Negative Social Proof: It’s nothing but trouble

The letter below is from the “Conscience Letter” files of the Petrified Forest National Park in northeast Arizona.

It’s one of hundreds of expressions of remorse park rangers have received — along with the pieces of petrified wood the letter-writers had taken from the park. The correspondence has been collected in a blog and book called Bad Luck, Hot Rocks.


Stealing petrified wood is a serious problem for the park. So three researchers — Robert Cialdini, Steve Martin and Noah Goldstein — actually studied attempts to curb petrified wood theft. Their findings are fascinating . . . but also relevant to your work raising funds, engaging advocates and building awareness for your organization.

Social proof

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon in which people adopt the behavior of others when deciding how they should act in a social situation. In other words, when you’re unsure of how to act, you often look to how others are acting.

The researchers wondered if they could prove the power of social proof to solve the park’s problem. They mapped out the park’s petrified wood into three different zones, so they could track theft. Then they posted two different signs, along with a “control” zone that had no sign.

The first simply said:

Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.

With the second sign, they used what’s known as negative social proof: if lots of people are doing something wrong, then it feels less wrong for you to do it.

Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.

The result? Thefts in the zone with the negative social proof sign were triple those of the zone with the positive social proof sign.

Negative social proof in fundraising

Over on the Neuromarketing blog, Roger Dooley highlights a recent example of negative social proof in fundraising. Every year, Wikipedia does its fundraising banner at the top of each page:

Notice the highlighted text: “Only a tiny portion of our readers give.” You should be able to see right away the inadvertent harmful impact of negative social proof here: “Most people don’t give, so I can feel pretty comfortable not giving.”

Positive social proof

But what would it look like if Wikipedia flipped that social proof statement to be positive? They could state how many people have already given, thus switching the thinking to: “Everybody’s doing it, so why not me?”

Here are four positive social proof tactics you can try right now to boost your fundraising:

  1. Progress bars. The classic thermometer or countdown is an excellent way to show people that they are joining a group of like-minded individuals.
  1. Donor testimonials. You can pre-select ones to use in your messaging. Or do what we’ve done for many of our clients: create a “why we give” message wall on the donation page. These testimonials can carry even more social proof than just a big number.
  1. Tell donor stories. This is related to #2. Stories are persuasive and trustworthy. They play to your emotions. They get stuck in your mind better than stats.
  1. Reference other donors’ behavior in your copy. I recently saw an excellent CTA in a political campaign email:

Make a contribution of $24.86 — the average donation we’ve received in the last week — and help us reach 1 million contributions before Wednesday at midnight.

They could take the social proof a level deeper by mentioning gifts from my city or state.

Be more positive with your proof in 2016 — and improve your fundraising

Take a look at your marketing. Can you find examples of negative social proof? Are you making it easy for your constituents to turn a deaf ear to your organization because they assume everyone else is?

If so, look for opportunities to change that negative social proof into positive social proof.