Brands are increasingly paying for ‘Likes’, followers and reviews, and despite the risks associated with this activity and the questionable efficacy of the tactic, there may be a logical reason for it.

That reason: according to Nielsen, consumers trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and online reviews, far more than they do paid media.

That may not be surprising, but the trust gap may be more significant than many brand marketers would like to believe: while 92% of those surveyed indicated that they trust personal recommendations, and 70% indicated that they trust reviews, most forms of traditional and digital paid media are not trusted by more than half of consumers.

Television ads fell just short of the 50% mark, with 47% of those polled stating that they trust TV commercials, while digital’s newest darling, mobile, fell far short. According to Nielsen, just 33% of consumers trust mobile display ads, and even fewer (29%) trust mobile text ads. Search ads, online video ads and ads on social networks fared only slightly better.

Is there good news in the bad news?

On the surface, Nielsen’s findings are not good news for marketers, even if the data isn’t all that surprising. But the news may not be all bad.

Nielsen’s Global Head of Advertiser Solutions, Randall Beard, writes:

Since trust in advertising lays along continuum that moves from earned (highest trust), to owned, then paid (lowest trust), it stands to reason that brands should want more earned and owned. But can paid be given up completely? For most brands, that strategy isn’t really feasible given both the broad reach and historical success associated with paid media.

So what’s the answer? Beard suggests that “we need to start thinking of how paid, owned and earned can work together to improve trust and deliver better results.”

He then lays out a blueprint based on:

  • A 2011 Nielsen study that found Facebook ads with a social layer to be far more effective than Facebook ads without one.
  • Research indicating that online display ads are an effective tool in driving consumers to a brand’s website.
  • Nielsen data showing that exposure to a brand’s website lifted sales by three times digital ads on their own.

This leads Beard to ask, “why not build social into your paid advertising (where possible), use your paid ads to drive consumers to your website and optimize your site to drive maximum on or off-line purchase? Why not experiment with the myriad ways to engage your consumers across the paid, owned and earned continuum?”

On paper, such an approach makes sense. But just how realistic is it? For some brands, developing a strategy that effectively choreographs paid, owned and earned media is viable. But for many brands, it probably isn’t for a variety of reasons.

For starters, plenty of brands lack compelling owned media. Instead of building websites, they’ve invested in building social presences, like Facebook Pages.
Their social ads? Those are geared towards driving ‘Likes’ on those Facebook Pages, many of which are the final destination due to the aforementioned lack of owned websites. For brands that do have decent websites of their own, promotion of those websites on Facebook is often minimal.

Back to the basics

Put simply, many brands can’t put paid, owned and earned together because they don’t yet have enough depth and polish in all to make it pay off. This, of course, doesn’t mean that brands should give up. But before they spend lots of money trying to merge social, paid and owned media, some remediation may be in order.

At a minimum, given the fact that Nielsen found 58% of consumers willing to trust brand websites and that exposure to these websites can have a significant impact on sales, brands that have put their Facebook strategy before their website strategy might want to rethink where they invest going forward.