Peer trust plummets: Is marketing to blame?

Social networking used to be innocent, peer to peer conversation and now it's turned into a marketing playground.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor on

Global public relations firm Edelman last month published its annual Trust Barometer, in which it surveys near 5,000 "informed publics" about the state of business, buying behavior, and of course, trust. Within the study exists a well of data for marketers, but the most alarming is the significant drop in trust between peers.

As similarly called out yesterday by the good folks at HubSpot, the number of people who consider peers as credible referral resources dropped from 45 percent in 2008 to only 25 percent in 2009. Blog post author Pamela Seiple questions if there is either too much noise, or if perhaps the number of businesses taking to the social Web is creating a significant amount of skepticism.

Whether or not the stats are gospel, there is an issue of trust. Seiple is onto something that I haven't seen others yet correlate to the Edelman study. When use of the more modern social networks (i.e. Twitter and Facebook) really started to skyrocket in 2007, consumers were wide-eyed and mesmerized by the idea that a friend of a friend of a friend might have a fantastic idea for getting that wine stain out of an expensive rug. Even though online communities were old hat by this point, peer connectivity beyond particular brands and unmonitored discussions about consumer buying decisions were a bit of a new and shiny object. As Twitter especially grew in 2008 and 2009, users flocked to sign on and follow their favorite brands and interact on feedback and support issues. We salivated over the opportunity to talk directly to CEOs (i.e. Tony Hsieh). Bloggers everywhere celebrated brands for doing the most mundane social networking activities (i.e. signing up for Twitter).

Then it all changed. Marketing became more opportunistic. Consumers got smarter. Here are two of the marketing-related elements potentially to blame for the loss of peer trust:

1. Everyone's a Rock Star: People who used to be simply friends of ours are, in some circles, beginning to be considered "influencers." Influencers are privy to embargoed information, sneak peeks on products, and develop relationships with the entrepreneurs, executives and developers who are at the core of most industries. Marketing people try very hard to get these influencers, even on a small scale, to talk about products and services and tend to be very persuasive. Whether or not the influencer in question falls prey to the marketing, those in their networks often wonder if their friend's opinions were subjected to the hype.

2. Sponsored Conversations: This is a touchy area and I even spoke out about this on a panel at Blog World Expo last year. Sponsored conversations are when an organization purchases a blog post or a tweet about its service or product from an influencer. While it is now required that sponsored conversations be called out as such, and they are now being regulated to some degree, the fact that almost anyone can try to leverage a service like Izea to become a sponsored spokesperson is causing a bit of distrust. When celebrities do endorsements it isn't as suspect because we expect topical tweeting from those individuals; when our peers are taking sponsorship dollars then we start to wonder how much of their nonsponsored content might be subject to the more persuasive influence of marketing as noted above.

Neither of these changes were imperceptible; they were quite obvious. Social networking used to be innocent, peer to peer conversation and now it's turned into a marketing playground in which almost everything -- blog space, tweets and, in some cases, opinion -- is for sale.

Do you still have trust in your peers?

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