3 min read

The Great Depression and social proof

The Great Depression and social proof
Photo by Warren Wong / Unsplash

You wouldn’t think farmers in Depression-era America could teach us anything about how to convert an audience, but it turns out they can - and it involves one of the most widely-known ways to get people to click on your offer.

In the 1930’s, after the famous Black Tuesday stock market crash, the US was hit by a catastrophic economic downturn which reduced many of its citizens to poverty. Worst affected were the poorest rural areas, but they were dealt a second blow by a series of devastating dust storms which wiped out crops, destroyed homes and ravaged the landscape - this was Dust Bowl America.

A new strain of hybrid, drought-resistant corn was quickly rushed onto the market that would survive future storms and help farmers get back on their feet. The new corn was significantly more hardwearing, just as delicious, and even more widely available than the old cultivars - but, to the scientists’ confusion, the farmers were slow to adopt this new strain of corn.

Put simply, they just weren’t buying it - even though it had been scientifically proven to be better than the old crop. Why?

Researchers at Iowa State University conducted 259 interviews with some of the worst-hit farmers in the ‘corn belt’ of America, and their findings were startling. The little-known study has gone on to be a perfect example of what we know today as ‘social proof’.

As it turns out, the farmers each had excellent reasons for being suspicious of the new corn - they valued the opinions of their neighbours and friends more than they trusted the salesman. Money was tight, and people were less willing to take new risks: and if the salesmen couldn’t convince one or two ‘influencers’ in the town, you could bet no one else would take them up on it.

The study actually went on to rank sources of information along various stages of product discovery: whenever the farmers learned about new industry technology or new practices they trusted the opinions of their friends and neighbours (‘social proof’) first, then government agencies, then mass media (which, back then, meant radio and newspapers), then the salesman’s pitch.

When it comes to trying out a new product, the findings were clear: friends matter most.

The economic impact of the Dust Bowl lasted a long time, but eventually most farmers adopted the new corn and got back on their feet. The impact social proof had on the marketing landscape, however, is still massive.

But what counts as social proof? Luckily, you don’t need to track down each one of your potential customers’ friends to get a testimonial. Social proof or giving the impression of social proof is a heck of a lot easier - and there are five ways to do it.

Want to know what they are? Here’s five ways to use social proof:

1. Expert social proof – people trust experts because, by definition, they should know what they’re talking about. Doctors, scientists, and even the studies and research they carry out all carry a lot of influence.

2. Celebrity social proof – we know famous people aren’t experts, but because we feel like we know them on some level we respect their opinion like a friend’s. If it’s good enough for Usain Bolt, it’s good enough for us.

3. User social proof – honest reviews, YouTube unboxing videos, bloggers’ tutorials all do their job at convincing us the product is trustworthy.

4. Wisdom of the crowd – numbers don’t lie (or so we believe). It’s the popular crowd mentality. Not only do we all want to fit in and drink the same brand of cola the cool kids are drinking, but if everyone drinks it, surely it must be tasty?

5. Wisdom of friends – the Holy Grail of marketers. Endorsements by your loved ones are prized above all else. Case in point? Pokemon Go.

Social proof is a powerful thing: use it wisely. In fact, according to Kissmetrics, simply adding the phrase ‘join X others’ increased one company’s subscriber rate by 1400%.

1400%? That is just crazy.

We might not get that lucky - but we can definitely use social proof to boost conversions on any sales funnel. Testimonials, Facebook comments and likes and media buttons will help you get more sales.

Don’t have any, or are thinking about a future campaign? Focus on getting featured in publications, and consider giving away freebies in exchange for honest reviews.

As for proudly displaying your social proof to get people to convert, it’s simple in Convertri: just drag and drop your Facebook comments, testimonials or social shares into any of our page templates and avoid a Dust Bowl situation in your own marketing campaign.

Have you tried using social proof in your sales funnels? What kind of results did you get? Let me know in the comments below!


This post is one I wrote several years ago, so it may not be the same kind of content you experience on the rest of this site. I'm posting it here as an archive, and to refer back to if I need.