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?