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How Social Proof Translates into Buying Decisions

by: Dave Walters (@_DaveWalters)
25 January 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how and why marketing buyers make decisions. It’s probably an oversimplification to say “because of Facebook or Twitter,” but I think that’s an increasingly critical issue—social proof. I was reminded yet again of how things have changed by a spirited discussion kicked off around a Mark Cuban blog post a couple weeks ago. His primary contention was that start-ups in general —and tech start-ups specifically—shouldn’t waste time and money hiring an outside PR firm. His point is that when you’re small and fast, there’s minimal time and money to waste on getting (and keeping) an external resource up to speed on every aspect of your business. You’re likely better doing it yourself.

I believe the crux of Mark’s argument (which I agree with) is that old-school marketing has been effectively and aggressively disintermediated. In his example, it’s the PR agency. In other examples, it’s digital functions like buying banners (hi AdWords) or building websites (Joomla, Drupal and WordPress are fun). The same is true of building an audience of buyers for your product or service. Gone are the days when you need to be in one of the 30 product categories covered by PC Magazine, and you’d better win the annual roundup to pull units through the retail channel. And your exact position in a quadrant is no longer a guarantee of success—or even survival. The gatekeepers of the past are just that—of the past.

Today, we build market credibility and buyers by reaching out directly to people and companies. Channels like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. have opened a new dialogue with a much wider audience. And the “informed collective” (as I like to call it) wields an incredible amount of sway over who’s considered when it’s time to buy technology. This has turned many brands of yesterday on their heads such that they simply can’t compete with this new breed of leaner, faster technology company. Look no further than how Salesforce is displacing Siebel in large-scale business. Ten years ago, no single company had a product that could span price points from $35 to $35 million.

So what does this mean for marketers? Clearly, changing the entire marketing approach is not easy stuff. The scale of dealing with 50 publications and 10 analysts to carry your message to market required less effort than having to engage all your social network followers across five to seven disparate networks—all at the same time. And this is the tip-of-the-spear for disintermediation. At this exact point is where scalable technology steps in to save the day.

The marketers best positioned for future success remain grounded in the time-proven tactics, but are quickly integrating a social strategy at the highest levels of their organization. They clearly understand that prospects don’t show up uninformed and ready to buy whatever they’re hawking. Today’s buyers are increasingly more educated on a particular segment’s competitors and products than any normal, human salesperson could ever be.

So how is this achieved? Via professional groups on LinkedIn, at networking events, in Google+ circles—the list is almost infinite. But they all have one thing in common: no brand owns them. You can’t buy a truckload of media and slam your way into consideration or market share. In fact, I’d contend the massive spending habits of the past (think Microsoft’s launch budget for Windows 8) will increasingly be perceived as a sign of social weakness. Super-fans (created through epic brand advocacy or immense peer-driven social draw) do more to convince the world that tools like 37Signals’ Basecamp or Facebook are must-haves in one’s digital life.

The same is true for marketing technology. The rise of Google Analytics opened the eyes of thousands of mid-sized business to the metrics that were possible on the digital platforms. And SaaS-based ecommerce platforms like Storenvy and BigCommerce brought store-building directly to anyone creative or brilliant enough to offer items people want to buy. And yes, these platforms have created social groups who share, enhance and evangelize about the platform they love. And guess what else? The ease-of-use and flexible designs have seen these tools become part of the consideration set for real-deal marketers.

So if you’re a marketer, it’s a double-edged sword. You’ve got to deal with a much wider sphere of interactions, but the super-fans you build will go to the ends of the earth with you. Your marketing technology now requires a different degree of consideration and execution. It simply won’t cut it to add a survey to next month’s newsletter. Step back and think about everything your customer does, and figure out how to elegantly automate behavior-driven messaging in a way that highlights your brand personality. No one wants to buy from a monolith, and you might be surprised by how aggressively your small- to mid-sized company can take customers from your Fortune 500 competitors by being authentically human.


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