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02/22/2010 When it comes to studies on trust, trust no one.

 Social media is ushering in a new era of word-of-mouth marketing where we trust people we know more than ever, right? It’s shifting control from experts and brands to consumers, isn’t it?

Not if you believe a couple of recent studies around trust and word of mouth marketing. And these numbers show a drastic shift from less than a year ago. It raises a question, for me anyway, of what are these numbers really saying? Can we all be so wrong? Or can things really change that quickly?

Let’s start with last year. Neilsen released a study showing that personal connections and recommendations trumped most other advertising. In June 2009, they said people greatly trust online opinions and recommendations from people they know.


Then, in February 2010, Edelman’s Trust Barometer showed that we trust people like us less than we did in 2009! To add insult to injury, a study this week by Opinion Research showed that people trust information from social media, which should include Facebook, Twitter and Blogs, less than anything else.

Confused? I sure am. Especially since the latter survey still says people trust personal advice from people they know over every other category. Which jives with the Neilsen study but not Edelman’s.

As any good statistician can tell you, you can make numbers do just about anything. So it’s important to note the differences (as far as I can tell) in the studies.

Nielsen measured trust in advertising. They include word of mouth and online reviews. Those still rank higher than things like TV ads or other paid media.  They didn’t include earned media (PR). Edelman seemed to talk most about a company’s financial reputation, rather than a consumer reputation. That’s why there were categories for financial experts. And it might make sense that you’d trust a personal opinion about a company’s financial position less than you would an expert.

The last study seemed a little all over the place. And until we see some more data, it’s hard to understand what they’re saying.

Right now there’s a lot of attention on social media. And it’s still growing. Those are numbers few argue with. The best thing to do with all of these studies is to remember a few things:
  • Take them all with a grain of salt
  • Understand that they’re not starting from the same place with the same questions
  • Contradictory information may make sense in the context of each unique study
  • What the studies say and how the media report them is not always the same thing
Finally, to paraphrase the tag line from the X Files: When it comes to studies on Trust, Trust no one.


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