Op-ed - Written by Denis Hancock on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 10:09 - 2 Comments
Why I don’t trust the AdAge article about consumer trust
A couple of days ago Ad Age published an article entitled “In the age of friending, consumers trust their friends less.” The main finding that they presented, in the sub-title, was “Edelman study shows that only 25% of people find peers credible, flying in the face of social media wisdom.” It’s a provocative statement, and that’s likely why it was used – to draw people into the article. But my initial read on the findings, and how they are interpreted, leads me to not trust the message being sent.
The first clue that something is off comes from the chart they provided. True, when asked whom do you trust as a credible source of information about a company, friends / peers dropped from 45% to 25% (from 2008 to 2010). However, trust in other sources – TV news, radio news, and newspapers – dropped by almost the exact same proportion, from almost the exact same base (i.e. newspapers appear to have dropped from 46% to 26%, for example). The article gets around to mentioning this, but not until the main message they are trying to send has been established.
This indicates two things to me. One, the article deliberately chose to focus on the one part of the story that seemed most provocative – always suspicious. Two, that the question being used does not appear particularly good at distinguishing trust levels between different channels, in terms of marketing. Setting the 2010 data to the side, there is a lot of data out there indicating that tells a very different story than the 2008 baseline (and interpretation) presented. Commenter Kevin pointed towards one such study, from Nielsen, that showed 90% of online customers either completely or somewhat trusted recommendations from people they know. The importance of “recommend to a friend” has been well established, and validated, for many years. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.
A second clue was the interpretation of the quote provided by Richard Edelman himself – that “the lesson for marketers is consumers have to see and hear things in five different places before they believe it.” That type of message could be viewed as great news for people in the advertising business, who can tell clients they need to spend money everywhere to get a message through (cha-ching!). I don’t buy it. My main interpretation of the chart is that it’s very, very likely that many, many customers indicated they didn’t trust any source, in relation to the given question. Hitting these people with messages from many sources they deem uncredible, and expecting that to turn into a message that they trust, is a bit of a stretch.
A third clue is that the chart provided is primarily focused on news sources (i.e. it’s “radio news”, not “radio”), while the discussion is primarily marketing focused. I think there’s a major disconnect there, which ties into some of the discussion above.
I then thought a bit about how I would respond to the given question – and I realized I’d probably fall in the “not trusting any source” camp. But it’s not because I don’t trust opinions and recommendations from friends and peers – it’s because the question is too generic, and notably I don’t really associate it with marketing and purchasing decisions. The reason is simple – while I may know a fair number of people, most of them are fairly busy. If I want “information on a company” – a very generic request – that I pick out of thin air, I can’t exactly expect them to have it. It’s also likely that what they know, or could find, would come from the company itself (directly or indirectly). In my opinion, the link between this question, and what marketers should be thinking about, is relatively weak.
This led me to a couple more thoughts that I think need to be taken into account here – from a marketing perspective.
First, let’s start from a different question – Who knows you the best? - and provide the same list of options. I would bet my retirement fund on friends / peers winning this contest, and that if someone chose “radio” it’s unlikely you’d let them in your house. I’d also be willing to assert, with a high degree of confidence, that there are many situations where people trust messages, and recommendations, from this group of people over ads on TV, radio, and newspapers – even though this article would have you think differently. I know that seems like a very simple and obvious point, but it seems like it needs to be made here.
Second, take a context specific approach – and think about a question that more closely ties to influence in relation to marketing, or a specific purchasing decision. For example, “who do you trust to help pick a movie?”, or “who do you trust to help you find new fashions?”. It’s very likely that for any question that ties to personal taste, style, etc., the influence of peer recommendations is important. In other words, I many not trust them as a source of information “on a company” , but I will trust them as a source of information for a specific product or service, in a specific context, in relation to me.
Third, such questions need to account for different platforms that are emerging to influence purchasing decisions – particularly the ones that consolidate numerous different opinions (think Flikster, Yelp, etc.). I might not trust any single individual on there (and thus claim not to trust them in response to a generic question), but I may trust their collective opinion if the sample size is large enough, or even a specific individual’s opinion if (say) their reputation score is high enough. Very hard to tease out of a survey – but very important.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Overall, I think there are quite a few issues with what this article presents, and how it is interpreted. Did I miss any big ones – or do you think I’m wrong?
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