George MacDonald said, "To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved."
Nowhere is this truer than in the online world. With consumer engagement at a premium, it's usually a knock-down-drag-out fight for brands and marketers to merely grab eyeballs -- let alone build a trusted, ongoing relationship with digital consumers.
Current logic tells us that in order to foster the kind of trust that develops into long-term value, brands must be credible, authoritative, genuine, and truly empathetic to user interest and points of view. In short, a brand has to become a friend.
Or does it?
A recent study raises the question: Should brands aspire to be like their customers' "friends"? (Full disclosure: The study was published by my company, nRelate.) The research revealed that brands focused on content marketing might want to think twice: A whopping 76 percent of online consumers say they do not seek guidance from Facebook friends when it comes to web content worth checking out.
The same study found that users rely on both algorithms and brands more heavily for content recommendations than they do their own social networks. While researching topics online, users are most likely to click on search results (48 percent), followed by recommended links at the bottom of the article they've just read (28 percent), as opposed to links found on Facebook (8 percent). This suggests that while peer-to-peer content sharing is at an all time high, the frequency of actually clicking on and digesting peer recommended content is not.
But what does drive consumers to click on content -- be it on Facebook or anywhere on the web?
According to the study, most consumers are drawn to content focused on local and national news, as well as entertainment, and appear to gravitate toward follow-on articles once they finish a text story, as opposed to switching gears and clicking on a video (only 15 percent). That said, an article with a compelling image grabs attention. Thirty-nine percent of online consumers said they would be more likely to click on an article if there was an image associated with it.
But quality is ultimately key, as most content marketers know, and this might be where our Facebook "friends" have some work to do. Consumers associate the following attributes to high quality content: The source is already known in the offline world (60 percent), includes images (24 percent), and includes an author image and byline (23 percent).
Sure, our friends are "known" on Facebook. That is, we are aware of their true identities, but the original source of the content often isn't known. This finding might also reflect the true consumer perception of the primary value of social networks: a platform for connecting and communicating with friends (vs. a robust engine for content discovery).
On the flipside, the study reveals that brands rank much higher on the trust food chain when it comes to recommending content -- even in channels perceived to be somewhat archaic. Case in point: More than half (51 percent) of consumers say they read and click on content pushed to them via email newsletters from brands they trust. Again, that's compared to only 8 percent of respondents who say they're likely to click on content shared via Facebook friends. The difference is pretty staggering.
It gets more interesting as consumers move down the purchase funnel. When it comes to purchase decisions, consumers say they trust content from a brand or manufacturer's website (44 percent), an article discovered through a search engine (31 percent), an expert on the product (28 percent), or a mainstream news site (20 percent) more than they do content posted by a friend on a social network (10 percent).
This data belies big opportunities for brand marketers who view and invest in content marketing as a strategic advantage. It's clear that brands have a bigger head start in building trust than perhaps anyone realized, while exposing cracks in the theory that social networks are all powerful when influencing consumer behavior.
More than anything, marketers should look at this as a push to really get moving on a content strategy, designed to not only justify, but also build on this existing trust with consumers.
Quality content that informs, inspires, and entertains should be your lynchpin. Some good reminders:
Neil Mody is CEO of nRelate.
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