For many years, a key reason I’ve encouraged small businesses to use social media to build visibility and influence with customers has been driven by an insight from the Edelman Trust Barometer: we trust our peers who talk about their experiences online.
These online conversations — mostly on Facebook, but also on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn — are markets, influencing purchasing and other decisions.
Over the last 18 years, Edelman has shown an almost continuous decline in trust across business, government, NGOs and the media — while the already high trust in peers and third-party experts such as academics is growing.
But this has now changed.
This year, for the first time in nearly two decades, we saw a decline in the trust of ‘people like us’. This is potentially driven by the oppositional echo chambers that emerged around political and social issues, and the sharing of fake news that has left many friends aghast and divided from one another.
There has also been an increase in our trust in CEO: from 26 points last year to 39 points this year. This is particularly true for those prepared to go out on a limb and stand for something purposeful, even if controversial, such as in support of gay marriage.
CEO activism is complex but reports show that people expect CEOs to speak out on issues and take an industry-wide approach as leaders of their sectors.
I’ve written extensively about the key role social executives play in building business reputation and trust, as well as internal engagement — and this shift in the barometer reinforces the positive role a CEO’s business communication has.
What is discouraging, however, is that social media is now the least-trusted source when it comes to news. Edelman showed the majority of consumers want brands to pressure social media platforms to better safeguard their data and stop the spread of fake news and offensive content.
Everyone has been witness to junk and fake news spread like wildfire online. Recently, we’ve also seen a lot of ducking and diving from social media giants attempting to balance their desire for free speech with the real and negative consequences fake news has on has behaviour. These giants have been forced to come to terms with their role as media companies, not simply social media platforms.
Facebook has now agreed to delete information that is potentially harmful, and Twitter has similarly started to delete fake accounts and account that sell fake followers — but it has taken a long time and significant public pressure to force them to act.
Is social media strategy still useful?
So how should these shifts in public trust impact social media strategy for businesses?
First, I think it’s important to qualify that the decline in trust of peers doesn’t mean we don’t trust our peers, but rather, that we are also looking for genuine expertise. This is no surprise given the information scrap heaps that litter the internet.
For business, this shift in trust offers an opportunity to create solid, useful content shared through earned and owned media channels, including those of in-house experts.
People are clearly resonating with real — rather than scripted — CEOs and want to hear from people who know what they are talking about. This reinforces the importance of becoming your own media channel and getting experts out there to reach and engage with customers directly as the trusted source of information about your brand.
Second, although there’s been a drop in the degree to which people trust their peers, it doesn’t mean they have lost all their influence. We still ask friends for recommendations or talk about our experiences online.
And while our trust in the media has never been lower, it’s important to remember that this drop relates specifically to news and fake news, and not to brand or product information.
As outlined on Edelman: “Four in 10 consumers say they are unlikely to become emotionally attached to a brand unless they are interacting via social media. But they want a better deal for their data. Brands must act to address data privacy concerns, create trusted content, and join forces with regulators, platforms and consumers to restore trust in the social media ecosystem.”
The fact that the public can distinguish ‘proper’ journalism also reinforces the role of traditional media as part of overall communications strategy. This might involve pitching stories to journalists — but journalists also follow the social media accounts of the companies they write about and embed tweets directly from trusted sources in copy, so investing the time and resources into building a useful social media feed is important.
Still, these shifts in public trust mean communications professionals need to tread carefully and not overstep boundaries.
- 54% are uncomfortable with marketers tracking in-store purchases for targeting purposes;
- 39% say it should be illegal for a brand to buy personal information from another company the consumer does business with; and
- 49% say they are not willing to sacrifice some of their data privacy in return for a more personalized shopping experience.
The main takeaway here is that in order to to drive online engagement we must strive to create content that is useful, rather than just for the sake of it, and to build channels that are information-rich unscripted professionals.
As Richard Edelman says: “Consumers don’t want to give up on social media — it has become a crucial partner in their lives. But they want a New Deal with the platforms.”
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