Can Marketers Repair Social Media’s Crisis of Trust?

Lawrence A. Crosby and John P. Vidmar
Key Takeaways

​What? Consumer trust in social media is declining due to bad actors and bad content.

So what? Social media is a crucial channel for marketers. If their audience turns away or tunes them out, they will lose a valuable platform.

Now what? Marketers need to offer consumers valuable social content and measure trust just as they do impressions and engagement.

​Consumer trust in social media is declining due to foreign influence and disingenuous paid influencers. How can marketers foster trust on these channels?

Much of social media marketing’s glitter has worn off. Consumers increasingly turn to social media for product and service information, but they are quickly losing trust in the content they find there. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reports declining trust in social media, particularly in the U.S. This is traced to what the authors call a “crisis of trust,” namely, a loss of faith in institutions ranging from business to government to nongovernmental organizations. A major contributor, they believe, is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse in social media.

This crisis is not limited to the U.S. The U.K.’s Marketing Week identifies the reduction in trust in social media information as a “worrying trend” that is due, in part, to the behavior of marketers. According to this source, the loss of faith in online brand information is due to consumers’ increasing awareness of marketers’ tactics to reach them. Noteworthy are cases involving P&G and Mondelez, which had content banned by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority for not making it clear that a blogger had been paid to promote products (known in some quarters as “cyber-shilling”). In Canada, the Globe & Mail reports that Advertising Standards Canada now requires influencers to clarify when they are being paid to post about products and services.

An interesting nuance of these trends is the strong distrust of social media among millennials. Digital Content Next refers to this audience as “social skeptics.” That observation is echoed by Sensei Media, which notes millennials’ strong preference for recommendations from real people and real friends, not brands or institutions. They characterize this as a shift from the “wisdom of the crowds” to word of mouth.

These trends and characterizations are relevant to all the major social platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube. The spotlight shines brightest on Facebook with its more than 2.2 billion monthly active users worldwide. As chronicled in WIRED, Facebook sprung from the idea of making people feel safe to post and then making that database of shared information and connections available to advertisers. Perhaps that business model has become a victim of its own success due, in part, to some advertising practices that diminish trust on the platform. In addition to the controversy of fake news surrounding the platform, this may help explain Facebook’s recent decision to modify its algorithm to favor posts from family and friends versus content from businesses, brands and news media. 

Whom Do You Trust?

Social media marketing is not going away, but it is likely to evolve. Platforms and brands need user trust to survive and therefore have an incentive to drive change. The alternative is more regulation. In plotting a path forward, it’s helpful to take stock of what we know and don’t know. Clearly, the two most common ways people acquire information about products and services is by connecting with providers and by communicating with other people. Over the past 20 years, these interactions have increasingly occurred online. The interactions can be highly proactive (e.g., using social media to ask friends what they recommend) or passive (e.g., reviewing content on the provider’s site, reading a blog or checking online ratings).

It’s been known for years that recommendations from family and friends are the most powerful drivers of purchase behavior. That fact has been confirmed in recent surveys that reflect the broader array of information sources available to buyers today. But most online recommendations are from total strangers. How much impact do they have? As noted above, probably less and less but with great variance. 

The more familiar the source, the greater the credibility (e.g., Oprah is a familiar source on weight loss). The more expert the source, the greater the credibility (e.g., holistic doctor Andrew Weil’s opinions on vitamins). This phenomenon is referred to as giving weight to a trusted source, and marketers need to understand the underpinnings of these mental weights. For example, some people post a lot online but don’t have much impact on purchase behavior. Others can write a little and have a huge impact. The quantity of comments and posts doesn’t necessarily translate into higher trust and could have the opposite effect.

Independent of source, there’s also the matter of the relative frequency of positive and negative messages. Today’s consumer is aware that material is planted or solicited online and generally with a bias toward favorable reviews and recommendations. But detractors can also plant negative reviews. The current controversy over the influence of Russian bots in the 2016 presidential election is a good example of this.

There are sites that try to be objective by balancing positive and negative comments. These tactics would certainly give a savvy consumer reason to discount online information. Not surprisingly, the jury is still out on whether the frequency of favorable comments, reviews and likes is related to the quality of an offering and if it drives actual conversion.

What’s a Marketer to Do?

In approaching this crossroads, marketers need a plan. Hold social media accountable to a higher standard that involves moving customers along the entire engagement-to-loyalty continuum. That necessitates having quality content and integrating social media with other channels ranging from advertising to point of purchase to customer service. It also necessitates having appropriate social media metrics that include the development and maintenance of trust.

Recognize that consumers are seeking reassurance. This implies positioning the brand as a subject matter authority and directing searchers to legitimate experts willing to give a balanced and objective review that is earned, not bought.

Work with the leadership of the firm to establish corporate policies and a governance structure for social media that is cognizant of advertising standards and laws, insists upon transparency and authenticity and extends to social media vendors.

In concert with academia and consultants, get smarter on how influence flows through the social media network. Communications theory may be of some help in this regard. Consider quantifying the number of connections a person has and determining whether those connections vary by subject matter. From there, attempt to answer such questions as: Are people like brands who build up trust that can be translated across subject matter and/or different clusters of people? Do their recommendations spread to different clusters through links that are also trusted?

Social media marketing is entering a new era. Marketers need to take a long-term view of their actions on these channels, candidly asking themselves if they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution to the crisis of trust.

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Lawrence A. Crosby and John P. Vidmar
Lawrence A. Crosby, Ph.D. is the retired dean of the Drucker School of Management and currently the chief data scientist at the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, a part of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. John P. Vidmar, Ph.D. is the chair of Ipsos USA Public Affairs.