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Narcissism or Necessity?

by  David Dwyer on  28/06/2017

What do we mean by social proof?

It may sound obvious but the world has changed and using social proof to build your online customer base is an absolute must!

Are you a new online merchant? Then your first priority must be to attract customers!

A key tool that many merchants are now adopting is referred to as ‘social proof’.

What do we mean by social proof?

The answer, simply, is using the reported experiences of current customers to immediately reach out and try to convert new customers.

Perhaps you already have followers on Twitter or Instagram who you can encourage to become early adopters of your product? They might be happy to give a testimonial that you can retweet, or use to seed a corporate Facebook page or the testimonials section on your website.

[Ed: when planning this article I’d thought I could take it in a few interesting directions. One I was very interested in, but chose not to follow, was about Fake Profiles. This was because I found a well written and engaging article that did the job better than I could... See more about “counterfeit facebook farms” here ]

So, what type of social proof is best?

Let’s reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of three typical types of social proof.


Testimonials that you request will frequently illustrate your USP – the customer experience, quality, or price, for example.

Perhaps you are a restaurant or B&B, and can encourage customers to leave a comment or review at the end of their visit. Usually, these endorsements will then be displayed prominently on your website. [Ed: traditionally we’ve done this via a Testimonial Slider, but in the last few years this has evolved into embedding Reviews code or referencing links to the original review.]

Gathered in this way, testimonials are good because they allow you some control over the message. (If a customer says something you don’t like, no one can force you to include it.) But because testimonials are actively controlled by you – the brand – they can lack authenticity. And ultimately, authenticity is what counts for social proof.

Third-party reviews

Some third-party sites – most famously TripAdvisor – allow customers to review their experience of your business directly.

Reviews of this kind are overwhelmingly authentic, and so they’re often cited on websites – as they offer pure social proof of how well your business or product is perceived. (Note: most review platforms will allow for the right of reply, arbitration process and also deletion of any false reviews, provided you can demonstrate that the content of the review is false.)

If you’re on TripAdvisor, or another third-party review platform, then all your customers’ reviews will show up. That’s good, even if there’s a bad review, as your potential customers know they’re looking at the real thing – and you can respond to the points in the review to add context or clarification.

In addition, multiple reviews show off the popularity of your business, as well as its quality. Volume is definitely your friend.

But, if any customer has had a bad experience, their negative review will almost certainly show up against your business pretty quickly. So, you need to monitor your reviews personally, or use tools such as Google Alerts, or social media monitoring packages such as Hootsuite, which offers a free start-up plan.

Gamesmanship has always been an issue with reviews but this has taken on a more sinister side in recent years. It really is a major issue with unscrupulous users demanding concessions or they’ll leave a negative review or troll that business online. Negative reviews left by unsuccessful competition entrants tarnishes what should be an organisation’s good news message.

User behaviour though is turning against such trolling with the general public roundly condemning the obvious instances of such activity. This is only valid though for larger campaigns, as smaller campaigns don’t have the same type of reach. [Ed: At the end of this article we’ve added some advice on how you should handle Reviews. Now, back to social proof…]

Social media

Hootsuite takes us neatly on to your social media reputation. Displaying social media widgets on your site will show potential customers how many times your Facebook page has been liked, or how many fans it has, or how many times a tweet has been shared. It is another way for customers to assess your popularity.

But social media as a form of social proof is still a crude measure: one thousand people may have “liked” a link because they thought it was hilarious, not excellent.

Social media doesn’t show potential customers how previous customers truly felt about your business – and always remember, that honest feeling is the core strength of social proof. Facebook recently replaced their “Like” feature with “reactions” for this very reason. Google use their Zagat scoring system, (https://support.google.com/zagat/?hl=en#7068790)

Additionally, unlike testimonials and third-party reviews, both of which imply a real experience of your product or service, there is little verification of user identity on social media platforms. Therefore, many of your likes or shares could actually be generated by bots, rather than real people.

So, what wins out in our review of social proof?

Currently, the answer has to be third-party reviews (so keep monitoring).

While social media is useful, it lacks insight and authority, because you can comment on the product or service without any direct experience of it.

And while testimonials may praise, their lack of authenticity compared with third-party reviews means they finish in second place.

Third-party reviews win because they deliver the most authentic feedback online. That’s why, according to a study by Searchengineland, 88% of people say they trust customer reviews as much as they do personal recommendations of their friends, family, and colleagues.

Remember too, while some reviews might be negative, counter-intuitively, they too can bring you two benefits:

  1. They underline that your business is authentic.
  2. Those harsh words present a business opportunity.


Publicly patching up the situation and making a customer feel better demonstrates how great your customer service is; which is almost always the most effective form of social proof you can get!

Next, as promised, a little more on how to handle your Reviews

Types of Reviews

If you’re open for business on the web and collecting reviews (whether you want them or not), there’s simply no way to get around the fact that you’re going to get some bad ones. On the positive side, you’re also going to get plenty of good and even some great ones.

Savvy businesses know that both positive and negative reviews represent great opportunities. See previous articles we’ve written around Involve, Innovate & Inspire as well as Engagement, Explanation and Expectation management. These are covered by academics under such areas as Balanced Scorecard, Fair Process and Blue Ocean Strategy.

Hence, I felt the need to show you what to do when you get good reviews, bad reviews, and just strange or outrageous reviews.

The great and the good!

You’ve just received a glowing review, shared it with the team and that’s the job done, great move onto the next, yes?

Definitely, no!

The positive review is just the starting point. Here’s how you should respond:
Thank your customer, reply to the review, be sincere and let them know you care about their business.

Hopefully, they’ll feel the same way, and (this is the important part) not just become repeat customers, but also vocal ambassadors of your brand.

In replying to the review publicly, your current and future customers will be able to see that you are engaged with your business, your customers and value your team; and that you are open for new and repeat business.

Mention your business name: As search engines use reviews as part of their rankings, getting more of your brand name out there can only help your search performance.

If you’re skilled, you can try and get a keyword in there too.

Something like: “Thank you for trusting the Inspire team as your web design, development and SEO partner, we’re really proud to have been part of your project team.”

Give them a reason to come back: This might mean mentioning an upcoming sale, telling them something cool about the product (e.g. “We love keeping it local and the beef for your Aberdeen Angus steak came from about 5 miles from your home!!”), or simply expressing your hope that you’ll see them again soon e.g. “The team and I loved working on your e-commerce project and we’re help to help you succeed!”.

In any event, keeping your brand at the forefront is crucial, and any way you can do it works.

If you do all of this, you’ll be leveraging the great and the good feedback into even more business.

Handling Bad Reviews (Genuine Ones)

If you’re selling online, then (more than likely) not everything is entirely within your control.

Occasionally, you might send a wrong size or wrong item. An item might be damaged in transit. Shit happens and things arrive late.

We get it. There’s no shame in this happening, but if you’re trying to build a lifetime’s valued relationship, it would be a criminal shame not to do anything about it.

Here’s how to do damage control:
Admit that you messed up: like any relationship, sometimes the first step to resolving problems is to just own up to the mistake.

This is true even if technically it wasn’t your fault (e.g. if it was the freelance delivery company messing up). If you accept the blame and apologize, you’ll make your customer feel validated. [Ed: remember Fair Process: Engagement + Involve from before.]

Stress that this isn’t business as usual: it’s important to let the customer know that this isn’t how things normally go down. Because review responses are public-facing, it will let other potential customers know as well. [Ed: again, remember Explanation + Involve]

Offer a fix, then take it offline: the key here is your tone of voice, yes let the customer know you’ll be taking care of them (but also remember that everyone online can read the conversation) — so avoid getting into a game of ping-pong.

I remember a great example of an Italian coffee shop in Edinburgh, from a number of years ago, where they had a long-standing customer leave a truly awful customer service review. I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal or not, but it’s a great example nonetheless. Well they replied with something along the lines of the following:
“First of all thank you for posting your feedback and bringing this to my attention.

We are a 3rd generation family business whom take tremendous pride in having built our business based on great customer service and great coffee.

I’m truly sorry that you’ve had such a negative experience this morning.

After looking into your complaint it is very clear that on this occasion we have dropped the ball. I understand that we were short staffed due to xxx and we should have better explained the longer delivery time for your order.

As someone who has been a customer of ours for many years we are sorry to have let you down but we would love to see you again where we can demonstrate once again our great customer service and great coffee.

Please let me know when you plan to next come in so I can say hello and welcome you back.” 
[Ed: remember Fair Process: Expectation management + Involve]

Should I delete bad reviews?

You might be tempted to just delete your negative review [Ed: this may not be so easy but depending on the scenario it is possible], or deny that what the customer is saying is true.

This is a bad idea and very much a missed opportunity.

Point one, presence of negative reviews is important for your brand. It shows you’re a real business, and you haven’t airbrushed your reviews.

Point two, decrying or denying what a customer is saying can easily explode, damage your brand, and cost you a way more to fix than a simple apology.

The truly bizarre, strange and simply outrageous

Sometimes, you get a review so full of lies that you don’t really know what to do. Bogus claims for orders they never made or enquiries made but no replies, or that you charged more than they said [Ed: are you using a 3rd Party SMTP Relay to track all form mail traffic, this is great for identifying in inbound enquiries arrive or are caught in spam filters or outbound enquiries are sent but don’t arrive because the user has a full inbox or they had a typo in their form submission].

In any case, this is when it’s very important to have an independent arbiter e.g. a third-party review platform. Their role is to collect, monitor, and display reviews, but their business model is premised upon the reviews being valid, justified, and trusted.

The third party can then mitigate the bogus claims.

So, how do I that, submit a removal request and let your review platform know that this review is not legitimate. They’ll ask for any available evidence so you can provide invoices and orders that contradict the review. From there, the review platform should then delete the bogus review.

War & Peace

One last thing to keep in mind is that your responses to reviews, no matter how long, should be relatively short. No one wants to read an essay. Aim to keep your responses to around 3 sentences if you can. Focus on what’s important, and put that into words!

Balanced Scorecard, Blue Ocean Strategy, Continuous Professional Development, Customer Relationship Management, Customer Service, Developer SOS, e-Marketing, Fair Process, Frequently Asked Question's, Google My Business, Search Engine Optimisation, Selling, Site Reviews, Social Media Management, Social Proof, Sticky Websites, Web Consultancy, Website Management
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