I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that, over the last few years, trust in the banking system, banks and bankers (three very different things that have been unhelpfully lumped together by the mainstream media narrative), has taken a battering.

The financial sector as a whole has huge job to do and in my view, social media is going to play a key part in getting it done.

This post will look at two key issues around trust and social media: how to measure it and how to build it.

Measuring trust

First, I want to briefly introduce an idea that scientists call the “fundamental attribution error.” It goes thus: when people make mistakes themselves, they tend to attribute the mistake to the circumstances, e.g. "it was the traffic’s fault" that they were late.

When, however, people see mistakes made by others, they attribute it to that person’s personality, e.g. "He’s late because he’s disorganised". 

Lots of psychologists have looked at this but one particular finding stands out. If people trust each other the fundamental attribution error is reduced, and what’s more, there is a sliding scale of trust that reduces it bit by bit.

So, eye contact and body language reduce the error a lot, following that, tone of voice and its perceived 'honesty'. Responsiveness is another key element and this is where it gets interesting in terms of social media.

Just being seen to be listening increases people's trust in you, even if you can’t respond with any helpful information. It seems that interaction, even if only for its own sake is a key element of trust.

It’s a finding that seems to be borne out by a Vocus survey I picked up on a while ago. Respondents were provided with three fictitious Twitter users. Person A had millions of followers but no real interaction, person B had thousands of followers and some interaction and person C had only a few hundred followers but had a lot of interaction with them.

When asked which person would have a “more measurable effect” on their followers, 57% voted for person C. To me what this shows is that even from an outside perspective, visible interaction reduces the amount of “unknowns” and thus reduces the space for these attributional errors. 

The upshot: If you use the fundamental attribution error in your market research you should be able to get a reasonable indicator of whether or not people trust you.

Building trust

We’ve already covered responsiveness as a key element of building trust and it’s easy to see how social media can have an instant effect on a company’s ability to be responsive, but there is a lot more.

Studies such as Edelman’s trust barometer (and many others), show how trust can be affected by a number of factors. Among these factors is the type of content, the authority of the speaker, and opinions of other people rank highly. 

Content is easy, and relates straight back to those factors that affect the fundamental attribution error. So, content that can convey personality such as body language and eye contact rates highly where as content that doesn’t, doesn’t.

I’d suggest that this means that video statements from senior execs will rank highly on trust scores. This example from Jet Blue, though old, is a great example of how video content can convey personality.

But beyond this, even when you are restricted to text as a medium, it’s clear that conveying personality is key to building trust.

How you can make this work for you in real life

  • Make content personal.
  • Put the author of your Twitter stream’s name in the bio.
  • Have named authors on your blog, perhaps even use a picture by-line.

Authority is harder to tie down. We know that social media can convey a kind of authority through the pattern of links that pull networks together, and if people can see that others are endorsing your content (for example through re-tweets or Facebook likes) it will help to build trust on a micro-level.

It’s important to give them the opportunity to do this, but authority is a lot more complicated than that. 

Being able to talk with authority isn’t about the channel you choose to communicate through, it’s about being able to display a complete and nuanced mastery of your brief.

Social media can help you display that nuance by giving you a diverse set of channels and helping you reach a wider audience but in the end, the only way to talk with authority is to be authoritative.

Natalie Cowen

Published 14 December, 2011 by Natalie Cowen

Natalie Cowan is Head of Brand and Communications at first direct and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (7)

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Nick Stamoulis

Social media involvement is a great way to establish trust. The key is to be active and use the medium correctly. Take the time to have an actual conversation with followers. Using social media only to promote can have the opposite effect, and turn off followers.

over 6 years ago


Jeffry Pilcher | The Financial Brand

You're right: Trust in the financial industry is completely blown. But if banks really want to rebuilt trust with consumers, the formula isn't that complicated. They don't need social media. What they really need to do is stop deliberately trying to screw people over. Until banks stop offering financial products that were engineered to hurt people — manipulative overdraft schemes, universal default clauses, predatory loans — there isn't much they can do with social media besides apologize while doing the backstroke.

More on this thought here:

over 6 years ago


Jeffry Pilcher

Can you please tell me why my last comment wasn't published?

over 6 years ago


Jeffry Pilcher

Irritated. I spent the time to write up a comment that contributed to this conversation to have it deleted. Social media fail.

over 6 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

Hi Jeffry, the comment was picked up by our spam filter, not deleted by us.

I've published it now. Sorry about that.

over 6 years ago


Alex Bray

This is really interesting. I totally agree that banks need to 'personalise' their social media interactions in order to (re)build customer trust.

I guess this raises a new challenge. In a world where a bank has many active participants in social media - how do they project a consistent message and tone of voice? And in parallel, how do they do this without losing a sense of personality?

I'd love to hear your thoughts...

over 6 years ago

Natalie Cowen

Natalie Cowen, Head of Brand and Communications at first direct

Hi guys - thanks for taking the time to comment.

@ Nick - Totally agree.

@ Jeffry - I agree that social media isn't going to magically fix these
issues overnight, but I definitely feel that it's a great place to start.
If customers can see their bank being more open, and listening and
communicating on a more individual basis, their trust in that brand is sure
to grow as a consequence.

@ Alex - I think we're pretty lucky at first direct in that our tone of
voice is already conversational and informal, especially for a bank! We
entrust our representatives to represent the brand on the phone 24/7/365, so it's only a small step to convert this interaction to the social media world. I think other financial organisations might need to lay some ground work before getting started, but I'd still encourage them to get involved. Perhaps limiting access to people until they've been trained up is the right way to go about it?

over 6 years ago

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