Here’s what we know about real influence: It’s powerful. Politicians seek the endorsement of influential celebrities, because it influences how the public vote. Brands pay sports stars to appear in commercials for their fragrances, because it influences people to feel good about (and buy) their product. Companies will often pay influential former political leaders to sit on their board of directors, in order to influence investors. People with real influence have huge commercial value.

Online, what people often think of as influence is something very different. Today, many people confuse influence with something called social proof. They chase social proof, rather than build influence. So, what is social proof?

Influence and social proof are very different

Influence is real. It makes things happen. A truly influential person can take action and solve your biggest problem. They know the right people and have the respect of other, highly influential people.

For example: I once saw how one phone call from a truly influential person, stopped a business owner from losing both his business and his home. He made just one call and a 3 year old problem, which had driven the business owner to the brink, was solved in 60 seconds.

Social proof is very different. It’s about providing people with independent (looking) proof that suggests you are influential. It works well on some people, less well on others. Here are 2 common examples of social proof and how it can work:

When we visit someone’s blog and we see lots of people sharing their posts, that’s social proof. It works like this: If lots of people seem to value this person’s content, it must be good. This blogger must be popular.

When we see someone has thousands of followers on social networking sites, that’s social proof too. It works like this: If thousands of people follow this person, they must be some kind of leader, with great information to share.

Unlike influence, social proof online is super-easy to fake!

Yes, here’s the problem with social proof: Even a child can fake it. Here are some extremely common ways that people fake social proof.

Any blogger can make it look like every post they write has been shared by lots of people, by simply setting up lots of dummy social media accounts, which automatically share everything from that blogs RSS feed. It takes a few hours to set up 20 or 30 accounts and that blogger can make themselves look like a social media rock star, to those unaware of what they are doing.

Many people use the number of comments on a blog post, as social proof that the post was of value. The thing is, any blogger can post as many dummy comments on their own blog as they wish. Boom – every post they write can look like it has lots of comments. And of course, it’s easy to display a fake RSS reader number, so it looks like 50,000 or 100,000 people have subscribed to their blog.

Anyone can have a hundred thousand Twitter followers, by simply using a script that randomly follows a thousand people a day and attracts ‘follows’, from the 20% of Twitter users, who feel compelled to follow everyone back. If you want faster results, you can just buy 10,000 or 20,000 followers for thirty dollars a time.

BTW: If you want to spot who’s using the Twitter software trick to boost their numbers, it’s easy. Just click on who THEY follow and look for accounts, which have only tweeted once or twice. Because the software used for the trick works randomly, it follows people who’ve not even tweeted yet. It also follows people, who are totally inappropriate, like accounts from people who tweet in a language that person can’t read, etc. You’d be surprised how many social media and marketing ‘gurus’ use that trick!

The social proof trap

Most small business owners try to legitimately build social proof and invest valuable time into it, every working day. They work their butts off, to encourage people to comment on their blogs and share their blog posts. They strive to encourage people to follow them on Twitter, join them on LinkedIn, circle them on Google+ or ‘like’ them on Facebook. The challenge here, is that the enormous time spent on building social proof the legitimate way, could be used earning influence. Less time spent on social networking sites trying to boost your Klout score and other social proof numbers, means you have more time:

  • You have more time to do work that matters.
  • You have more time to write great content, which earns the respect of your marketplace.
  • You have more time to build deeper relationships, with fewer people – rather than shallow relationships with more people.

Develop influence, then the social proof will follow

An alternative approach is to focus on developing influence, first. When you spend the time earning a position of true influence, you will get the most impressive social proof measurement of all – When you speak, people will listen and then act!

As Seth Godin said: “Hang out with people who aren’t looking for shortcuts. Learn from them.”

That’s a hard message to sell, because it goes against the online trend for instant results. However, Seth is absolutely right.

No, you can’t automate your way to true influence and you can’t buy miracle software to develop the trust of your marketplace either. You have to get them the old fashioned way… you have to earn them and it takes time.

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