A few days ago I published a daily marketing tip that discussed the power of herding. I now want to take a more in-depth look at this principle and discuss how I take advantage of this human tendency in my websites.

Let’s start by examining exactly what herd behavior is. In my marketing tip I defined herding as “an excessive collective behavior in which people believe that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s previous behavior.” Herd behavior describes how individuals in a group collectively act together without a predetermined direction or plan.

One of my favorite examples of this behavior in society is seen in the restaurant world. Suppose that just after leaving work a person happens on two equal restaurants and both are currently empty. Having no inclination toward either, the person chooses at random and goes in to eat. Minutes later another person walks by the same two equal restaurants and also has no affinity toward either establishment. However, this person now has something more to influence his decision than the first person.

The second person can see the first eating in one restaurant and the other remains empty. As a result the second person decides to eat at the busier of the two establishments. This process continues through the night as people happen by the two equal restaurants and overwhelmingly choose to dine in the busier one. Their decision is being influenced by herding behavior. By seeing others in one restaurant, they make the assumption that it must be the better choice.

In fact, this tendency is so strong when it comes to restaurants that smart owners will seat people near the front windows before seating tables in the back. In more extreme cases, a newly opened restaurant’s chance of succeeding can be determined by the first few days or weeks. If people do not perceive the new restaurant as being busy they may never choose to eat there.

So how does this apply to Internet marketing? Let’s use my website as an example.

Time Stamping

By stamping each post with the time and date I am doing two things. I am showing new visitors that the site is updated frequently and that the site has been around for a long time. If a site is being updated and has been online for a number of years, people tend to believe that others must be reading the site (or why else would I be writing the articles).

Number of Comments

Each post on this site includes a link at the top showing how many comments a post has received. When people see that an article has received a lot of comments, they are more likely to follow the link and read it for themselves. It is no coincidence that once an article receives a comment, other comments tend to follow soon after.

Voting/Rating

On this site I display a series of five stars and allow readers to vote anonymously on each article. By displaying the votes on each post, I am showing new visitors that others have been here before them and they found value in what I had to say. This works exactly the same way as the comments tally. People tend to read (and vote) for articles that have been voted on by others.

Social Media Badges

Each post in the main sections of my site include a Digg, dZone and Sphinn badge that displays the number of times each article has been submitted to these social bookmarking sites. The higher the number goes, the more likely new visitors are to read the article and browse deeper into my site.

New Visitor Greeting

Below each post on my site I have a small gray box that greets new readers. You can see it in action below this post, and if you are new to the site it will greet you and suggest that subscribe to my RSS feed or email updates. After you have visited the site a few times, the text changes and let’s you know that I am happy to see you return. The purpose here is two-fold. I want new visitors to feel welcomed and to hint that others subscribe to my RSS feeds and so should they. Second, I want to make frequent visitors feel at home by letting them know I am happy to see them again.

Comment Replies

I try to always write a reply to comments that I receive on this site. I do this so that new visitors see the webmaster is engaged in discussion and will be likely to address their comments if they choose to leave them. When people read that others have commented before them, and that I am engaged in the discussion, they become far more likely to comment themselves.

RSS Subscription Options

In the top right hand corner of my site I have included a handful of different links and badges allowing visitors to register for my RSS feeds. The reason is to show new visitors that so many people are registering for my feeds I needed to offer a wide range of syndication methods. Of course, one link to FeedBurner would technically accomplish the same thing for the vast majority of people who read RSS feeds, but I would not get as many new subscribers each day if I narrowed the choices to one.

Popular Posts

To the right of this article you will see a tab called “Popular This Week.” If you click on this tab you will see a list of the most popular articles for the past seven days. This in and of itself is not taking full advantage of herding tendencies, but it is a good start. To make this list of popular posts even more powerful and to appeal to your herding behavior I have placed in parenthesizes the number of views that each article has gotten this week. By doing this I am not only telling visitors that the listed posts are popular to other readers, but I am showing to what degree and by how many others the posts have been read.

Recent Comments

Displaying the most recent comments to the right I am letting my readers know that others before them found the content of my site engaging enough to post a comment. Taking that one step further, the list of recent comments almost always includes a response from myself. This allows readers on any page in the site to see that I am actively engaged in the site and open for discussion.

Top Commentators

By displaying the top commentators on the site I am doing two things. I am showing readers that others before them have commented more than once, and I am rewarding my most engaged readers with a link to their sites. This makes my top commentators feel welcome and rewarded for their readership while at the same time encouraging others to join in the conversation.

Asking for Engagement

At the end of many of my articles I come right out and ask people to comment on my post and to engage me in discussion. This is a way of letting readers know that I am here, actively engaged and listening to their comments. In this way I am much like the first person to enter the restaurant in the example above…

So… Please join me in discussion. What other methods have you tried or seen in use that take advantage of people’s natural tendency to herd together?

PS: If you liked this article, do me a favor and Digg it (just like the reader before you)!