August 7, 2023

Social Proof Is Startup Gold

Let’s focus on the critical importance of 3rd-party validation of your startup

You walk into a restaurant and you’re the only one in there. You immediately think, “Is this the place that people died from eating poisoned morels?” (yes that happened here recently.)

Or, you walk into a restaurant and it’s bustling and full, but there’s still that one great table available by the window. You immediately think, “This is going to be fantastic!”

Same thing with your website. If you don’t have any third-party validations of your company, your website is like that suspiciously empty restaurant. Known as “social proof,” this validation can include:

  • Logos of customers, partners, or investors
  • Customer quotes, ideally with names, job descriptions, and photos
  • Reviews, either individually or in aggregate
  • Case studies (short boxed content or larger PDFs)
  • Statistics like total sales, number of clients etc.
  • Media logos, quotes, or article links
  • Customer video interviews or profiles

I was reminded of this recently while running a webinar for portfolio companies of TTV Capital. Like most of the startups I review, I found that social proof was missing, too far down on the home page, or hidden somewhere on inside pages. And these are amazing startups, well down the path to success.

Where should you put social proof? The most important place is the part of your home page that is visible in a typical browser window before you start to scroll, often called the above-the-fold or hero section. The most common approach is a row of logos across the bottom. Depending on your business you might also use a customer quote, potentially with a photo of a happy, smiling person clearly living a better life because of your product.

And where else? Everywhere you can squeeze it in. Do you serve multiple customer categories? See if you can include at least one piece of social proof for each.

Here are two issues I frequently encounter:

First, clients might have some great customers or partners but they’re worried about upsetting a relationship by asking whether they can reference them by name. I have two pieces of advice:

  • Don’t use the name. Instead of a case study, you can frame it as a “use case,” which is the same thing but without the name. So you might describe how “one of the largest aerospace companies in the world” benefited from your invention instead of writing “Boeing.” You’ll get a lot of the same impact—and a lot of people might be able to guess anyhow.
  • Use the name and ask for forgiveness in the unlikely case someone complains. (“Our intern put that up! So sorry, I’ll take it down…”) Often startups work with a division of a multinational, and their contact at the company doesn’t want to deal with asking the legal department. But if you just use it, chances are it will be fine. Obviously, use your judgment on this one. If your contract specifically forbids mentioning the company, or you have other reasons to think it could wreck your relationship, don’t. But in many cases, “forgiveness not permission” is another version of “all’s fair in love and startups.”

Second, early-stage startups feel they don’t have anyone to mention. I find there is usually something: your university, an accelerator, an angel investor. Even if a customer signed up for a free trial account, that’s better than nothing. Dig deep, and upgrade as soon as you can. And if all else fails, you can reach for a series of logos introduced by “weasel words” which may or may not mean they are actual clients. Here’s one I found online. It’s better than nothing:

What does “trusted” really mean?

Not sure what it means that a startup is “supported by global leaders from” big companies. I came across this recently while researching a client’s competitors. At first I didn’t even notice the weaselly headline, so my first instinct was, wow, this company is crushing it.

After writing this I looked at my own website, and like most startups, my social proof is out of date. I have logos and client quotes and case studies, but I have plenty of newer ones I could add. This bootmaker has boots, at least, but they’re last year’s model. And that’s what often happens. Startup websites tend to be out of date almost the day they go live, and then tend to get ignored for too long.

So take a minute now to review your website. Are you putting your best foot forward? If you don’t include any social proof, how will others know you’re not a scam? And no one wants to be the first idiot to fall for a scam. Or eat poisoned morels.