Imagine: you receive exactly the same email from two entirely different senders. The first comes from your colleague, the second from a business or ‘inquiries@’ address. Which one are you most likely to open and read? Social proof represents one of the most powerful recruitment tools available to associations. Roslyn Atkinson explains.

Remember the days when you could convert a prospect to becoming a member of your association simply by handing them a membership brochure? Now in the digital age, the path to membership is longer than it used to be because we’re more sceptical. We now have the capability to do our own research in a way that we never could before – in the palm of our hand. We like to be in control of our own decisions and, most importantly, we don’t like being sold to.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that a recent study by IBM found that the digitally-empowered consumer has become the number-one force for change for businesses and organisations.

Trying to convert a prospective member using traditional marketing tactics, business development teams or cold calling is harder than it used to be – especially to the younger generations that represent the future of membership.

“Generations X and Y need to feel a secure relationship and a sense of ownership in your association before they join,” writes Sarah Sladek in The End of Membership As We Know It.

“In contrast, most Baby Boomers will join an association because they feel it’s the right thing to do and they work at the belonging piece of it after the fact.

“Your association will struggle to recruit and retain younger members if they don’t feel like they belong in your association… Building trust is done in steps and over time.”

So how can you build trust with prospective members over time and help them to feel that they belong? Fortunately, digital communications provide a huge opportunity for associations to do this by influencing the decision to join in a way that wasn’t even possible just a few years ago.

It’s got a lot to do with social proof.

What’s social proof?

Social proof is when we make decisions based on the influence of a social peer group. It usually happens when you aren’t quite sure what decision to make but, if everyone else is doing it, it must be right. This is especially true when people you respect and like make decisions, and when there’s a large number of people in the group.

In an online environment, social proof includes things like when a respected colleague or peer forwards an email to you saying, ‘thought you might like to read this’. It’s when you read blog posts and opinion pieces from influential people, as well as comments on those blog posts. It’s online forums where people share their ideas  – the more active the forums, the stronger the social proof. It’s the stories that are shared by friends and colleagues in your social media news feeds, as well as pictures and videos.

Social proof can also be subtle, for example the number of likes or shares of an article – have you ever thought you probably wouldn’t read a story and then saw it had 10,000 shares so you figured you should read it after all to see why so many people had shared it?

All of these factors create social influence; social proof is that extra step where you form an opinion or make a decision based on this social influence. Perhaps you have the membership kit and think the member benefits look okay; social proof will give you confidence that the association is as good as it says it is in the brochure, and will help to validate your personal decision to join.

Facilitating social proof

You can’t create social proof artificially – either your members think you’re worthwhile or they don’t. If you want a perception of value, you have to actually be valuable. If this is the case, you can help your community of passionate supporters to share their stories and spread the word.

Here are eight ways you can facilitate social proof

  • Ensure a substantial amount – if not all – of your communications are able to be found and shared in a digital environment, instead of being locked behind a paywall for members only.
  • Focus on a few channels and do them well. Start with your website, emails (including enewsletters) and one or two social media channels where you know your members hang out, like Linkedin (for professionals) or Pinterest (for consumer products).
  • Ensure that your communications include opinions and comments from influential and likeable people in your sector.
  • Ensure your communications include stories from members.
  • Ensure that informative and educational pieces are highly useful, highly relevant and easy to share. The more people who pass on an article to a colleague (be that via email, social media or even printed on a piece of paper) saying ‘You should read this, it’s really good’, the more you will build up credibility and a perception of value.
  • Use videos – these let you tell stories that feel more personal and emotive because it’s not just what the person is saying, it’s the way they say it.
  • Be visual – use images and graphics that genuinely add something to the story; don’t use fillers. This is an opportunity to increase the perception of value of the information and make it easy to share.
  • Enable conversations – such as comments on articles, forums on LinkedIn, and even private social networks.

One association that does this really well is the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA). With a hard-earned, thriving private social network, fresh website content, various social channels, an enewsletter, and a digital magazine, IPWEA now has more than 42,000 indexed pages on Google, giving it an ever-increasing chance of being found, and lots of content for its community to pass on.

Not surprisingly, all measures of member engagement and perception of value in its annual member survey have gone from strength to strength over the past five years. Making content available to non-members hasn’t harmed membership at all. Instead, it’s created incredibly strong social proof to back up the IPWEA’s claims to ‘Inform, Represent, Connect and Lead’.

Does social proof actually influence a decision to join an association?

Even in the old days of joining without any digital influence, ‘what everyone else is doing’ has always been a factor in a decision to join or to recommend for someone else to join.

A 2012 study in the US by association marketing expert Jerry Elprin found 32 per cent of association members stated that they joined based on the recommendation of another person.

He found that there are five key drivers that cause a member to recommend membership to others:

A perception that the association is a good organisation.

A feeling of strong connection to the association.

A belief that the association enhances credibility.

Faith that the organisation is the leading source of best practices.

An opinion that the association is proactive.

What doesn’t influence a recommendation? Elprin’s study found that the following factors did not drive someone to recommend membership:

  • promoting excellence in the profession
  • keeping up on technical developments
  • enhancing the public’s image of the profession
  • networking
  • discounts and
  • insurance benefits.

I don’t think that means that these benefits aren’t important or even significant in the decision to join, but on their own they’re not enough. Social proof will take your prospective member on the path to membership in their own time, building trust along the way without requiring a single conversation with your sales team – until the prospect is ready.

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