I've been making websites since 1998. Oh those fond memories of GeoCities :)
So one thing I do with some frequency is review other folks' websites to help them with design, conversion optimization, clarity, etc. (Reddit has a great community for this.)
What's funny though is that 95% of these websites do the same thing wrong over and over again. Whether it's a new designer putting together their first portfolio or an entrepreneur putting out their latest app or someone selling picture frames.
And it's an easy fix.
But first let's talk about Walt Whitman.
Remember Leaves of Grass? You might have had to read it for a literature class in high school. Maybe you hated it. Maybe you loved it. This reviewer sure was the latter:
Every word that falls from his mouth shows silent disdain and defiance of the old theories and forms.
I like the sound of that. Walt the rebel. Maybe I need to check out Leaves of Grass again based on that review.
Except here's the thing about that review. Originally it was published anonymously, but that review and at least one other like it were written by Whitman himself.
Walt Whitman - master sockpuppeteer - of the 1850s. :) (A sockpuppet meaning: a false online identity, typically created by a person or group in order to promote their own opinions or views.)
It's probably obvious why someone would do something like this. Good reviews sell books. So, if you're a new and upcoming author (or even an already established author), you better get those reviews.
Whitman knew this in 1850 and it's just as important today. Let's look at a more modern example.
Arnout van de Rijt, a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, performed an experiment with Kickstarter.
Arnout and his crew took 200 new and unfunded projects and randomly applied some of their budget to 100 of them to become that project's first "backer."
Of the 100 projects that didn't get any of Arnout's funding, only 39% were able to subsequently find at least some funding on Kickstarter. Of the 100 projects with Arnount's funding, 70% of them were able to now receive even more funding.
Arnout almost doubled these folks chances of getting more funding just by being their first.
Where this really gets interesting is that he replicated this experiment on different platforms. Not just once, but 3 more times.
With reviews on epinions. With status awards to editors on Wikipedia. With signatures on petitions at change.org. In each experiment, Arnout, just being the first to provide some social nod to the reviewer, editor or project, increased the likelihood other people would participate.
And the effect wasn't just a quick bump while things evened out over time. The effect was enduring, as they showed statistically the gap remained weeks and months later.
Here's a funny, coincidental example I spotted today while writing this. Here's my friend Alexis Ohanian, most widely known as Serena William's husband (or in the tech community as a founder of Reddit, pundit, and investor):
Trying to provide a little social proof to his Medium article. Reddit, coincidentally enough, used sockpuppets with great effect back in 2005 to make Reddit appear lively when it first launched. :)
So what do 95% of the sites I review do wrong in their marketing and web designs? They lack any kind of social proof.
Whitman, Arnout, Ohanian, Reddit. Example after example of the importance of early social proof, and yet this is a lesson I find myself repeating.
Provide some social proof on your websites and projects. Testimonials. Case studies. Nice words from your boss. A quote from your mom.
Seriously, when I launched my second company with Y Combinator back in 2011, our only users at first were our friends and family. So we just took nice things my mom said about the app and put them up on the site. They were honest unsolicited reviews. Why not share them until we got a bigger audience.
Use social proof as aesthetically as you see fit, but I recommend you stick them everywhere. Above the fold. After the fold. In footers. Surround forms with them:
Forms have the most friction of your entire site. It's the make or break time to cough up an email or credit card. You better provide some proof others really like you.
And of course, if you have the traffic, test these changes. But if you're just getting started or looking for new things to optimize your marketing, take Arnout's research and make it a priority to show folks that there's already people interested in what you're doing.
In other words:
Nothing succeeds like success.
(Or, maybe Walt Whitman.)
P.S. If you're looking for more help building or marketing your projects, please reach out. We've been doing this a long time. We'd love to help.