where you want them to go — subscribe, donate, purchase, follow. 

Lack of Accountability

The power of social proof comes from authenticity — real people sharing their actual opinions and experiences about your business. 

When using social proof on your website, always include photos when possible, full names, affiliations where appropriate, and, most importantly, links to the original source. Being able to click the source of a review, social media mention, testimonial, client or media logo shows you are being transparent and honest with your visitors. 

Low Numbers

Using numbers as social proof can be compelling in the right circumstances. “Join 30,000+ Newsletter Subscribers” or “500 people shared this page” are great examples. But how many times have we seen pages proudly displaying share counters full of zeros? In many cases it’s better not to include them at all. 

The same goes for promoting social media channels with very low followers. Hold off on adding that Facebook Like Box in your footer until your numbers grow. 

Not Enough/Too Much

Unless your business is just starting out, visitors will expect some kind of social proof. The absence of product reviews in your online store or client testimonials about your service offerings is a red flag to potential customers.

On the other side of the spectrum, too much social proof can also backfire. Too many testimonials on a page or novella-length reviews can overwhelm visitors. Choose the ones that will be be most compelling for your audience and highlight the essential parts. Quality content is always preferable to quantity for the sake of quantity.

Being Out of Touch

Watch out for other signs your website could be sending negative signals.

  • No actual photos of your staff, facility, product, etc. – Stock photography has a place but used extensively on a website can imply falseness. At the very least, show the lovely faces of your staff on your About page. 
  • Your blog is not up to date – Is your most recent post months or even years old? Abandoned blogs are everywhere on the internet but have no place on a business website. If its in your main navigation it counts as a promotional element. Consider letting old blogs go or, if there is value in having the old posts as a resource to customers, moving it to the footer or a deeper part of your website. 
  • Your social media accounts are not up to date – The same applies here. If you’re including a link to a social media account on your website they should be well maintained and active. Otherwise think hard before promoting them. You don’t want to associate your brand with a social media account that looks abandoned. 
  • You don’t reply to reviewsAccording to SproutSocial, 89% of consumers read businesses’ responses to reviews. Monitor any review platforms your customers use and make sure to respond to reviews, especially negative ones. 
  • You employ fake social proof – Hopefully this goes without saying, but don’t buy reviews, followers, or anything else related to artificially inflating your reputation. Aside from being a bad business practice, it’s illegal and completely unnecessary. There are many ways to generate authentic social proof from your actual customers. 

Conclusion

Negative social proof can be as just as powerful as positive social proof. Worse, it can also push visitors and potential customers in the opposite direction you intend. By looking out for these potential pitfalls you can avoid the impact of negative social proof on your website.

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Mykl Roventine

I design engaging online experiences and constantly strive to help make the web a better place. I love strong coffee, travel, cover songs, and typography.

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