The right message at the right time can start a movement that changes the world, in both big and small ways. And social media has the ability to spread that message and organize that movement in ways never before possible.
Of all the psychological triggers that lead to persuasive messages that spread, one stands above the rest when it comes to social media. In fact, this one element of influence drives the entire concept of social media.
What is it?
Well… Social media is all about users deciding what’s worthwhile instead of relying on mass media or advertising to dictate to us. But the real issue is that users often decide to give a message a chance based on initial indicators that have nothing to do with the actual quality of the content.
What we’re talking about is called social proof aka herd mentality or the bandwagon effect. People tend to follow the crowd without evaluating the true merits for themselves, especially when the merits are ambiguous.
In a more positive sense, social proof can be the proverbial foot in the door. It can be the difference that leads to attention and acceptance, which turns a message into a movement.
Social Media = Social Proof
So, social proof gives us important cues about how to behave in ambiguous social situations. But what’s ambiguous about social media?
First of all, we’re not sure if we should pay attention. Given the vast amount of information we’re exposed to daily, we naturally look for quick cues about the quality of what we come across. And we’re wired to look to others for those indications of quality.
Secondly, we look for cues as to whether or not to accept the message itself. If you’re reading something in your area of expertise, you’re less likely to look for external indicators. But if the topic or position is new to you or novel in any way, you’ll likely be influenced by the raw popularity of the piece, plus the specific comments of others who’ve come before.
Again, this is normal human behavior, so you can’t expect social media to operate differently.
But here’s where it gets quirky.
Sometimes your message inadvertently convinces people to do or accept the opposite of what you want—thanks also to social proof. And it’s easier to make this mistake than you might imagine.
The Dark Side of Social Media
Studies have shown that mass media coverage of a suicide soon leads to more suicides. The simple explanation is that people who are contemplating suicide feel validated by the suicide of another, so they act in kind.
In other words, social proof also tells us it’s okay to do what we already want to do. This isn’t all bad, especially when it involves the acceptance of your message. But it can also result in negative social proof, in that it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof..
Here are some tips for avoiding negative social proof that works against your message:
- Focus social proof on the desired action, not the action you want people to avoid.
- Reframe negative social proof to highlight those who are on board rather than those who are not.
- Characterize the undesirable action as isolated, out of touch, uncool, aberrant, etc.
- Enjoy the positive social proof that results from social media acceptance.
Can You Really Change the World With Social Media?
Whether you want to launch a business, promote a cause, or elect a President, the answer is clear:
Yes you can—when you turns to we.
But given the way social proof drives social media, the way you frame your initial message is critical. You want the momentum of social proof aligned with where you want to go, not with where things are.
What you say matters. Just remember that how you say it also matters.