Public trust in an election year is often in short supply. But this year in particular, the public's faith in a range of public and private institutions and their leaders seems to be evaporating. The Edelman Trust Barometer annually surveys public trust in a range of institutions including government, business, and the media, as well as key players -- identified as government officials, business leaders, employees, and "a person like me."
Not surprisingly, given the economic and political uncertainties of the past few years, this year's sample group shows a sharp increase in the general level of distrust over the previous year. Distrust in government reached a particularly high level: In 17 of the 25 countries surveyed, less than half of the respondents trust that their governments will "do what is right."
But public distrust of business also grew last year. In particular, trust in CEOs fell 12 points, the biggest drop in nine years. In fact, the survey found that only 8 percent of audiences trust what companies say about themselves.
For most brands, and particularly for marketing and advertising managers, the question of who the public trusts is not a trivial matter. The answer will certainly have a big impact on both how and where advertising dollars are spent in the months and even years to come.
Who influences purchase decisions?
So, who does the public believe in? Who or what does the public turn to for credible information that can influence purchase decisions when faith in public and private institutions is fading fast? Clearly, it's not the brands themselves. The Edelman report makes it clear that when companies claim good things about their products or services, 92 percent of audience members are not convinced. One clue may be found in the sharp rise in trust respondents place in social media.
In an age when authority is increasingly dispersed, it's not surprising to learn that peer groups have assumed a greater role as a credible source of information for many people. In fact, the category of "a person like me" has emerged as one of the three most trustworthy sources of information about a company. According to the Edelman survey, peer groups experienced the biggest jump in trust since 2004. Following close behind peers are "employees," which saw a similarly dramatic increase over last year's result.
How important are the opinions of peers or employees? Edelman found that when either of these groups provide feedback or endorse a product or service, 65 percent and 50 percent of respondents would find their opinions "extremely credible" or "very credible."
Peer endorsements spread relatively slowly 20 years ago. Word of mouth was the most common vector. Now, of course, things are a little different. Social media sites have greatly amplified the power, speed, and reach of peer opinions. On Facebook alone, Mashable estimates that 250 million photos are uploaded per day. That's about 6 billion per month.
User-generated content (UGC) encompasses the torrent of images, video clips, comments, and information created and circulated throughout the web every minute of every day. As such, it has become an increasingly attractive tool for brands that want to harness its potential power to persuade and influence consumers. For brands, UGC represents one of the few credible sources of information still recognized by the public: "people like me."
Given the potential for UGC to motivate and influence consumers, it is not surprising that Facebook recently announced plans to redirect its advertising platform away from winning "likes" and toward something it calls Sponsored Stories. Sponsored Stories, sometimes referred to as "consumer-initiated advertising," consist of advertising campaigns built around UGC that deliver a consumer-focused social experience. Sponsored Stories leverage UGC in the form of Facebook posts to help create compelling, credible ads. They represent a powerful new approach to advertising because they incorporate authentic user content and are inherently scalable.
But what about brands that don't choose to advertise on Facebook? How can they leverage UGC to create meaningful and credible campaigns promoting their products and services? What options are available to them for engaging with consumers and creating the kinds of "social conversations" that will attract useful UGC?
Social conversations without Facebook
For some advertisers, the solution lies in creating customized solutions housed in dedicated micro sites. Pepsi's "Refresh," Toyota's "Camry Effect," and Western Union's "Thanks-a-Thousand" are just a few examples of many campaigns aimed at engaging consumers and encouraging them to contribute their content. The challenge with this approach is both the high cost and time required to build the site. It is also impossible to know, in advance, if the selected campaign will resonate with audiences until the site is actually activated. By that point, of course, the money is spent and the course is set.
Another, more flexible option is to use a cloud-based platform, which can deliver the same high quality social engagement to the brand's website via customized iFrames. With the help of an automated setup tool, this approach allows brands to rapidly launch a series of social conversations through their own websites at a much lower cost and in a shorter time frame. Either way, brands can engage with consumers and capture valuable and credible content that can be woven into follow-on campaigns.
Building a successful campaign
What are the critical elements that will spell the difference between a successful and a floundering social conversation aimed at gathering UGC?
- Choose topics carefully. A social conversation should inspire participation. Topics can range from self-centered to the altruistic. Encourage people to share what they like about your product or service and how it has affected their lives.
- Enable your audience. Provide opportunities for self-expression through content, comments, and votes for favorite submissions.
- Curate, don't control. Start the conversation, and then step back. Influence the discussion by selecting content to be "featured," but resist the temptation to direct things.
- Encourage sharing. Create links and incentives for participants to share their content with their friends across other social platforms. Select content that is particularly impactful, and give it the chance to go viral.
- Encourage competition. Award prizes, bragging rights, or other forms of recognition for those who win the most votes. Adding gamesmanship can increase the fun factor. Make it more about entertainment than advertisement.
- Get the word out. Social conversations don't take place in a vacuum. Repurpose part of your advertising to tell the public about this opportunity. Start with your fan base and build from there.
- Don't stop. Social engagement built around user content should be an ongoing process. Keep it fresh by imposing a time frame on each conversation and introducing new topics on a regular basis.
It's often said that consumers are better brand advocates than the brands themselves. Social media and UGC represent two of the few remaining sources of information that consumers are prepared to trust when it comes to making purchasing decisions. Brands would do well to follow Facebook's lead and start a series of their own social conversations with consumers aimed at capturing this powerful content for use in their future ad campaigns.
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