Should the decline in trust in social media influence business use?

For many years, a key reason I’ve encouraged small business to use social media to build visibility and influence with customers has been driven by the insight from the Edelman Trust Barometer that we trust our peers, who talk about their experiences online.

These online conversations, mostly on Facebook but also 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; with trust, high and growing peer to peer and in third-party experts, like academics.

That has changed.

For the first time this year, we saw a decline in trust of ‘people like us’, perhaps driven by the oppositional echo chambers that emerged around political and social issues and sharing of fake news that has left many friends aghast and divided from one another.

There’s also been an increase in trust in CEOs from 26 points last year to 39 points this year, in particular, 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 a complex area 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 have in building business reputation and trust as well as internal engagement but this shift in the barometer reinforces the positive role the CEO’s business communication has.

What is depressing, is that social media is now the least trusted source when it comes to news.

Edelman showed a 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.

We’ve seen junk spread like wildfire online with 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 generated in behaviour and come to terms with their role as media companies, not social media platforms.

Facebook has now agreed to delete information that is potentially harmful, a complex task and Twitter has similarly started to delete accounts that sell fake followers or are fake accounts, but it has taken a long time and significant public pressure for them to act.

Is social media strategy still useful?

So how should these shift impact social media strategy for business?

First, I think it’s important to qualify that the decline in trust of peers doesn’t mean we don’t trust peers, but rather that we are also looking for genuine expertise, no surprise given the information scrap heaps that litter the internet.

For business, it’s an opportunity to create solid, useful content shared through earned and owned media channels including those of inhouse experts.

People are clearly resonating with real, rather than scripted, CEOs and want to hear from people in your organisation 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 drop relates specifically to the subject of news and fake news, and not to brand or product information.

‘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.’ (Edelman)

The fact that the public can distinguish ‘proper’ journalism also reinforces the role of traditional media as part of an overall communications strategy.

That might involve pitching stories to journalists, but journalists also follow the social media accounts of 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 mean communications professionals need to tread carefully and not overstep boundaries.

Edelman showed

  • 54 per cent are uncomfortable with marketers tracking in-store purchases for targeting purposes
  • 39 per cent say it should be illegal for a brand to buy personal information from another company the consumer does business with
  • 49 per cent say they are not willing to sacrifice some of their data privacy in return for a more personalized shopping experience

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.’

Create content that is useful rather than just for the sake of it and build channels that are information-rich using real people, unscripted, to drive online engagement.