Social proof for nonprofits: How to use it for social good

Digital AdvertisingDigital Fundraising

Would you jump off a cliff just because your friends were doing it? Probably not. But, according to a Nielsen survey, 82% of you would make a purchase (in part) because a friend or family member recommended it. This is a very simple, real-world example of social proof. 

Social proof is when we make decisions based on the actions and decisions made by a larger group. The term was coined by author and expert on the psychology of marketing Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book Influence, in which Cialdini relates social proof to his 6 Principles of Persuasion: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus. 

That said, social proof isn’t a new concept — there are studies around it that are older than the Internet itself. However, it has taken on a new context in an age when many of our decisions and actions are made online, and when we’re exposed to far more opinions, actions, and people.

Social proof and nonprofits

For nonprofits, social proof explains why there are a few key organizations that immediately come to mind when we name a cause. Disaster relief? That’s the Red Cross. Children’s welfare? You might be thinking about UNICEF. Wildlife conservation? We’re willing to bet you thought about the World Wildlife Fund.

There are, of course, plenty of organizations that work in these fields, each with their own unique value proposition. But we tend to go with a herd mentality, so when an earthquake or hurricane hits, most of our dollars go to one cause. We mirror the actions of others, as long as we believe they reflect correct behavior. And the more often we see others performing a certain behavior, the more likely we are to believe that it’s the correct action or response. Humans are easily swayed. As a nonprofit, you have the power to sway us towards a good cause. 

There are a number of ways to break down this concept for marketing, including focusing on categories like celebrity social proof or expert social proof. But we’d like to take a different tack and start with how versus what. With that in mind, here are 5 persuasion strategies for nonprofits, based on Intuit’s Social Proof Persuasion Methods Overview as presented at the 2018 SXSW conference, and adapted for nonprofits.

1. The Herd Mentality

Fear Level: Very low

Emotional Response: Compliant

Catchphrase: “I’ll have what she’s having.”

This is social proof at its most basic: Using the wisdom of the crowd and power in numbers to bring more people over to your cause. The Herd Mentality is what gave us the #MeToo movement, Salvation Army bell-ringers during the holidays, and ubiquitous pink ribbons in October. To tap into this strategy, use your own big numbers and crowd wisdom to your advantage: Share the number of dollars donated so far on your donation landing page. Tout the number of people you’ve helped, and don’t be afraid to play up the size of your social media following in marketing materials. charity: water, for example, displays the number of projects funded and people impacted — tying it back to the support of donors.


Fear Level: Low (ironically)

Emotional Response: Urgency

Catchphrase: “I don’t want to miss out.”

Yep, the fear of missing out (FOMO) is a fear as old as time. (Why else would Eve try the apple, right?) If you can highlight an element of scarcity in your marketing, this could lead to higher conversions from your audience. This makes the most sense if, as a nonprofit, you sell something like tickets or merchandise, or if you’re hosting an event (how many “last-chance-to-RSVP” emails have you sent?). But don’t forget about the scarcity of time. This is true for time-sensitive campaigns, such as emergency response, but can also work well with seasonal or recurring campaigns (think: “Only 2 hours left in Giving Tuesday!”). The ACLU, like many advocacy organizations, pairs the FOMO strategy with the messaging that time is running out for issues that require fast response, such as its work to defend DREAMers in 2017.

3. Community behavior

Fear Level: Medium

Emotional Response: Connected

Catchphrase: “What are people like me doing?”

Chances are, you as a nonprofit have a type. You know your donor’s average age range, whether they’re more likely to be male or female, which cities they live in. Build on that bright spot by targeting potential supporters who represent your core support base. Consider personalized content that helps your audience relate to who they are and who they aspire to be — and how supporting your organization may help them become that person. Whether you’re a dad, a cat-dad, or Bill Murray, the Movember Foundation uses year-round social content to engage its supporters and remind them to put the razor away come November and join millions of their community members to support men’s health.

Movember Social Proof

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4. Trusted Recommendation

Fear Level: High

Emotional Response: Confident

Catchphrase: “What does the perceived expert or my friend recommend?”

This is the tactic that leads to celebrity social proof, but also the recommendation of your friend, the news outlet you trust, or even a testimonial from someone with a verified badge on social media. Nonprofits have a leg up in the trust department, which is why the right influencer marketing strategy or celebrity partnership can do a lot to bring in donors. Consider, too, how you can use reviews and feedback from supporters and beneficiaries of your work as a badge of honor that emphasizes your expertise and quality of work. Amnesty International is one organization that makes use of its celebrity supporters on its website and social media — as well as in its email campaigns. When the organization sends a message from an ambassador like Yoko Ono, they make sure to have her name be the sender’s name in the campaign. This small detail can have a huge impact on open-rates.

Amnesty International social proof example

5. Triangulation

Fear Level: Very High

Emotional Response: Empowered

Catchphrase: “Let me do some more research before I make a decision.”

Using more than one method of social proof persuasion in conjunction with a supporter’s own due diligence and research can help with crossing the finish line into cultivating another donor, volunteer, or supporter. Using aggregated data and statistics (think: your annual report) in combination with herd mentality, FOMO, community identity, or a trusted recommendation gives users two or more touchpoints, helping them to make a confident decision. This is basically the success factor behind Hamilton: Great reviews/trusted recommendations, plus a scarcity brought on by FOMO contributed to a herd behavior that still sees enormously high demand (same for the below example from Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). Consider your Welcome Series as the perfect opportunity to play around with a few different types of social proof to find the right triangulation that works for your donor base.

Chances are, your nonprofit is already harnessing the power of social proof. Looking at it from a few distinct vantage points can provide you with endless options for a more creative digital strategy.