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Why Consumers Trust Each Other More than They Trust Media

On Experience: The Blog, we frequently explore the concept of trust in relation to advertising and social media.

We marketers are often aghast at how little trust consumers place in our advertising, but the loss of faith in the veracity of marketing hasn't come overnight--it's been a death of a thousand cuts. The evidence that trust in advertising is on life support is significant:
  • In 2007, Nielsen surveyed 26,486 Internet users and found that more consumers trusted recommendations from consumers (78%) more than they did any other forms of advertising. The word of a stranger ranked above Newspapers (63%), Brand websites (60%), Television (56%), Magazines (56%), Radio (54%), and Opt-In Email (49%).

  • A 2007 study of UK online users by JupiterResearch found that consumers were almost five times more likely to find online customer reviews helpful when researching products as they were TV ads. Fifty three percent found "Customer Reviews Online" helpful compared to 44% manufacturer Web sites, 11% TV ads, 10% magazine articles, and 3% newspaper and magazine ads.

  • Online social network users were three times more likely to trust their peers' opinions over advertising when making purchase decisions, according to a March 2007 JupiterResearch study.

  • MarketingSherpa reports 84% of online customer trust reviews from another customer over a critic.

  • According to an April 2008 report from ZenithOptimedia, recommendations from family and friends trump all other consumer touchpoints when it comes to influencing purchases. Recommendations from family and friends led with an average score of 84. TV ads and Internet search were next, with an average score of 69 and 67, followed by magazine ads at 60, newspaper ads at 55, outdoor ads at 45, radio ads at 42, and Internet banner ads at 41.

  • According to Forrester, "less than 25% say they trust even the emails they sign up for"--and this was the highest trust level of any traditional advertising channel, beating TV, radio, print, in-store, and online ad media. Conversely, when asked what influences their perception of a brand or company, over 50% cited their friends and family and just under 50% said a third-party review. In other words, consumers trust a perfect stranger's word before they trust a brand's million-dollar campaign.

The fact that marketing is losing trust and thus losing power isn't lost on marketers. A May 2008 Xchange panel of sales and marketing executives found that 84% of respondents agree that building customer trust will become marketing's primary objective. But even though there's a recognition, it seems marketers are conflicted as what to do.

Here's something that won't help restore trust: Breaking down the barriers of objectivity between third-party publishing and advertising. According to a survey by Millward Brown for PRWeek and Manning Selvage & Lee, "nearly one in five (19 percent) of senior marketers admit their organizations bought ads on a news site in exchange for a news story." MarketingVox reports that 10 percent of senior marketers say their companies "enjoy a non-verbal agreement with journalists or editors for which, in exchange for buying ad space, they can expect favorable coverage of their products or brands."

Both of these figures are higher than last year, which should be a concern to everyone--marketers, media, and consumers. Says Mark Hass, CEO of Manning Selvage & Lee, "Without full disclosure and transparency, media lose credibility and their value as an unbiased source of information for consumers. That a substantial number of marketers … engage in 'pay-for-play' year after year is even more troubling, and that much more damaging to the credibility of news media."

I wish Hass seemed as concerned about the loss of credibility to brands and the discipline of marketing and not just to media. From fake blogs to obsessive product placement to annoying banners to subviral marketing to pay-for-play media understandings, marketing isn't under attack from an external source but from within.

It isn't that social media threatens traditional advertising and marketing; it's that social media is giving a voice to and increasing the reach of consumers who are tired of being treated like pawns in a giant game of brand chess. If marketers would shift their thinking away from strategies designed to wear down consumers with a barrage of advertising and instead focused on creating value-based relationships and engaging consumers in dialog, they'd begin to earn back that trust that has been lost.

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