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Social proof… it’s essential to influence… let me prove it to you!

Social proof

In the Influential Fundraiser training, =mc uses its powerful five stages of influence model and teaches you the 15 tools you need to learn to apply systematically and sensitively for success. These techniques have been used to secure at least six £1M+ gifts in the last five years, as well as countless smaller ones.

The latest version of the programme involves a number of insights from neuroscience and behavioural economics. One of these insights involves the importance of social proof.

Why social proof? How about impact data? After all there’s a lot of discussion in the sector about the importance of impact analysis and reporting as a way to persuade donors and supporters to do more. Annual reports are now often rebranded as impact reports. Many agencies use nice infographics to reinforce their message. Here, for example, is a typical example from the Arts Council of England.

So my questions are: 1. who is this meant to influence? and 2. does it work anyway? I’m often, as in the ACE example above, not sure who it’s meant to influence… There might even be a negative impact. “If the arts are growing so fast, maybe they don’t need support…”

But I am sure this is not an effective way to influence any individual donor. And Social Proof will. Social Proof demonstrates that “other people, like you or that you respect, are doing this.” This simple connection is a massive encouragement to do the same.

Let’s demonstrate this with an experiment originally run by Robert Cialdini, respected Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.

He persuaded a major US hotel chain to trial different messages in hotel rooms to see which would have the most powerful effect in getting hotel users to reuse their towels. This would help save the planet and, coincidently reduce the hotel’s laundry and room cleaning costs.[1]

Message 1: focused as do many of these appeals on the environmental benefits of reuse. 35% of guests opted to re-use their towels. This was used as a the ‘control’ – or baseline – for the experiment.

Message 2: focused on social proof. This missed out the environmental message and stated ‘most people in this hotel re-use their towels.’ 44% of guests reused their towels. That’s almost 10% more people.

Re-use towels

Message 3: the researchers tested variations of the social proof message over several weeks. They tried to target it more to ‘people like you.’ They adapted specific messages by mentioning gender ‘women/men’, ‘citizens’, ‘environmentally concerned individuals’, ‘guests in this hotel’ or finally, ‘people who stayed in this room.’ Five variants in total.

Which message had the greatest impact in changing behaviour? Most people think the answer is one containing some sense of social identity – either ‘gender’ or ‘citizen.’ In fact, it was the one saying ‘most people who stay in this room reuse their towels.’ That produced a 49.3% reuse rate – 15% more than the original environmental message they’d normally use. It’s not about the cause, it’s the social proof context.

There’s a host of similar data around, from experiments and real life, that reinforces this principle:

  1. Supporters may not be turned on by the messaging you imagine they will – or only a small number will. Make sure you don’t just listen to the loudest voices among your supporters. And more important don’t listen too much the voices in your head that turn you on. It’s not about YOU!
  2. The behaviour of supporters may not always be as predictable as you imagine. It’s logical that people should identify mostly strongly with other women or men or citizens, isn’t it? Yep, logical – just not true. Context is often the key to driving behaviour – people ask themselves ‘what do others in this situation do?’ You need to create a context in which people can appear to choose the normal action.
  3. Social proof beats logic and data no matter how powerful. (Think back, sadly, to the ‘evidence’ produced by the pro-Brexit lobby in the recent UK referendum.) Social proof is usually simple and frankly anecdotal. Create a powerful story to reinforce your message rather than a 200-page report. Or use a story or headline number to summarise your 200 pages.
  4. Make it clear your cause is popular. We like to identify with these. On crowdfunding websites show how many supporters you have. Think party invites. If you say “Hey, do you want to come to my party?” What’s the question most people will ask: “Who else is going?” You need to be able to mention that X, Y and Z are.
  5. Establish that those who support your cause are relevant to the target audience – it could be celebrities, religious figures, business people and best of all, fellow donors. Notice how Nike always seeks endorsement form top athletes – winners. That’s their brand positioning and why it appeals.
  6. Make your case distinctive. When Apple launched the iPod it was had weird white earbuds when almost all other earphones we black. The result was people noticed them… and they seemed popular. Give yourself that appearance of popularity.

[1] The experiment covered thousands of users in different combinations over an extended period. You can read the detail here

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