Trust Barometer Reveals Need For Mature Social Media

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the Toronto launch of the Canadian results of Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer survey with my employer, Richard Edelman.

This year, even more than in recent years, I find the results of the survey fascinating from both traditional and digital communications standpoints

Trust in 2011

The broad findings of this year’s survey are themselves interesting:

Credentials Count More Than Ever

  • Trust in experts rose over the last year — and after years of being at or near the bottom, CEOs saw an increase in credibility, rising from eighth (bottom) to fifth in the rankings.
  • 99 per cent of informed publics find academics and experts — long the front runners — “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” credible.

Trust in Canadian Businesses

  • Canadian headquartered companies maintain high levels of trust, at 75 per cent.
  • In Canada, trust in NGOs exceeds trust in business.
  • When a company is not trusted, 63% of people informed publics will believe negative information after hearing it 1-2 times. When the company is trusted, that falls to 22%.
  • When a company is trusted, 40% of people informed publics will believe positive information after hearing it 1-2 times, compared to just 7% if that company is not trusted.
  • In general, 65% of people informed publics need to hear something 3-5 times before it is trusted.
  • The new trust framework involves profit with purpose, engagement with stakeholders and transparency around the company’s activities.

Social media and trust

Deeper within this year’s results, there are some really interesting findings for people in the social media space:

The fall of “people like me”

Trust in “people like me,” which peaked in 2006, fell 11% this year. While it’s still high – 80% of Canadians informed publics trust ‘people like them’ as an information source – it fell to the bottom of the rankings, below CEOs, regular employees and technical experts

For companies engaged in social media activities, this is a clear pointer that they need to incorporate a range of spokespeople in their activities. Relying purely on ‘word of mouth’ is not enough. Combined with the findings about the number of times people need to hear something, this points to the need for integrated communications approaches using a variety of sources and spokespeople to reach companies’ audiences.

The credibility of online news

Online search engines are Canadians’ respondents’ number one source for news and information about a company. Social media comes in at the bottom of the list.

Frankly, this isn’t too surprising, from a couple of angles.

Social media is increasingly moving to bite-size chunks, and taking on a role as a portal to company news. As such, there’s less room for context and for fact-checking, leading people to look elsewhere for information about a company (Richard did make a point that the research looked more at company information for considering stock purchases, for example, than at information for consumer-level purchase decisions).

Secondly, as outlined in my 2011 trends presentation, search strategies are becoming increasingly important to digital activities – not just from a content development perspective but at a strategic, cross-channel level.

Thirdly, the lines around “social media” are becoming blurred. For example, company websites may make a resurgence, as companies integrate the social graph into their owned media (see Etsy, Levi’s (client) for example). Does that count as social media? Is the Huffington Post a blog or a news site? It’s not a black and white distinction.

Fourthly, there’s much more to social media than just reaching consumers. Key influencers, stakeholders and mainstream media can all be engaged through these channels.

Social media needs to mature

This all speaks to a broader need for a more mature approach to social media. It’s not enough to just be there any more – those times have come and gone (good riddance). It’s not enough to just tweet something out and expect everyone to believe it. It’s certainly not enough to let your social media channels operate in a corporate silo, detached from other communications functions.

To continue to approach social media in this immature way is a recipe for failure.

It’s time for a more mature approach to social media and trust – one that integrates different media forms; one that engages people over the long term and one that takes a more considered approach to generating trust among audiences.

What do you think?

Here’s the executive summary of this year’s results. Take a look for yourself, and tell me – what are the stand-out results for you?

(Updated thanks to some thoughtful input from Daniel Blouin in the comments below)

  • For me the major takeaway is an inherent problem with the survey – specifically the “informed publics” who were polled. From the final page of the Slideshare above:

    All informed publics met the following criteria: college-educated; household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week.

    It’s good that Edelman is open about their methodology in this way, but we can’t use these results to draw meaningful conclusions about Canadians as a whole. About half of Canadians have a post-secondary degree, so you’re excluding a minimum of half the population right there. By definition the top quartile of income excludes 75% of Canadians, so even if you assume that every person in the top quartile of income in their age group is at least a college graduate (and that would be an incorrect assumption in many cases), you’re at most drawing on a sample of one quarter of Canadians. That’s hardly a proper, representative random sampling.

    You might be able to say that the findings are representative of higher-income, college-educated Canadians (although with sample sizes of 2 x 200 the margin of error would be significant) but this also raises important questions about the findings – is it unreasonable to think that college-educated, higher-income Canadians would be more trusting of business or banks than the rest of the population? Is it unreasonable to think they’d be more embracing of new media and technology rather than relying on broadcast for information? I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all, and it might go some way toward explaining some of the findings.

    It’s important to take this for what it is – data on a specific segment of the population – without drawing broader conclusions about what it means for Canada as a whole. There’s just not enough there to do that.

    • Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment – I looped back in with my colleagues on this to get some clarification.

      You’re right – it is important to understand that the purpose of the Edelman Trust Barometer® has never been to measure general population.

      Since its inception in 2001, the Trust Barometer has studied a distinct subset of the population called the “informed publics” audience, which tends to be more regularly attuned to business news and information and, as we have observed, likely to act on its beliefs (either through purchase behavior or spreading “word-of-mouth”), adopt an opinion or action earlier, and take steps to influence outward (to other publics within the general population).

      The Trust Barometer survey is conducted among “informed publics” defined as those who have at least a college education, have a household income in the upper quartile of their country for their age group (25-34 or 35-64), pay close attention to business news and information and follow public policy issues closely. Given the strict screening criteria that respondents must meet to qualify as an Informed Public, the sample pool decreases accordingly. Therefore, the sample size of 200 is robust and statistically significant for this audience.

      Given the above, though, I’m editing the post accordingly to make sure it doesn’t refer to “Canadians” in general.

      Cheers!

      Dave

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  • This is so great that I had to comment.

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  • Very true! But i think I have an optimistic point of view in terms of Mature Social Media. I am noticing that as time goes on we are seeing more and more transparency within businesses and the news. I remember back in the 90’s when everything was like the wild wild west and we did not have very good B.S filters.
    Now the world will call you out on your B.S… with reviews, ratings and so on. 
    Yes companies try to write their own reviews. But I think the technology, for example Yelp is getting smarter on filtering out fake comments… 

    Let me know your thoughts.
    Ryan M.
    http://www.maturesocialmedia.com