Misplaced TrustWe've all done it. In our decision making process to purchase something of fairly high value such as a holiday or fancy gadget; or when we think about a purchase that requires a long term commitment such as a mobile contract or gym membership; we ask trusted friends for their opinions and experiences.

It's human nature. We're doing our best to eliminate any risk, whether this be associated with cost or contract catches, anything really. We're after value for money and want to hear about any experiences, warts 'n' all. Based upon the information we gather from these trusted sources, we make what we feel is the best decision for ourselves.

However, would you ask a complete stranger in the street, on the train, in a queue, pub wherever for their opinion? Probably not, and you may be labelled as some kind of random market research person; all you will need is a clipboard to authenticate the look.

Bizarrely, the reluctance to seek opinion from strangers in the 'real world' is the total opposite online. Recent research from Forrester and Nielsen indicates we are more than happy to seek online guidance from strangers; over and above the information which is provided by brands. Apparently Forrester believes only 16% of people trust what is written in a corporate blog.

Why is this? Here is some ideas (backed by a little bit of research of our own) of the factors which may play a part.

  • We still seek opinion from friends and family, but we do this much more via mobile phone and social media/networks.
  • The response (even though we know it comes from friends) is kind of faceless.
  • Response can be achieved at anytime as we communicate virtually all the time; we can't always do this face to face.
  • The differentiation of a virtual response from our friends to user generated comments from strangers online is minimal (fewer senses are used).
  • Strangers can have their profiles checked out online...and therefore don't feel like complete strangers anymore.
  • Groups (comprising of strangers) that provide a concurring and consistent voice are perceived to have higher levels of influence and authority.
  • Brands are traditionally perceived as positioning their messaging to sell their products and services...balloons aren't so effective these days!

So if this really is the current state of play online, what can brands do to improve their levels of consumer trust? I believe (which means you may not agree) they should focus upon three main areas:

  • Ensure they provide their existing customers with the best possible brand experience they can. This is across all consumer points of contact including the delivery and support of their products and services; offline/face to face channels such as in store, call centres etc; and all online channels.

    This sounds obvious, but a high priority focus of hitting aggressive sales targets can detract a business away from this and in itself can become the beginnings of a slippery slope.

  • Invite conversation and listen. There are many organisations inviting conversation, but only tend to listen when there is the potential for their cash registers to start ringing. Listen to all the bad stuff and address it in an open and honest way. This is difficult, but one of the best ways to gain respect and start to build trust.
  • Provide platforms for customers to have their say. Recognise them and interact with them. Let them speak and if the two previous points are being effectively addressed they will begin to to say great things. Allowing your advocates to be heard is the best way to create awareness and interest for prospective customers.
A single point to end with: If your organisation has decided to have a Twitter channel don't be obsessed with getting as many followers as possible and don't keep broadcasting sales messages.
Selling to spam is pointless and brand tarnishing. Find, attract and chat about all sorts of stuff with followers who you'd talk to in the pub. Not a bad rule of thumb to work to really.
Karl Havard

Published 10 July, 2009 by Karl Havard

Karl Havard is a Partner at PA Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter and connect via LinkedIn.

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