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How social proof can lift your email sign-up rates

By Mark Brownlow 19 Apr, 2012
Essential

Practical ideas for converting more visitors to subscribers

Bloggers use it, online retailers use it, and social media marketers practically make their living from it.

And email marketers?

Maybe they should use it more.

To quote the ultimate authority on human behavior (er, Wikipedia):

"When a person is in a situation where they are unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others for cues concerning the correct behaviour"

This is the concept of social proof. It underpins the use of such elements as bestseller lists, product ratings and those blog feed & Twitter icons that give prominence to the number of existing feed subscriptions and Twitter followers.

All serve to convince or reassure the observer that "buying that product" or "following that Twitter account" is worth doing. Social proof (or the lack of it) is why we tend to avoid restaurants that are empty.

So might you use the concept when growing your email list?

Here are some ideas:

Add social proof icons

It's a rare blog post indeed that doesn't have an icon somewhere indicating how many likes, retweets, +1s, recommendations, followers, readers etc. the blog or article has attracted. You’ll see them on the page you’re currently reading.

Why not try something similar on your sign-up form or page? For example:

1. An icon with total subscriber numbers, perhaps updated in real-time:

  • "23,567 subscribers"
  • “4 million readers”

If you use an ESP, they may provide a chicklet for displaying this number (here one example, here another) or another tool for pulling the number into your web form.

2. A widget that displays the number of recent sign-ups:

  • "254 people signed up yesterday"

3. A widget displaying the time since the last sign-up

  • "Newest list member joined 5 minutes ago"

Add indicative text

Testing social proof might mean as little as changing a word or three. Instead of "join our list", you might simply say "join our 250,000 subscribers". Like Michael Katz does:

Social proof in email sign-up copy

Post up testimonials

As we all know, testimonials are a tried and tested tactic when selling services and products online.

Email sign-up copy is also "selling": your goal is to persuade someone to exchange their email address for the value offered through your emails.

So why not try reader testimonials on your sign-up page?

But care is needed when applying social proof…

Although the exploitation of social proof makes intuitive sense, you still need to test the concept.

Why?

Each audience and sign-up context lends itself differently to particular copywriting techniques. Our intuition is rarely enough to second guess how people really react.

Social proof works both ways, for example. Each individual visiting your sign-up page has their own idea of how many existing subscribers qualifies as a meaningful recommendation of your list.

After all, you might think twice about joining a list which advertises that its last sign-up was in 2007.

It makes little sense to display underwhelming numbers that might actually put people off signing-up.

The tactic might also backfire where you're selling exclusivity. Does "join our exclusive email club" have a stronger or weaker impact when that "exclusive" club has 10 million members?

Finally, not everyone wants to publicize their sign-up rates or numbers, for competitive intelligence or privacy reasons.

Why not take it further?

The potential benefits of social proof depend in part on the magical influence exerted by "numbers" to persuade. Might we take that concept a step further when selling the benefits of a sign-up?

The typical sign-up form is very vague about those benefits (if they're mentioned at all). Might the power of numbers make "special offers" or "useful advice" seem more practical, genuine and relevant?

If you send out coupons, how about:

  • “Last week, we sent out $10 million in coupons via email”

Or use your campaign reports to say:

  • “Last week, subscribers saved a total $3,560,786 (and 20 cents) through our email offers.”

And how about featuring those numbers in your emails now and then to remind people of their value?

Extrapolation from the results of reader surveys might even allow content-based emails to make similar statements:

  • "Our dieting tips helped readers lose 572,338 lbs last year"
  • "Our time management tips saved each reader an average 61 hours of work last quarter"
  • "Our articles helped 536 readers change jobs last month"

Has anybody tried social proof or similar to lift sign-ups? What do you think?

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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