Who Do You Trust?

The Dark Knight
“And now, folks, it’s time for, “Who do you trust!” Hubba, hubba, hubba! Money, money, money! Who do you trust? Me? I’m giving away free money. And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!”
Jack Nicholson as The Joker, Batman (1989)

Remember when the Worldwide Web was just getting started?  People were saying things like “It’s interesting, but people will never buy anything online.  Who would put their credit card information online? How could you trust your money was secure?”  Or “you can’t trust online information because you don’t know where it’s coming from?”

Even today, these statements strike me as both sensible and true.  The underlying reality of the Internet hasn’t been fundamentally altered, so their rationale remains valid. Yes, companies like VeriSign have developed ways to encrypt e-commerce, but such efforts can be circumvented in a variety of ways.  Just last summer, Dan Kaminsky’s ingeniously simple DNS hack proved that even computers aren’t sure whom to trust anymore.  In case you are wondering, DNS is essentially the “phone book” of the Internet.  It’s the service that tells your computer which server is ANidea.com.  By compromising that system, Kaminsky was able to pass off any data as coming from any source.  If this vulnerability hadn’t been patched, it’s disturbingly likely the entire Internet would have collapsed.  (Thanks a lot, DAN – you could’ve ruined everything.)

And yet, back in the real world, the web’s rapid development into a social and economic juggernaut defies this logic.  The amount of money and business that changes hands online is staggeringly large. The level of detail people are willing to share about themselves would make my mother cry.

So who are we trusting?

Studies reveal that people are more willing to trust online sources than traditional media venues.  Research firm Pollara reported that 59% of people consider social media “very or somewhat important in learning about products, services, organizations, and brands.”   The same study found that more users believe online forums are a reliable source of information than don’t.  That jives well with Nielsen’s Trust in Advertising report.  They found that online consumer opinions were more trusted than the old media stalwarts like magazines, TV, and radio.  Ironically, newspapers are the last vestige of credibility.  And yet, nobody wants to buy one.  Sigh.

Neilsen Trust Hierarchy

Why is this happening?  The Edelman Trust Barometer sheds some light on the issue.

Edelman Trust Monitor

What’s noteworthy about this?   Well for starters, this study was done last year.  I wonder how well those financial/industry analysts would poll now?  Still, there’s something odd about this data.  When determining credible information about a company, people report they would rather trust someone they feel is like themselves than any number of people who might actually be in a position to know something about the company, the industry, or the issue itself! Seriously?  Whoa.

Why do we trust who we do?

Well, the effect isn’t that surprising; in fact, it’s fairly well documented.  Psychologists refer to this as the in-group bias.  This refers to the demonstrated existence of a “robust and pervasive tendency for individuals to display favoritism towards others” who they perceive to be part of their group, that is, similar to themselves.  What is surprising is what appears to be a tendency for people to assume that random people on the Internet are like themselves.  Once you strip away the physical vestiges of race, class, gender and style, people seem more than willing to assume that others they meet online are fairly similar to themselves.

Note: A large discrepancy exists between Edelmen’s study and Nielsen’s with regards to perceived trust in bloggers (Nieslen reports 61% trust bloggers, to Edelmen’s 12%).  I believe this is a case of apples vs. oranges.  The Edelman study seems to be measuring bloggers as an institution.  Bloggers as a undefined group have no credibility, anyone can blog… but once you read a blogger enough, you are much more likely to identify with and trust them.  The Nielsen study was probably measuring whether there are specific blogs respondents trusted.

The Joker wanted to know who’s more trustworthy, a man giving out free money or a man skulking in shadow?  The answer is somewhere in between.  You can’t buy someone’s trust (sorry advertisers), but it looks like you don’t need to earn it either (sorry conventional wisdom). The secret is getting people to believe that you share their perspective, that you understand their experience.

At the end of the day, the only person we trust is ourselves.

So now what?

So what’s a marketer to do?  Too often, companies behave like the Batman and skulk in the perceived safety of our office buildings.  Sure we come out for the occasional advertisement, product launch, or, perhaps, to fight the occasional crime spree but, by and large, companies tend to be pretty insular places.  That strategy hasn’t worked for Batman, and it won’t continue to work for us.  If we want to earn consumers’ trust, we have to show them that we get it — we share their pain points, we’re people just like them.

In tangible terms, this means responsible advertisements that showcase shared interests and passions.  It means being more transparent and discussing our decisions.  It means not talking only about ourselves and our products, but empathizing with our consumers. This means listening to their complaints and responding in kind.  It means embracing social media, building connections and working to empower our advocates and evangelists.

At the end of the day, digital is a medium fueled by relationships and communities. It’s up to marketers to cultivate and participate in the communities that surround their brands, ideals and causes — only then will brands acquire the vocal advocates they so desperately need to stay relevant.

After all, Batman’s reputation never hangs on what he himself does, but, rather, on what others say about him.


Nielsen’s Latest Numbers — still showing the same trend.  Amazing how high brand websites jumped.  Probably because of who’s visiting. Check out our article “Building the Maven Trap