It’s not a common practice of mine to comment on data that come out of a single study, but if Edelman’s Trust Barometer is accurate, grassroots (or peer-to-peer, etc.) marketing may need to be completely rethought. And honestly, if the study is truly reflective of a fundamental shift, I think it’s disturbing.
What am I talking about? Well, at the recent Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Edelman released the results from its 2011 Trust Barometer. Some of it should remain unsurprising for anyone in PR, namely that subject matter experts–in particular academics–rate very highly on a “trust” scale. A new category, “technical experts within the company,” came in second. Okay, that makes sense too, fair enough.
But what is jarring to me was the fall of “person like yourself”–this went from the number three spot in 2009 to seventh place in 2011. To be fair, the percentage of people responding to this category didn’t fall that far, going from 47 percent of the respondents down to 43 percent. What is eye-opening, and to me, disturbing, were the categories that came in ahead of “someone like me” in 2011. From the report, they were as follows: Academic or expert; Technical expert within the company; financial or industry analyst; CEO; NGO; and Government Official.
Let that sink in for a minute: people are responding that they trust a CEO or Government Official *more* than a “person like yourself.” While I’d love to think this is a shift in peoples’ understanding that perhaps on complex topics their next door neighbor’s opinion on aid to Haiti might be at a slight disadvantage to someone who has spent their careers on a problem like supply logistics to earthquake-ravaged countries, I think that Edelman’s conclusion is probably more accurate. Steve Rubel refers to it as “a devaluation of ‘friends’.”
Or, as I’ll put it: we’ve trashed the meaning of the word “friend,” and this is where it is taking us.
If Facebook (and other social channels) are exposing us to more weak-tie friends, and we have less trust in them than we do the CEO of a company, how, exactly, is Facebook peer-to-peer marketing worth anything? By the measure of this study, Facebook’s new advertising strategy is doomed to fail: it combines advertising, which no one trusts, with our “friends” whom we trust less than government officials (!).
If exposure to a broad array of people is conditioning us to trust people like us less, there are obvious implications for not only the viability of social media marketing efforts but also traditional “grassroots marketing” programs. There are also broader societal implications. If people trust their neighbors less than government officials, how are community policies changed? Building a local coalition will be much harder. Perhaps this study is an outlier–we’ll find out more next year, I suppose.
I find the results of this study rather depressing, and it makes me wonder if the potential growth of social media will retract when we decide to reclaim our friends as friends and maintain acquaintances beyond that, or if we are going to continue to collect non-friend “friends” just to bolster our egos and our Klout scores.