Social Media and the Trust Deficit

My first car was a land yacht from the early 1970s. It leaked oil everywhere, and only ran on seven cylinders — when it ran at all. By the time I was 19, the car and I were mortal enemies. By then, I had rebuilt or replaced every moving part under the hood – including the engine. Then the transmission disintegrated.

Twice.

As my car was towed away, I asked a friend of mine how often one should have to replace engines and transmissions in cars. He replied,

“I don’t really know, Steve. I drive a Honda.”

My friend had unknowingly become a brand ambassador for Honda that day. See, friends and peers can be valuable sources of information. We listen to our friends. We trust our friends. Their experiences with products lend weight and credibility to their opinions. Which is why I was startled by a portion of Edelman’s 2010 Trust Barometer which suggests that the number of people who view their friends and peers as credible sources of information about a company dropped by almost half since 2008, from 45% to 25%.”

Something about this statistic didn’t sound right to me. It seems to conflict with my sense of intuition. Sure, the economy is terrible, but why would we suddenly consider our friends “less credible”? So, I wondered… What kinds of questions were being asked in this survey? What could have changed since 2008?

Edelman states that the survey “consisted of 25-minute telephone interviews… (with) 4,875 informed publics in two age groups (24-34 and 35-64). All informed publics met the following criteria: college educated, household income in the top quartile for their age in their country, read or watch business/news media at least several times a week, follow public policy issues in the news several times a week.”

Here is one of the questions asked in the survey:

Q: If you heard information about a company from one of these people, how credible would the information be?

Results (highest credibility to lowest):

Expert, Industry analyst, NGO representative, Person like yourself, CEO, Government official, or regular employee.

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere. To me, it would seem that we seek out different types of peers depending on the type of information we’re looking for. And with the recent economic downturn, we are more likely to turn to experts for information about companies, more than to traditional media or a fan page on FaceBook. Included in our conversations about products are discussions about transparency and trustworthiness of corporations. Survey results also show that consumers are wary of profits, and are increasingly interested in a company’s standing as a corporate citizen. The survey was limited to attitudes about companies and corporate reputations. It was not about the products or services they provide.

It’s the difference between asking “Which product should I buy?” and “What kind of company should I buy it from?”

As the results of Edelman’s 2010 Trust Barometer go viral, it’s important to keep this context in mind. It would be a stretch to infer that there’s a sudden trust deficit among peer groups or that Social Media is less effective in a recession. The good news is that we still listen to our friends, especially when the topic is about recommending a particular product and brand.

P.S.   If you must know… I have been a proud Honda owner for 20 years.

— Steve Close, Senior Media Buyer

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