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Edelman Trust Barometer Reveals Need for Mature Social Media

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the Toronto launch of the Canadian results of Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer survey with my employer, Richard Edelman.

This year, even more than in recent years, I find the results of the survey fascinating from both traditional and digital communications standpoints

Trust in 2011

The broad findings of this year’s survey are themselves interesting:

Credentials Count More Than Ever

  • Trust in experts rose over the last year — and after years of being at or near the bottom, CEOs saw an increase in credibility, rising from eighth (bottom) to fifth in the rankings.
  • 99 per cent of informed publics find academics and experts — long the front runners — “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” credible.

Trust in Canadian Businesses

  • Canadian headquartered companies maintain high levels of trust, at 75 per cent.
  • In Canada, trust in NGOs exceeds trust in business.
  • When a company is not trusted, 63% of people will believe negative information after hearing it 1-2 times. When the company is trusted, that falls to 22%.
  • When a company is trusted, 40% of people will believe positive information after hearing it 1-2 times, compared to just 7% if that company is not trusted.
  • In general, 65% of people need to hear something 3-5 times before it is trusted.
  • The new trust framework involves profit with purpose, engagement with stakeholders and transparency around the company’s activities.

Social media and trust

Deeper within this year’s results, there are some really interesting findings for people in the social media space:

The fall of “people like me”

Trust in “people like me,” which peaked in 2006, fell 11% this year. While it’s still high – 80% of Canadians trust ‘people like them’ as an information source – it fell to the bottom of the rankings, below CEOs, regular employees and technical experts

For companies engaged in social media activities, this is a clear pointer that they need to incorporate a range of spokespeople in their activities. Relying purely on ‘word of mouth’ is not enough. Combined with the findings about the number of times people need to hear something, this points to the need for integrated communications approaches using a variety of sources and spokespeople to reach comapnies’ audiences

The credibility of online news

Online search engines are Canadians’ number one source for news and information about a company. Social media comes in at the bottom of the list.

Frankly, this isn’t too surprising, from a couple of angles.

Social media is increasingly moving to bite-size chunks, and taking on a role as a portal to company news. As such, there’s less room for context and for fact-checking, leading people to look elsewhere for information about a company (Richard did make a point that the research looked more at company information for considering stock purchases, for example, than at information for consumer-level purchase decisions).

Secondly, as outlined in my 2011 trends presentation, search strategies are becoming increasingly important to digital activities – not just from a content development perspective but at a strategic, cross-channel level.

Thirdly, the lines around “social media” are becoming blurred. For example, company websites may make a resurgence, as companies integrate the social graph into their owned media (see Etsy, Levi’s (client) for example). Does that count as social media? Is the Huffington Post a blog or a news site? It’s not a black and white distinction.

Fourthly, there’s much more to social media than just reaching consumers. Key influencers, stakeholders and mainstream media can all be engaged through these channels.

Social media needs to mature

This all speaks to a broader need for a more mature approach to social media. It’s not enough to just be there any more – those times have come and gone (good riddance). It’s not enough to just tweet something out and expect everyone to believe it. It’s certainly not enough to let your social media channels operate in a corporate silo, detached from other communications functions.

To continue to approach social media in this immature way is a recipe for failure.

It’s time for a more mature approach to social media and trust – one that integrates different media forms; one that engages people over the long term and one that takes a more considered approach to generating trust among audiences.

What do you think?

Here’s the executive summary of this year’s results. Take a look for yourself, and tell me – what are the stand-out results for you?

Join The Conversation

  • davefleet's picture
    Feb 16 Posted 6 years ago davefleet

    Hi Charles,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You've made some good points here, but also some incorrect assumptions about what I mean so I'll go through your notes one by one.

    Firstly, I should state that the research itself doesn't draw any lines of causation here - this interpretation is mine alone. 

    I agree that many companies have gone about using social media the wrong way - with the same push-focused approach that they've used with mainstream media and marketing campaigns for years. If you've read anything else I've written you'll know that I write a lot about two-way communications online, and that I'm anything but an advocate for continued one-way message pushing.

    I do think we may have a different view of even two-way activity though - you talk about companies "trying to look like 'people like us'"; I see social media as an opportunity to humanize companies and to show the people within them.

    On to the idea of integrated communications approaches. This is frankly nothing new - the idea of integrated marketing has been around for decades. However, social media often finds itself in a silo - pushed into marketing or into corporate communications - and disconnected from the rest of the organization. That leads to an inability to use it for other business functions - customer service; generating product insights etc. 

    You've zeroed-in on the word "reach" as an indication that I'm advocating for spammy approaches; again, if you've read anything else I've written I hope you'll realize that this is anything but the case. I've used it as a verb... so to use my previous examples a customer service team could reach someone who needs help, or a listening team could reach people to generate insights. Do I think that companies need to use more channels to engage with people (and I use 'channel' for want of a better word)? Yes. Do I think that repeating the same 'message' 20 times a day on each channel will be effective? No.

    I'm talking about companies combining owned, paid, earned and social media to increase their effectiveness. That could, for example, mean an approach where a company blog, a microsite, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, Google ads and media relations all work together, balancing the strengths and weaknesses of each medium to communicate with people (I've written about this here - and, yes, that piece is focused on marketing).

    What's more, the beauty of social media is that much of it is opt-in. I don't have to go to a company blog, or follow them on Twitter, or subscribe to their YouTube channel, or like their Facebook Page. If the way they're using those properties doesn't offer any value then I can unsubscribe and ignore them. Likewise, I'm not going to re-tweet, "Like" or otherwise spread their content around. To that extent, there's already a level of social filtering going on. The companies that are taking a "push" approach to social media are discovering that. The smart ones are re-evaluating their approaches; the others are writing social media off as an ineffective marketing channel.

    You are right that the wording of "all companies engaged in social media activities" may be ill-advised. That phrase could be better worded to focus on companies using social media for outreach.

    Your last main point focuses on transparency, and I have to say that while I agree with your point, I completely disagree that what we're saying goes against that (BTW, I've known Chris and the folks at Hubspot for years, and I suspect that they'd support the fact that I wouldn't advocate for that). If you've read the full results, you'll know that one of the broader conclusions (one not just focused on social media) is that the modern framework for building trust includes transparency as one of the key drivers, alongside engagement and profit with social benefit. That's a key part of the research, and was a key part of Richard's speech when he presented the results this week. I'm not sure what led you to draw the opposite conclusion about our work, but I assure you it's not the case.

    Ultimately, and importantly this research focused on peoples’ trust in organizations and the ways that they look to find information about those companies, so that’s the focus of the conclusions. That doesn’t mean that’s all that we  focuses on doing with clients, any more than our research on social purpose, health engagement or communicating with millennials means we only focus on them. Again, I agree with many of your points but writing about one aspect of communications in no way means that we disregard other aspects. If every piece written had to cover every angle, we’d never get in-depth on anything.

    Hope this helps somewhat. Thanks for the debate – this kind of back-and-forth is one of the things I love about blogging.

  • CharlesGreen's picture
    Feb 15 Posted 6 years ago CharlesGreen


    I have to respectfully disagree with some of the findings being drawn from the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, at least as you have stated them above.

    It is indeed interesting information, but as with all things trust-related, interpretation is very slippery.  Case in point: your discussion of the decline of 'people like me' and the conclusions you draw from it--as you put it,

    "a clear pointer that they need to incorporate a range of spokespeople in their activities. Relying purely on ‘word of mouth’ is not enough. Combined with the findings about the number of times people need to hear something, this points to the need for integrated communications approaches using a variety of sources and spokespeople to reach companies’ audiences."

    I don't think it's a clear pointer of that at all.  In fact, I think your interpretation is an invitation to further declines in trust.  Here's how.

    Your article doesn't suggest any reason for the decline in ratings of 'people like me.'  Let me suggest an obvious one: social media have been inundated with corporate messengers whose presence dilutes the resemblance to individuals.  No wonder we all trust them less, they are no longer 'people like us,' they are companies trying to look like 'people like us.'

    More importantly, the suggested conclusion--that companies need to repeat the message more and more times through more and more channels is simply a call to further and further dilute the messaging.  To be perfeclty blunt about it, what you're describing is a situation made bad by over-messaging, and your prescription for fixing it is--still more over-messaging. We have a word for this--spam.

    Your quote is telling: you talk about how often people must be 'told' something in order to 'reach' them.  But the opportunity of social media is to stop talking and telling; and instead of being heard, to seek to understand.  The result is a reciprocal reaction, a relationship beneficial to both.

    This is a serious issue.  If every emerging medium is more and more quickly deluged with messaging about a company's products and image, then each new medium is trashed faster and faster. Wev'e already had to invent spam filters, do-not-call directories, time-shifting, caller-ID, junk mail lists.  Now, in the social media, we're having to employ restricted lists, de-friending and so forth--all to counter abuses of over-messaging--and you're recommending still more.

    The promise of social media is getting choked by all this mainstream PR focus on more and more messaging to 'get the word out.'  The promise lies in inbound marketing--a beautiful approach made possible by social media, and dependent on transparency.  The premise is as old as Dale Carnegie: help other people get what they want, and they will then naturally help you get what you want.

    I see great successes in that approach.  Unfortunately, none of them are achieved by the methods that Edelman and other mainstream PR firms are advocating--more and more one-to-many broadcast messages through multiple media. 

    I don't like that Edelman is phrasing these conclusions as relevant to all 'companies engaged in social media activities,' as you put it. That assumes that the only appropriate role for social media communications is one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting, with the avowed intent of persuading.  What you get with that approach is incremental improvement at the margin, at the expense of degrading the long-term levels of trust and relationships.

    There are entities--like Hubspot Marketing and Chris Brogan--who are preaching the opposite gospel--the idea that social media allow companies to offer choice, to give in order to receive, and to attract rather than promote. The idea is to offer value to create relationships, which in turn give value down the road.

    For organizations to suceed in that approach, they have to help customers and be transparent about it.  The mainstream media approach has far too often been opaque, not transparent, and the kinds of messaging techniques you're talking about just make it worse.

    An example?  The blatantly self-aggrandizing ads by British Petroleum on the Gulf Coast, continuing to this day to 'spin' the message.  This is not transparency, this is the mult-modal blitz of corporate messaging masquerading as transparency, and cheapening the medium as a result.

    When is that kind of messaging important?  When a company is doing great things and is under-appreciated for it.  When does it in fact get deployed?  All too often, when a company was doing bad things and the messaging is deployed to counter the image. And sorry, I don't think BP fits the first case.

    Public relations has an interesting relationship with transparency.  You can either fix underlying issues, in which case transparency beccomes your friend; or you can make transparency opaque, so nobody notices the underlying issues.  The conclusions you're drawing from this study support the second kind of choice, which is precisely what we need less of these days.

    I don't want the media blitz of Edelman in promoting the Trust Barometer to stand unchallenged. It's an intersting study, but the conclusions are hardly self-evident.  The conclusion you present happens to be very beneficial for Edelman et al--to suggest more and more such messaging.

    The opposite, however, may be precisely what's needed to halt the decline in the very trust numbers you're reporting.

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