Take two nightclubs. From the outside, both are nondescript, windowless structures. One has a loud and vibrant crowd outside, a long line of people eager to get inside. The other club looks empty; no one is in sight, except for a very bored bouncer.

Which place piques your interest? Where would you rather spend your Saturday night? The answer is obvious—and it's why some clubs intentionally slow down their entrance rates to keep the lines longer outside.

That is "social proof" at work. It's a powerful psychological phenomenon that extends well beyond nightclub lines. It shapes how standing ovations form at live events. It makes restaurants seat you at the window table first. It's the motivation behind laugh tracks in sitcoms.

And although that canned laughter isn't fooling anyone, research has found that a show with a laugh track has higher "perceived funniness" than the same show without the laugh track.

Robert Cialdini's book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion made social proof famous. According to the theory, an action is considered more appropriate when we see others doing it.

In short, our thoughts and behavior patterns are shaped by the opinions and actions of others—and that force is even stronger when those opinions and actions are of people we know and respect.

The important lesson for social marketers is that the same behavioral force can be applied to your business and social-media presence. When social proof works with you, it helps keep visitors on your Web page and improves conversion rates on your landing page (encouraging clicks, likes, and subscriptions).

After all, no matter what you sell or promote, Internet marketing is all about persuasion. And social proof is one of the most persuasive tools around.

For example, if I visit a website and it shows it has 14K Twitter followers, I'm more likely to believe the website or company is of high value. If I see a blog post with tons of comments, I'll be inclined to think it's saying something people care about—even before I've read a single word.

The same is true if I happen upon a landing page that shows Facebook comments of people giving praise. And bonus points if some of those people are those I know and are also in my network.

That is social proof, and it's the modern-day digital testimonial.

Take advantage of social proof on your website

So how can you make social proof work for you? Start by scanning some of your favorite social-media sites for widgets and tools that you can use on your blog, homepage, or landing page. For example:

  • Twitter. Twitter widgets show follower counts, activity feeds, the number of times content has been re-tweeted, and more. If you've already got an impressive following on Twitter, use it to your advantage by displaying your Twitter followers prominently. If your Twitter community is still in its "early stages," don't despair. You can demonstrate social proof in other ways. (Remember the saying, “Fake it until you make it.") For example, star comments made about you on Twitter and then use a Twitter widget that cycles through all the starred comments.
  • Facebook. Facebook has a slew of social widgets that show how many people "Like" your page or who has recently shared your content on Facebook. And Facebook widgets take social proof a step further by tailoring content to whoever is visiting your landing page or website. When applicable, people can see their own friends and colleagues in the sidebar. There's no more powerful testimonial than that from someone you trust.
  • Others. If you have a blog, you can show the number of FeedBurner subscribers, Digg votes, or Delicious tags.

Moreover, think beyond plug-in social widgets and consider social proof in all aspects of your Web page, blog, email, newsletter, and any other digital presence.

For example, reader comments are a valuable currency in the blogosphere. We know there's a domino effect at play, with comments begetting more comments. Accordingly, encourage user participation at every opportunity, and prominently display comments.

Feature testimonial quotes or tweets throughout your website. And if you're asking customers to friend or follow you, show the vibrancy of those communities (via size or activity) as added encouragement.

So, just how many followers do I need for social proof?

When it comes to numbers, be mindful that what works for you can also work against you: 250,000 fans will obviously sway first impressions in your favor, and showing eight followers is analogous to an empty nightclub with no line outside.

However, that said, social proof has no magic number. A local retailer or CPA should have a different set of expectations than a major brand with global name recognition.

The key is to find the number that's right for you, your business, and your industry. Moreover, remember that there's more than one way to show social proof: Maybe you have more Twitter followers than Facebook fans, or maybe you've got a good number of social bookmarks or are being followed by key figures in your industry.

Put your best foot forward by picking the number or testimonial that best highlights your social proof.

Of course, when it comes down to it, the quality of your content will ultimately determine your social-media success. Whether you curate content or create your own, you've got to give your audience a reason to return to your site and join your community.

But other factors, such as social proof, can have a big impact on shaping first impressions and determining whether a casual visit turns into a subscription, like, or bookmark.

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Why 'Social Proof' Matters in Your Social-Marketing Success

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Dan Martell is a cofounder of Flowtown, a social media marketing platform. He also advises and helps launch startups and small businesses by using metrics-driven marketing tactics. Follow Dan on Twitter or email him at questions@flowtown.com.