Monday, November 10, 2008

What Are You Talking About?: Optimism as Social Proof

Okay, I'm foregoing my usual link madness to get a little wonky this morning. Sarah Rettger at the ABA's Omnibus blog had a great link yesterday (what are you doing working Sunday, Sarah??) (Update: while Sarah noticed the link, it's Dan Cullen who deserves credit for posting on Sunday) that I think deserves some analysis and some action.

The link is to a site called Copyblogger, which has columns and advice about how to be a better blogger or online marketer. This particular column, "How to Change the World Using Social Media," seems especially timely after an exciting presidential election that used online media and social networking to make great things happen. It also has a lot to do with my optimism schtick around here, and I think it has the potential to be an inspiration to independent booksellers.

The key term here is social proof, which Wikipedia defines as "a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed."

Translation: people are likely to do what they think other people are doing.

There are some fascinating examples of this: the Werther effect, in which a rash of suicides followed Goethe's novel of a suicidal hero The Sorrows of Young Werther in the 1700s, or the fact that if there is only one person on the scene when another person needs help, they're more likely to do something than if there are several people around, in which case they'll wait to see what other people are going to do, which is likely nothing.

The most relevant example for us, though, goes like this:

A well-intended statistic states, "42% of college graduates never read a book again.” (Dan Poynter’s ParaPublishing)

What people hear is “I don’t enjoy reading, and I’m in a lot of good company.”

This is the negative aspect of social proof: as Copyblogger puts it "it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof."

So, as Sarah wisely points out, "If you complain about how many books are sold through chains and online, it doesn't drive traffic to your store." In fact, it reinforces the message that "everyone" shops at chains and online, so if I do it, I'm just like everyone else.

Our first tendency as book people is probably to lament the herd mentality this represents; a lot of literature historically has been dedicated to individuals fighting against this sort of thing (remember the "Man vs. Society" segment in junior high English?) But in fairness, it's actually an effective evolutionary trait, that keeps us humans out of trouble for the most part, and gives us safety in numbers.

Our challenge is to be leaders of that herd, and to choose which way we want to steer. As my friend Susan and I say to each other, "You create the world you imagine." In terms of social proof, this may be literally true.

What if I tell you that bookstore sales rose 5.4% in August, to $2.43 billion, while the rest of the retail sector was flat in August? (It's true, right from the U.S. Census.) Even while book sales overall increased by only 0.6 percent , bookstore sales were up significantly higher! You'd think everyone must be buying books from brick and mortar bookstores, and that must be a good bet, and maybe you'd manage to get yourself to a bookstore to start your holiday shopping. There are other statistics you could quote that wouldn't be nearly as encouraging. But why would you steer people toward the trends you don't want them to follow?

This is one of the reasons why things like the NEA's depressing reports on reading habits make me so agitated. I understand that their goal is to get more funding for reading programs so they have to paint a desperate picture. But I can't help thinking that all this does is reinforce people in thinking that not reading is normal and to be imitated.

One of the best examples given in Copyblogger of effective social proof marketing is the bumpersticker slogan "Don't Mess With Texas." It was an anti-littering campaign, but it appealed to the tough guy types who would put it on their pickups, and who were then reinforcing non-littering behavior with their peers. It didn't lament the state of the highways and beg people to stop doing what they're doing -- it gave the target audience a way to reinforce positive behaviors among themselves.

I'm in no way advocating for dishonesty, for painting a falsely rosy picture. But I think we as booksellers should realize that we're not doing ourselves any favors by focusing on the negative. In fact, we're contributing to everything we worry about by reinforcing it.

Instead, let's get creative with ways to lead the herd -- to give tools for reinforcing the behaviors we want. IndieBound, with its cool-kid signage and slogans and social networking, is a brilliant example. (The ABA has done a brilliant job of making the IndieBound campaign pro-indie, rather than anti-chain.) The IBNYC's mission, focusing on the rich bookstore culture that exists instead of the perception that New York's bookstores have disappeared, is another. And we do it in our newsletters, in our store blogs, in our conversations with customers. Let them know what's going right, how many new email signups you've had lately, how many in the audience at your last great event.

Let's not talk about what people shouldn't do. Let's talk about the good stuff that they're already doing. Then watch our best instincts kick in, and let the good news go viral.

What do you think? How do you use social proof in talking to your customers? How have you seen it work in the negative? What do you think are some ways we can use social proof to help the cause of independent and local bookstores?


Sarah Rettger said...

Thanks for expanding on this, Jess! I rewrote my explanation of social proof a couple times before posting, worried that my Friday-afternoon incoherence was going to show. It's good to see at least one person was able to understand me!

(And it's actually Dan Cullen who gets credit for working on the weekend. As editor, he's the one who ultimately clicks the Publish button.)

Bookavore said...

YES! Yes, yes, yes; yes, yes yes yes.

That is the most coherent I can be about this at the moment. Will be linking soon and maybe I'll have more to say by then.

Tamar Chansky said...

Hello, I just found your blog on a google search under optimism because I have just written a book about the topic for parents. But then I had to read your article because I love the name of your blog. So, hey, if you have parenting books in your bookstore, can I just tell you that, in keeping with your article, the majority of parents I see would truly rather buy my books (or any parenting books) in a bookstore where they can get them *right*away than to have to wait and order on-line. How's that for social proof?!

Oh, and, if I can just put in a plug for those can check out my titles at


Anonymous said...

Jessica, this is a great piece. For a similiar concept to social proof you ought to read Buyology, by Martin Lindstrom, because he intuited that anti-smoking advertising was actually encouraging people to smoke. His research (with the help of top neuro-scientists) indicated that anti-smoking messages which depicted cigarettes or smoking actually caused a craving in smokers' minds, and thus the images totally undercut the message of the ads. The neuro-science reason for this is we have "mirror neurons" that essentially experience what we see being done (or read about being done -- mirror neurons are firing when we relate to something we read) -- if we see someone yawning, we start to yawn, if we see someone enjoying a Coke we are likely to crave a drink ourselves (assuming Coke is already our soda of choice) and if we see a junkie light up a cigarette, we're going to crave one if we're a smoker, even though nobody sees a junkie as worthy of emulation. For the same reason, Lindstrom found that sex in advertising only sells itself: the attractive couple onscreen activates the part of the mind that controls arousal, and causes the memory to completely overlooks the products they're supposed to be selling -- so sex in advertising actually forces the product out of memory, because they compete for the mind's attention. (I wish he had a succinct article or video clip to link to, but I couldn't find one. Anyway, link to his website:

Carried into the book realm, I think that anti-chain statements merely create the impression that the chains are where it's at, and indies are second-class citizens. We simply shouldn't mention them, should never use AMZN to search for a book, and should never compare our service to theirs. It's all about keeping money in the local economy, supporting your local schools' tax base & keeping a diversity of voices and retailers in your community, and these should be the messages we focus on. I agree the ABA holiday campaign is spot on, and hope we can keep moving in this direction next year.

Jacqui said...

Here via Bookavore. This is fascinating, and makes a lot of sense. The "Don't Mess With Texas" part makes me wonder about the same effect and its role in trying to get people to think about their behavior and the environment.

I also think your point about IndieBound being pro-indie and ignoring the chains is well-taken.


priya said...

yup it does make a lot of sense...

P. J. Grath said...

Glad I didn't miss this post! This is right in line with my intuition about not mentioning big-box store names so as not to reinforce those names. And right--complaining never boosts sales. You've also given a name to what I fear goes on in anti-drug campaigns in schools. Why focus their attention on drugs? Why not on, for instance, music?

expedition girl said...

Brilliant! One of those things that you may sense vaguely, but when someone writes coherently about it, you're like, That's so TRUE! Well, if anyone wants to follow my herd, I shopped at Three Lives this week & at McNally last night--let's see if that honest proclamation brings more customers in! :)

Frankie Law said...

LOL, very inspirational. I think I have a new respect for social media and gonna tackle it see if anything spectacular going to happen to me :D