Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Web Secret #91: In Social Media We Trust

A truism among social media marketing devotees is that above all, people trust endorsements from their "friends", making social media more effective than other traditional forms of advertising.

As an example, if you have a new product, you want to make sure that your Twitter followers rave about it, your Facebook friends become fans, and your Aunt Susie blogs about it.

So when Robert Berkman sent me a link to an Advertising Age article that said the exact opposite, I paid attention. (Probably because I had just read Bob's book "The Art of Strategic Listening - Finding Market Intelligence through Blogs and Other Social Media".)

The article, "In Age of Friending, Consumers Trust Their Friends Less" cites a recent study by Richard Edelman, his Trust Barometer, that found that the number of people who view their friends and peers as credible sources of information about a company dropped by almost half, from 45% to 25%, since 2008.

Edelman thinks it's a sign of the times and that consumers have to see and hear things in five different places before they believe it. He attributes this skepticism to the financial meltdown that has left us wary of big banks, the government, the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. (His sentiments, my words.)

Shiv Singh, another social media expert, immediately expressed his disagreement with Ad Age in his blog post "Consumers Trust Friends Less? I don't agree." Singh argued that:
the analysis... may be a little misleading. The headline... implies that people are trusting their friends less when making decisions. While that makes great copy, when you click on the chart what you really see is that trust in all forms of media... has dropped dramatically by approximately the same percentages. Trust in Friends/Peers hasn't dropped considerably more versus those other categories."
Singh also pointed out that, "the subject being discussed makes a big difference. For example, I'm not going to trust my friends very much when I'm deciding whether to get open heart surgery. However, if I'm buying running shoes ... advice from my friends will make all the difference.

Personally, I agree with Singh. I find it quite irritating when traditional media outlets use social media indiscriminately.

Want a recent example?

I live in the New York City area and experienced the over hyped "Blizzard of 2010". During the storm, I attempted to get reliable information on the magnitude of the expected snow fall by surfing TV news channels, only to find with distressing frequency interactions along the lines of, "Let's check out Joe Blow's webcam on Staten Island. Joe, what do you see when you look out your window?", or "Visit our Twitter feed for reports from our viewers around the area."

Are you kidding me? I don't give a $#%@! about Joe's yard! - I want a meteorologist with a state-of-the-art Doppler 7000 to give me an expert prediction about the storm.

What I think is happening is that people's sophistication about social media is on the rise. Users are beginning to figure out that:
  • Arthur Frommer may know more about the top tourist attractions in Istanbul than Susie on Trip Advisor.
  • An introduction arranged by a trusted childhood friend may be worth more than the sketchy dude you were paired with on eHarmony.
  • The well credentialed neurologist at a major teaching hospital is a better source of advice about treating your migraine than the receptionist at your company.
You get the point.

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