Why doesn’t social proof work for Wikipedia fundraising?

Chris Keating
Nov 24, 2019 · 7 min read

Every few weeks I see someone criticising Wikipedia’s fundraising for saying “Only a small fraction of our readers give”, and “We know most people will ignore this message”.

This criticism turns out to be wrong, but I find it fascinating to think about why it’s wrong.

Here’s the latest occasion I’ve seen, with the actual fundraising ad helpfully highlighted:

It’s easy to see why people react this way.

After all — social proof is an established principle of behavioural science, or at least the most famous one. There are many genuine examples social proof making a big difference to fundraising. I’ve seen the rate of members putting their subscription on Direct Debit increase from 25% to 45%, just by amending a script to mention that telling them that over half of members were on Direct Debit already!

However, in this particular case the evidence, from dozens of a/b tests with tens of thousands of donors, is the opposite. Taking out the messaging about how hardly any readers give means that Wikipedia gets many fewer donations. It might not work in theory, but it works in practice.

So what’s going on with this ad?

To my mind, this is a case where a number of other principles of donor psychology outweigh any value social proof might have. Those principles are: Identity, perceived risk, and reciprocity.

What’s more, this kind of environment where you’re looking at a website banner and being asked to make a donation is also not one where you would necessarily expect social proof to work.

Let’s think about why social proof works.

Social proof is, at is most basic, people doing something because they know other people are doing it. Why does this happen?

To my mind there are several possible answers:

Evidence that something is safe and not risky. If five people you know drive Skodas, then if you buy one it’s probably not going to break the moment you take it home. This statement may not be true, but it’s reassuring. So your mind saves itself the energy of weighing up the pros and cons, and accepts the conclusion other people have reached. After all, thinking about things is hard work!

Make the wrong decision and the wheels might fall off. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is less risk of doing worse than other people if you do the same. If five people you know drive the same make of car and it proves to be a breakdown-ridden nightmare, then at least you’re no worse off than them. You won’t have to deal with their smug sense of superiority as you wait for someone to come and tow your car away.

Doing the same as other people is an opportunity to build or reinforce a shared sense of identity. You can can now talk to all your Skoda-owning friends about your favourite kinds of Skoda, join the Skoda Owners Club, and look knowingly across the car park at the other person who’s just got out of their Skoda.

Violating norms of behavour is socially risky, following them is rewarding. Are your neighbours going to think you’re some kind of freak or weirdo for not following the herd and buying a Skoda? Possibly not, but if you’re a teenager at a school where everyone wears jeans, it’s pretty likely you’ll wear jeans as well rather than face the scorn and derision you earn from exhibiting your deviance.

I’d be interested to hear if there are more. But one of these is about social proof acting as a cognitive shortcut, and three of them are about identity.

So why don’t these things affect giving to Wikipedia?

Failing to give is the risky option

First, let’s talk about risk.

Giving to Wikipedia is a fairly safe thing to do. If you’re buying a car, there is a risk of you spending thousands of pounds on something that then breaks and lands you with a massive bill and a whole lot of hassle. Making a donation to one of the largest sites on the internet is not like that. So even if you heard that millions of other people were doing it, it wouldn’t make your decision any easier.

There is also a body of evidence that risk cuts the other way. A a donor is more likely to give if they believe something bad will happen if they don’t. Here’s a paper on that.

Now in Wikipedia’s case, people tend to make the wrong assumptions. They assume that since Wikipedia is one of the top 10 websites in the world, it has the same level of resources and infrastructure as Facebook or Google or someone. No. There are maybe 400 staff working on Wikipedia, none of them working on the actual content, which is all written by volunteers (hi!).

Highlighting that few people give makes it more credible that something bad might happen if you personally don’t.

Something bad might happen- Wikipedia might lose its independence!
Think about how useful it is: And what you’d lose if it wasn’t there

Giving to Wikipedia is a message to yourself, not to others

Donating to Wikipedia not a social activity. You’re not in the same room as anyone else, your neighbours’ curtains are not twitching and there isn’t even a real person asking you to give. So no-one will think any better or worse of you regardless of what you do.

(I would speculate that when Wikimedia Foundation fundraisers are at donor receptions they don’t stand up and talk about how 99% of the people there in that room will leave without giving.)

Instead, you get to be one of the people who cares enough to “defend Wikipedia’s independence”. It’s a chance to show you are one of the people who cares enough about Wikipedia does to donate to it. You are different. Special. Not like everyone else. Doesn’t that feel good?

It’s a chance to play up to your own personal values.

Now for some people, those values will include things like “I care about a free and open Internet”, which is the messaging of the actual ad. For others, just being independent and different is a value in itself . Wikipedia’s target market for donors is mainly knowledge workers who probably have several degrees. They care about learning and understanding, and they also care about independence and making their own choices.

(I’m using my own experience of Wikipedia volunteers here as a bit of a proxy. But if a group of Wikipedia authors encountered a crowd running away from a fire, then at least some of them would probably head off towards the alleged fire, to check for themselves that it was actually there, and if it was, to take photos of it.)

Also, it establishes you as someone who fulfills a different social obligation: Reciprocity

Giving back for what you’ve got

I don’t know about you, but if someone offers me flowers at a train station, I run away very quickly. That’s because all kinds of people have worked out the principle of reciprocity. If you give me flowers, I owe you something — regardless of whether I asked for them, or whether I wanted them. And you’ll probably ask me for money, or to join your religious cult, or both!

This ad uses reciprocity, albeit not explicitly. You, personally, use Wikipedia all the time! So you ought to give something back.

Would this be helped or hindered by social proof? I can certainly think of situations where reciprocity and social proof go hand in hand — think of a university saying “over half of the class of ’99 have given back already!” But in this case, I’d speculate that you have a personal relationship with Wikipedia, not as part of a group identity. So “you frequently use us, so now we’re asking you personally to donate even though most won’t” makes more sense.

Evidence trumps theory, and theory gets complicated

If there’s one thing I take away from all of this, it’s that donor psychology is complicated.

There are many, many insights available from behavioural science. But they are only ever hypotheses until you’ve tested them on actual campaigns. There are differences between different contexts, different causes, and different supporters. What works brilliantly in one context might fail entirely in another.

So let’s be humble in our assertions and inquisitive about what’s behind why donors respond the way they do.

Happy fundraising!

Chris Keating

Written by

Fundraiser who believes in the power of insight and learning to inspire donors https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisjkeating/

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