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?