Thursday, October 9, 2008

Who Do Marketers Trust?

In September Universal McCann released a new study of social media. This one is called “When did we start trusting strangers?”

It’s full of interesting data, including their listing of social media channels—wow, that’s a long list! (The full report is available here; there's also a presentation with additional data). Let me hit a few of the high spots for you.

A basic theme is the fact that we are all both influenced by and influencers in this new media world. I’ve written before about the importance of consumer ratings and other sources of individual, as opposed to marketer-initiated, information. The report asked what opinion sources people used (the question didn’t appear to include paying more attention to ads). Search and email from friends win hands down. Next on the list is visiting the brand’s website, which makes sense. That’s tied with IMing with a friend, though!

To me, the most provocative piece of data is “who do you trust?” It’s a long list. The report points out that the 4 top-rated sources are personal and 2 are online. WOM as the most credible source of information is not a new phenomenon—it’s always been the most trusted. What this says is that there are so many more ways for WOM to circulate now. That adds to its power to influence. On the marketer-initiated side you have to go considerably more than half way down the chart to find an occurrence. When you do, TV ads are the first, followed by magazine, newspaper, PPC and radio. The key issue is that these marketer-initiated communications are only rated as being about half as trustworthy as the personal sources that were highest rated. Marketers take note!

The next set of trusted sources start with consumer reviews in various channels, includes articles by known bloggers, as well as magazine and newspaper articles. That’s where the “strangers” come in. According to Universal McCann:

• We now trust a strangers recommendation as much as our closest friends

• We trust recommendations in social media channels more than paid-for communications

Big wow!

From the earliest studies of social communication we’ve known that many people were opinion leaders in contexts in which they had special interest and expertise. That’s still true according to these data. People both seek opinion and give opinion, and how many seek vs. give differs by product category. I’d also make a bet that the actual people who seek vs. give differ from one product category to another. I’d seek the opinion of one of my tech-savy friends before buying a computer, and I’d be happy to give him my best fashion advice for his big date. We have different areas of expertise.

What does the report recommend? It says marketers should:

• Be open, honest and transparent. If they’re not, they’ll get caught. Ask the politicians.
• Be part of the conversation. They actually advise marketers to advertise on the social media; it’s advertising that supports these free influence channels. Interesting point!
• Encourage everyone to contribute experiences and opinions.
• Reach out to what they describe as the super influencers, the new creators who blog, podcast, create videos and upload their photos. They should be considered “some of the most powerful voices in the future.”

It’s pretty clear who the public trusts—the best description is probably “people like me.” I started by asking who marketers trust. Do they trust their customers to engage with them in a reasonable and responsible way? Data to the contrary, I suggest that many marketers still do not trust their customers enough to engage in direct conversation with them!

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