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Peer-to-Peer Branding Losing Credibility

Posted on 2.22.2010

In a recent survey by marketing firm Edelman, it was revealed that consumers are losing trust in each other, when it comes to providing credible information about companies. In fact, confidence dropped by nearly half, since 2008. In 2008, 45 percent said that friends and peers are credible sources of information about companies. In 2010, that number fell to 25 percent. Trust has evaporated in other categories, too. TV news dropped more than 20 percent, and newspapers dropped about 20 percent. The reason this is significant to Web professionals is that many businesses have put faith in social media to help them market their brands - a place that, in the traditional view, relies on peer-to-peer branding. We've seen evidence of many businesses shifting significant portions of their marketing budgets to social media based on presumptions of the value of social sharing. Many will surely see this as a significant cloud over their social marketing initiatives. There is a very bright silver lining. But first, let's examine why consumers' trust in each other might be fading.

The significant "noise" in social media. The more active users become in social media, the more noise they encounter. More friends means more updates, more followers means more links to click, and so on. Facebook, for example, is a prime culprit. How many Farmville updates have you seen recently? While a game, it is absolutely a brand. And, it is quite easy for friends to assume any other "brand speak" falls into this "nonsense" category.

Payola. Related to branding messages and Farmville on Facebook, the concept of "payola" has been introduced to social media. Many companies give away freebies in exchange for a branded status update or tweet. Very quickly, this can erode confidence in friends and their updates. It also diminishes any future updates from friends about a brand, even if it's entirely altruistic.

Seeding. Companies have long been "seeding" posts, ratings, reviews and forums about their businesses. This might be anything from a forged Yelp review to a Twitter or Facebook update from an employee of the company. Businesses have encouraged employees to utilize their networks to promote the brand. It appears to be backfiring.

And it all comes down to ... marketers doing their jobs. Directed to build friends and followers, and acting like consumers have taken its toll, according to the Edelman report. Company employees lost trust too, from 31 percent down to 28 percent. Social networkers used to revolt against brands on social media. Now they just ignore them. This seemingly adverse condition, however, is precisely where companies can take advantage of the "ownership" of brands on social networks, by conveying their own messages directly to consumers and letting it stand on its own merit.

In the same Edelman study, CEOs saw the biggest increase, from 17 percent trust in 2009, to 26 percent trust this year. Why? In part, because of social media. As businesses have come to embrace social media, they have become more accessible. And, accessibility leads to trust. Think about a few big brands: Sprint's CEO did a series of TV commercials, and Papa John's has had wild success with images of its CEO driving and delivering pizzas to "regular Joe" consumers. And no matter what your opinion on Barack Obama, he is easily one of the most accessible Presidents of all time, largely due to the office's engagement in social media and the ability for anyone with an Internet connection to reach out and be heard.

The point is this: Social media might be less trusted than before and friends might not be seen as the most reliable sources of business information - and that's not a bad thing. The opportunity is there for brands to take control in a space typically viewed as uncontrollable. The best social media marketer in your company might be your CEO. Consider a weekly update, blog post or tweet coming directly from your CEO. This is not to suggest that a CEO should try to hawk a product on Facebook. The normal rules of social media still apply. But this is an excellent opportunity to connect a brand's highest authority with its consumers, gain trust, and possibly even get a message spread across a network from a most trusted source.

Also read: Are Businesses Drinking the Social Media Kool-Aid?

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