NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Whom do we increasingly trust less? Us.
It's a finding that strikes at the foundation of many a social-media marketing philosophy: Tapping into peer-to-peer networks is a way for marketers to tell authentic, credible stories to consumers whose confidence in corporate CEOs, news outlets, government officials and industry analysts has taken a beating. But according to Edelman's latest Trust Barometer, the number of people who view their friends and peers as credible sources of information about a company dropped by almost half, from 45% to 25%, since 2008.
WHOM DO YOU TRUST? Edelman's barometer
"The events of the last 18 months have scarred people," Mr. Edelman said. "People have to see messages in different places and from different people. That means experts as well as peers or company employees. It's a more-skeptical time. So if companies are looking at peer-to-peer marketing as another arrow in the quiver, that's good, but they need to understand it's not a single-source solution. It's a piece of the solution."
Consumers are a distrustful bunch in general -- the credibility of TV dropped 23 points and radio news and newspapers were down 20 points between 2008 and 2010.
And when asked how credible they deemed the information they get about a company when a "person like yourself" serves as a spokesperson the numbers again dropped. This year 39% of those surveyed felt the messages conveyed by consumer spokespeople was credible compared to 45% in 2009, the biggest drop-off among all categories.
Conversely, CEOs -- who have of late been trotted out as public faces of their companies in times of stress, such as General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre -- saw the biggest year-over-year increase from 17% in 2009 to 26% this year. Other groups seeing increases in the level of consumer trust were government officials (22% vs. 27%), a financial/industry analyst (46% vs. 52%), NGO representative (42% vs. 44%) and academic experts (61% vs. 64%). The only other group to see the credibility of their word diminish was company employees, which saw a drop of three points (31% vs. 28%).
If consumers stop believing what their friends and the "average Joes" appearing in testimonials say about a product or company, the implications could be significant not just for marketers but for the social networks and word-of-mouth platforms selling themselves as solutions to communicating in a jaded world. The influence of peers has been considered the leading rationale for brands' shifting marketing dollars to social media.
In some cases, social networks themselves may be contributing to the decline in trust. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed people to maintain larger circles of casual associates, which may be diluting the credibility of peer-to-peer networks. In short, the more acquaintances a person has, the harder it can be to trust him or her. Mr. Edelman believes the Facebook component has "absolutely" played a role in diluting trust levels.
A changed game
"When you're seeing so much noise, it's very easy to dismiss a lot of it, and that's a problem marketing messages have had for a while now," said David Berkowitz, director-emerging media for 360i. "Facebook really exemplifies this with the live-feed and news-feed options," he said. "If you use the live feed and have a few hundred friends, some kind of peer recommendation, whether it's explicit or not, appears every couple of minutes and sometimes they come in a matter of seconds. If you're seeing all of that come in, it can be overwhelming."
Not surprisingly, Paul Rand, president-CEO of Omnicom Group's Zocalo Group and president of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, said word-of-mouth is more effective than ever. But he does concede the game has changed.
"The mind-set is no longer 'I can just trust it because it's somebody's opinion,'" he said. "It's, 'I can trust that specific opinion because it's someone I know.'"
Another potential reason? People have caught on to the fact marketers are increasingly behind that influential blog post or tweet. Despite regulations regarding disclosure of marketer-driven efforts, consumers may feel that whatever it is these people are receiving from companies positively influences their endorsements.
Christina Smedley, global head of Edelman's consumer practice, said there is still a core group of influencers that can change how people trust and influence the actions of others. And consumers, whether they are close to them or not, will follow their lead.
"There are ... consumers who still only trust the people they see every day or their 120 friends on Facebook," Ms. Smedley said. "But there are those that trust all 380 of their friends on Facebook. And there's opportunity for brands with both groups. If marketers can find those action consumers, they can build campaigns that work through their parameters and get some very good results."