Sadly, the list of people and institutions we trust in this world is getting ever shorter. Over the past couple of decades, the public has lost faith in politics, media, business and other authorities. Who can you turn to in this age of fake news and declining trust? Mums, of course.
The trust deficit in many of our most significant institutions is part of the explanation for why online communities have become so powerful. ‘Mumpreneurs’ and ‘mummy bloggers’ (and tight-knit online communities more broadly) have evolved to become among the most trusted sources of influence and advice on social media and in the recommendation economy.
The basis for this is apparent: the vast majority of us trust mums. There is something inherently trustworthy about mothers that runs deep in almost every culture. The archetype of the mother is almost universally revered and is associated most often with positive traits. (The “good” mother archetype can be a heavy burden on women too, but that’s an argument for another place and time.)
As trust in institutions has continued to dwindle, we have started to turn to like-minded individuals online. First on places like chat forums, and as the 2000s progressed, increasingly on social media sites like Facebook. All kinds of communities came together online, and the community of mums was prominent among them.
Mums were able to share their experiences, good and bad, with other mums via blogs and discussion threads. They bonded over these experiences, and the open and global nature of the internet meant they could connect with women who shared specific perspectives and problems and maybe had some solutions too. Social media accelerated this process.
A 2014 study by Australian academics Raechel Johns and Rebecca English, titled ‘Mothers influencing mothers: the use of virtual discussion boards and their influence on consumption’, noted how trust was developed between mums in online communities, especially concerning the influence of word of mouth on purchasing decisions:
Recommendations from other mothers are more powerful than any structured promotion and mothers are utilising social media to establish and strengthen relationships. The use of this social media then impacts on consumption behaviour. This replicates previous studies about credibility of word-of-mouth, but within a new context, that is, that of mothers online.
The defining feature of online versus traditional media is that online allows for all kinds of voices to be heard and for people to hear all kinds of voices. At its most idealistic, it’s democracy in action, allowing people to speak up and speak out, engage in conversations and question authority figures. It’s personal and often a bit messy, whereas traditional media is about being impersonal and slick. The types of discussions that take place in Facebook mums’ groups can be raw and emotional, funny and heartbreaking, in ways that traditional media has rarely been able to capture or replicate.
Marketers have cottoned on to the power of these online groups and conversations, and in recent years we’ve seen the rise of influencer marketing. Influencer marketing has sought to reach consumers by using ‘influencers’, who are often either celebrities or active social media users creating popular content.
Though successful to a degree, this approach has often also fallen into the trap of mimicking the paradigm of traditional media: broadcasting polished messages from one to the many. It could be argued social media has gone from narrowcasting to broadcasting, eclipsing traditional media in many ways. Marketers have turned to a certain type of influencer marketing based on raw metrics like number of followers, emulating the old broadcast model rather than grappling with the complexities of online communities.
But real influence in online communities is not about who makes the most noise or has the most followers. It’s about trust and authenticity. These are the factors that drive word of mouth in online communities and power the recommendation economy.
In mimicking the old model of broadcast media and advertising, influencer marketing too often trades in a devalued currency. That’s not to say it doesn’t work sometimes; traditional media models still have their place.
However, relying on a social media celebrity’s vanity metrics to reach consumers is just an extension of the old way of thinking. It’s a hit-and-hope approach that doesn’t really drill down into the nuances of identity and community. It doesn’t understand the way in which trust is developed and transferred in online communities. It doesn’t take advantage of the word-of-mouth army that brands could be tapping into by finding and working with effective opinion leaders rather than Instagram ‘stars’.
Based on the currency of trust and authenticity, mums look to other mums for help, advice, validation and recommendations. This is similar in many other domains of online activity and communities. When it comes to tapping into the potential power of online community marketing, it makes sense for businesses to identify people within those communities who are trusted and have authentic connections to that community. That’s what makes for effective opinion leaders and great brand advocates.