Most of us remember the oft-quoted Edelman Trust Barometer’s 2006 finding that people trust “a person like me” the most. As a result, many businesses and marketers quickly began trying to act less like institutions and more like their customers’ friends or peers, particularly through social networking. Communicating more often and more casually became the goal. Businesses wanted their customers to see them as people like them, in order to trust them, and eventually to buy from them.

But I haven’t seen many implications drawn from this year‘s Edelman Trust Barometer finding that people now trust “an academic or expert” the most. Why the change? My guess, purely based on personal experience and discussions with friends, is that after several years of constant social networking, we’re talking to our online peers way too much about minutiae. With multiple Facebook updates, texts, and tweets daily from people we truly care about and have personal relationships with, we’re in fact drowning in a barrage of minutiae. And this is just from our real friends. To survive, we have to automatically delete all the “relevant” offers and content marketing from even the businesses we’ve opted in to, because we just don’t have time to sift through them.

In 2006, we were just discovering social networking and were craving personal connection – we trusted our peers more than anyone at that point, and certainly more than any faceless institution. But now in 2011, we seem to be craving the curation and discernment of experts, because after experiencing how little of import our peers actually have to say (if they’re talking constantly and we’re listening constantly), maybe experts aren’t as overrated as we thought.  Also, in my humble opinion, this current trend of tsunami-like e-mail marketing has taken advantage of customers’ trust. We opt-in to a mailing list of a business we’ve trusted in the past, and now this business fills our inboxes with multiple “relevant” offers or content per week – sometimes even per day. Even once a week is too often for businesses who offer products or services that I wouldn’t consider buying more than once per quarter. Trust erodes quickly in this kind of environment, because it indicates businesses either don’t know or don’t care about electronic information overload. They just shout louder or more often.

Here’s what I’d like to see happen: I’d like to see businesses act like the experts they are, instead of trying to “talk” to me multiple times a week through Facebook or Twitter or e-mail. What if a real person did this to you in order to be your friend? (Last year, unsolicited email became spam. But now even e-mail marketing lists we opt in to have become spam, because there are just too many. You may be thinking about your business all day every day, but your customers aren’t.) Being a credible, professional expert first is the only way we can develop the trust needed to become friends, and for me to trust more frequent communication from you. But it’s really OK if we only ever stay business partners and never become friends. Those relationships are valuable too.

Most people trying to find a trustworthy product or service provider go to the Internet to search for credible experts – when they need it. And these credible experts usually prove their credibility by putting their expertise front and center as professionals. Content marketing is right on the money if it’s organized by customer need and downloadable online, when customers need it and thus search for it. (I’d even pay for it, if it was from a trusted source and had discernible value in helping me make a good purchasing decision in an objective way. If businesses’ truly put their expertise in terms of customer needs, they could even become quite credible publishers. But that’s another post.) But if businesses’ expertise is split up into a myriad surface bits and sent to my inbox several times a week, it just becomes noise.

Businesses who behave like the calm professional experts that they are, allowing me to find them through search and a recommendation by a trusted and credible source, will get my business every time. And it might even be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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