We all know what social proof is by now. Yet many communities don't use it as often as they should.
To brutally simplify it, people do what they see other people doing.
If you want people to participate in your community, show them a lot of people participating.
Dead threads, empty categories and other bad social proof. They show that the community is inactive.
Look at these discussion boards from Cafe Pharma:
Now compare that with this:
This manifests itself in other ways. Take a look at Home Energy Pros below:
It's easy to think that these things don't matter so much, but they're important. When you visit a community and recent posts are lingering from almost half a year ago, your decision is made for you. If it appears a dead community.
The sneaky way to change this is to frequently modify the post dates. But that is a temporary solution. Any regular visitors will instantly see what's happening. The better way is simply to plan a calendar of upcoming posts in advance and stick to it.
Don't underestimate the importance of seeing regular activity within the last twenty four hours. We look and identify these signals.
This is also why pruning is so important. When you see groups and categories in your community which haven't had any activity in a year (or even six-months), remove them. The social proof they're giving to members is prospecting.
This is also why you might want to think carefully about who you allow to create groups. You might, for example, have a criteria for groups that members have to pass for the group to be created. The key thing is ensuring members see what's new and what's popular in your community.
Yet this reveals just one side of social proof. The other is highlighting the specific activities you want members to participate in. For example, you can use sticky threads and content to highlight certain activities. By making these activities more visible, and giving more attention to these activities, more members are likely to see the cues and follow suit.
Social proof is powerful. It permeates through much of what you do in the community. The way you design, manage, and cultivate your community is heavily influenced by the social proof you want to provide members. You always want the community to appear highly active and popular.
Sometimes that means removing the threads that didn't get a response (though it's better to respond and solicit contributions to these). Sometimes, it means giving the popular activities greater prominence.