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Are These “Best Practices” Killing Your Online Sales?
Last Updated January 18th, 2011

Social proof sells – if everyone has it, people think it must be good.

Scarcity also sells – it’s human nature to want what’s rare.

But did you know that these two “proven” sales tactics can backfire?

Avoid Social Proof When…

If you’re selling a product that focuses on love, dating, or romance, you should avoid some forms of social proof. Let me explain.

How do people attract the opposite sex? Research suggests that males do it by way of conspicuous consumption, meaning they demonstrate their worthiness by “showing off their wealth.”

You’ve seen it before. Picture a man who buys an expensive sports car or a large house. That’s conspicuous consumption, and he does it to differentiate himself from other men.

Now think about social proof. This sales appeal persuades people to buy products because everyone else is buying them too. However, if a man is trying to differentiate himself from other men, does he want a product that everyone else has?

Of course not… and that’s why using social proof may hurt your sales.

What Works When Selling Romance?

If you’re selling romance, you should use a sales appeal that helps your market differentiate themselves from others.

What’s the best way to help people “stand out?”

Offer them a product with limited distribution. Or in other words, take advantage of the scarcity principle, “rare is good” mentality.

In contrast to social proof, scarcity works for people primed with romantic desire because a limited amount of product implies that the buyer will be one of the few who had the chance to buy it.

For example, if you’re selling a dating ebook, instead of telling people how many copies you sold, you could highlight something like “less than 1% of the men in the United States have bought this ebook.”

While scarcity works great here, it doesn’t work everywhere.

Avoid Scarcity When…

If you’re selling a product that relates to security, safety, or anything that deals with fear, you should avoid scarcity.  Let me explain.

Why does fear exist? As a mode for survival right? And how do people survive when they’re scared? They crowd around others because there’s safety in numbers.

The problem is, scarcity helps people “stand-out” from others. This is the last thing people want to do when they’re stricken with fear.

Given this theory, researchers tested it. They used an appeal like “this one of a kind place has yet to be discovered by others” on an audience who was primed with fear. And what did they find? It hurt sales results.

What Works When Selling Fear-based Products?

You know what happens when people are scared – they crowd around other people. If you want to sell to these people, you must show them how other people use your product. Or in other words, you must use a social proof sales appeal.

For example, the other day, Michael Martine tweeted about WordPress Defender, an ebook that shows you how you can protect your wordpress installation from hackers. Since this product uses fear to sell, it’s a perfect opportunity to show off how many other people found safety with the purchase of this product.

The Bottom Line

If you’re selling romance, use scarcity. If you’re selling fear, use social proof.

Also, if you’d like to see the research I used to make these conclusions, check out “Fear and Loving in Las Vegas” by Cialdini et. al.  It was published in the Journal of Marketing research.

Or, if you prefer to avoid the jargon, you should subscribe to my RSS feed. I will continue to explain psychological research in easy-to-understand terms and show you how it works in the real world.

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12 comments Leave a comment
Neeraj Sachdeva

Hey Derek,

While I agree that scarcity sells in dating scene (fewer people doing it means fewer competition), I think there is a counter-point in follow-the-herd mentality.

I have spent more time in the dating scene than any other (practicing it, not selling it :p) and many people I knew (myself included) went for the tried and tested techniques that EVERYONE is buying into. Only those that were new into this scene purchased those techniques – simply because it had lots of location independent testimonials. I think that when it comes to dating, people want low-risk option, so most would happily buy something till the time it becomes cliched (The Game by Neil Strauss is a perfect example. People initially worshiped him for his techniques till there were 2 people hitting on a girl in a club using the same chat-up lines).

Guess my point is, lack of scarcity only comes in when two guys use the same techniques to pick up a girl, and are found. I remember conversations in a club (my friends’, not mine – I never used Neil’s stuff) where girls would respond to an opener by ‘You know! I read the same thing in a book called The Game. Have you read it?’ It was surprising, partly because my friends never thought that those girls will touch a book, but also because suddenly something that was widely accepted as the norm had become a negative thing. Yet some people still use those openers successfully, guess not all girls have read that book.

I digress, good times!

But yes, I think ‘everyone is buying’ principle can work in dating scene, as long as two people using the same technique don’t meet in person.

Josh Sarz

Wow, that’s something new that I haven’t heard from before. That’s definitely something to think about before showing off our social proof on our website.

Thanks for the good read.

Peter Nguyen

Very insightful! I have a dating blog and I will surely try your technique on the opt-in page.

By the way, I love reading your articles. Very insightful and help us marketers incorporate the psychological aspects into our business. What’s your background by the way? I am intrigued as to how you come up with all these insightful ideas.

Although your ideas are great, are they just your theories or have you gotten real life positive results?

Dossy Shiobara

Derek, this intuitively sounds right, but it’d be really cool to see (your) data in A-B/split testing that supports these (very logical) conclusions.

Thanks for writing it up so we can discuss it, though! Good stuff.

How Split-Testing Our Opt-In Form Increased Our Conversion Rate by 102.2%

[…] far as I knew, Social Proof was a sure-fire persuasion tactic for everything other than romantic desire. I was […]

Chris Johnson

Pseudo scarcity has got to be over. I see valid reasons to act now, but when people are shrill and stupid, i just tune it out. “I’m raising the price because I can only stand so much awesome,” grates on me. “Our servers were smashed by all the demand,” doesn’t ring true.

It’s gotta be real scarcity “I can only help 5 people a month because of all the time I take.” – win.


Great information, Derek. I do appreciate the voice of someone who is thoughtful about his work (i.e., not just following a formula because everyone else says so) and who has some real success under his belt.

You’re willingness to share is a plus for everyone else. I did say you were a good karma guy, didn’t I? 🙂


Joshua Guffey

Well I’m impressed.

I’ve never heard this angle before. The social media marketing space gets a lot of reverberated advise, some of which just isn’t good advice. It’s nice to see someone taking it back to source. Thanks for sharing.



    Hey Josh, thanks for stopping by. I’m just getting started over here. There’s a lot more to come in the next month.

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Sean Malarkey

Brilliant – I’m sharing this with my group on LInkedIn – Great content!

Loved the bit on avoiding scarcity in fear based sales. Smart!

Please keep writing – the world need more good content like this.



    Thanks Sean. I think the social media marketing space needs someone like me who backs up his claims with research and actual experience. So I’m giving it a shot. Let’s see where it goes.

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