Entrepreneurs, marketers, retailers, politicians, and hustlers of just about every kind know that social proof is critical to success in any competitive space. It’s a primary driver for acquisition, and when engaged correctly it creates powerful competitive moats.

As a consultant and entrepreneur, I advise teams about how to use direct and indirect social proof for branding, networking, and fundraising on a daily basis. Over the years, I’ve found that many entrepreneurs get lost in the hype of all things social and lose sight of the basic mechanisms that actually make social proof tick.

Consider the rest of this article my memo on some of the key dynamics that I regularly see people overlooking when they (fail to) design or engage their social strategy.

Know Your Social Proof Target

This is marketing 101, but it’s surprising how little emphasis people put on this. Before you design a strategy that utilizes social proof, you need to know who you want the proof to persuade and what exactly you want them to do. The rest of your strategy will follow from the proposition and target.

Recognizing Existing Social Proof Norms

It’s not enough to just identify the target profile, or even to know all about them and their associations. You need to look at the kinds of social proof that will be accepted by the targets and their intersecting communities. The best way to familiarize yourself quickly is to take a couple successful or emerging brands (or individuals) in the space and do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats) analysis. How are they branding themselves? What connections are they making? Where have they established presences?

Weighing Social Proof

When strategizing, it is vital to weigh the relative value of social proof for targets. A lot of people get caught up in producing “buzz.” Buzz is fine, but it’s not an end goal. Strategy should go beyond the projected number of impressions and focus on the weight an instance of social proof will carry with a specific target profile.

Most research shows that the weight targets put on social proof depends heavily on credibility and proximity. For example, if your proposition is a consulting service and your target is C-Level executives in the manufacturing sector, one close association with a reputable executive in the industry is going to carry more weight than 10,000 instagram followers.

Similarly, when Facebook first offered the ability to target ads only to the friends of people who had liked a product, the “social proof” offered by the simple statement over the ad that a friend had liked the product, company, or solution was often more weighty than several mentions by major influencers that the target had little connection to.

Capitalizing on Social Proof “Thresholds”

The concept of thresholds is huge. Every person requires a different amount and combination of social proof in order to take an action or change a perspective.

That’s why Granovetter’s “thresholds” model is genius. It predicts momentum in a movement by analyzing the amount of influence (social proof) needed to get each successive individual in the movement to take action. Granovetter used it to model rioter, voter, and migrant behavior, but the concept provides insights for entrepreneurial staples like brand growth or product adoption.

Effective social proof strategy boils down to recognizing the inherent social proof threshold of your proposition and finding a population of targets with the best combination of a low “threshold” in relation to your proposition and a high social proof “weight.”

Go back and read that last paragraph. It’s the most important sentence in the article.

As these targets accept, they make up the body of social proof needed to push other targets over the threshold. Those new targets in turn increase the body of proof and the cycle repeats, building “momentum.” The order and selection is important. It’s what differentiates successful social strategies. If you mistakenly focus on gearing social proof toward high threshold targets first or underestimate the inherent threshold of your proposition, you’ll see poor ROI and minimize your momentum. Similarly, an initial focus on low-threshold, low-weight targets will lead to inefficient brand growth and hamstring long term brand value.

One of the best examples of this strategy comes from HyperIce. We were fortunate to be involved with the brand early on, and Anthony Katz did an incredible job leveraging a few connections to build momentum and create high weight instances of social proof. I highly recommend reading this article on his social proof campaign.

Recognizing and Responding to Social Proof Competition

To be successful you also have to recognize the effect of competition on social proof thresholds, particularly in the face of attention scarcity.

Think of Milgram’s 1969 experiment that successfully gathered a crowd of bystanders simply by paying actors to look at nothing. Here’s the problem: the streets of the internet are full of social campaigns made up of people staring at nothing. The unfortunate effect of this is that users become inured to the effect of a crowd (or the illusion of a crowd). That means you need way more total social proof weight to draw a crowd in many spaces.

The good news is that there are still many places where even a little social proof goes a long way. If you’re selling a product that is in a market that is heavily saturated with a specific type of social proof (e.g. lifestyle brands that utilize high profile instagram influencers), you may be able to see greater ROI by moving resources away from the highly competitive form of social proof and instead investing in developing social proof for spaces that have lower thresholds for attention (e.g. micro-influencers in niche markets, focused local social communities, review acquisition on marketplaces, etc.).

Using Social Proof Ethically

The golden rule for using social proof ethically is to think from the perspective of your target. Of course you need social proof that shows positive outcomes for your proposition, but you need to ensure the proof also accurately shares the context behind the outcome. This will make the proof more effective, and, perhaps more importantly, it will ensure that the social proof is applicable to your target’s situation. In my experience, most consumer dissatisfaction, especially in services and consulting, occurs because the proof is overly generalized and targets expect the same positive result as a client in a completely different situation. That’s why positive case studies are the king of social proof in my opinion. They have plenty of weight, and they allow targets to connect to proof that matches their situation and creates reasonable expectations.

My Final Verdict On Social Proof

Social proof is very effective when done correctly, and in today’s competitive environment it regularly is the difference between failure and success. Recognizing these social proof realities as part of a coherent, contextually appropriate social proof strategy will help build momentum for your product or service and create a stronger competitive moat around it.