After Thousands of Years, Are We There Yet?: The Effect of Trust, and Offline/Online Social Media Influence, on Relationships

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In ‘Science and the Common Understanding’, written in 1953, noted theoretical physicist and ‘father of the atomic bomb’ J. Robert Oppenheimer prophesized:

“The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance — these are what may make a vast, complex, ever growing, ever changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world, nevertheless a world of human community.”

Oppenheimer anticipated, sixty years ago, pretty much what we – as humans, customers, and marketers – are experiencing today on a worldwide basis. There are many emerging trends which will influence the continuing growth and impact of social word-of-mouth, including mobile technology evolution, stronger focus on the emotional (as well as rational) elements of value, brand equity and customer relationships (even in B2B), more active inclusion of customers in branding, marketing and development decisions (advisory boards, online customer communities, etc.), and further movement away from heavy, almost exclusive use of traditional forms of advertising and promotion to those where consumers live and communicate (microblogging/Twitter, search engines, text messaging, social networking such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Digg, etc.).

The amount of coverage online social media receives is tremendous. There is a strong and disproportionate amount of attention, as a medium for companies to influence consumers and as a medium for consumers to use to communicate with each other. There is so much material on how organizations can leverage social media to manage brand perception, dialogue with customers, and increase share of wallet and share of market that it could easily be taken as conventional wisdom that ‘online social media’ is simply a surrogate term for all social media. It must be remembered, however, that offline word-of-mouth is still, by a wide margin, the most significant communication mode and driver of b2b and b2c customer decision-making, even among young people for whom mobile communication appears to be a way of life; and the results of multiple studies reinforce that continued key finding.

Companies want to be where their customers are, offline or online. Online, customers have been sending increasingly strong signals that they will be using social applications, such as Twitter and YouTube, to communicate about vendor experiences. Customers want to be able to access whatever information they want, whenever they want, and wherever they want; and companies will need to harvest and analyze data for patterns and themes using computer-aided qualitative analysis software, such as text mining and cloud techniques.

In this time of Xbox, Wii, HD, PDAs, iPads and sophisticated, smart cell phones, the Internet is the acknowledged great, central enabler of social media. Nothing during our lifetime has so influenced the way people live their lives as the Internet. Brand marketers, especially those representing food and drink products and consumer packaged goods, have dramatically increased their word-of-mouth marketing spending, especially online. They are actively creating new communities of product and service users, whose principal purpose is to spread the word and, hopefully, influence consumer behavior. Even so, word-of-mouth, through online social media, remains a fraction of the overall advertising and marketing budget.

A phalanx of consulting organizations has evaluated the role of the Internet in our day to day existence, and, at the same time, creating major sea changes in traditional media channels. One such study was recently completed by Fleishman-Hillard, a major public relations firm. Their study is particularly important in that it represented 48% of the global online population, with respondents in France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, China, and Japan. Fleishman-Hillard evaluated influence; however, their definition of influence was not impact on purchase behavior, but the amount of time consumers spend on each communications medium and the degree of importance each medium has in their daily lives, particularly in their perceptions and attitudes.

Their study revealed several key insights, including:

– Though digital communications dominate in terms of its use as a medium of conveying information (roughly twice that of television, and ten times that of print media), relatively little is spent in real marketing dollars. As consumers continue to shift their methods of communication, companies will need to rebalance their media mix so that it is more aligned with what customers are doing.

– Asia is on the march as a digital power. Chinese use of the Internet has seen significant increase over the past few years. At 330 million users, they now represent an entity larger than the population of the United States. Combined with India, the Internet-using population is over 500 million (and is expected to grow by over 700 million by 2015, according to a McKinsey study). In addition to their numbers, Chinese Internet users are different as well, with much heavier researching, and expression of personal views through online social media.

– Malaysia, however, wins top prize for Internet use, especially where social media are concerned: though the country has only 15 million Internet users, this represents almost 60% of the population (and McKinsey forecasts that this will rise to 25 million, or 80% of the population by 2015). Malaysians are active users of social media sites and instant messaging, consuming 35% more digital media than Internet users in China and 150% more than those in India. India, with only 7 percent of the population having Internet access, is anticipated to grow to 28 percent penetration by 2015; and they are heavy users of email and downloaded videos and music.

Digital communications impact decision-making, especially its facility as a resource to compare options, and to identify expert and peer advice which creates greater confidence. Especially important here is the role of search engines, which often serve as information research launching points.

Online information-sharing is also coming to be seen as somewhat dangerous. As more and more people use online social media and generate content, over half of the respondents in Fleishman-Hillard’s study felt that people share too much personal information online, and over one-fifth felt that expressing personal opinions online could have a negative effect on their reputation, career, or financial well-being.

Trust was identified as a particularly critical social media issue. It’s one of the key reasons why mass, ‘push’ advertising and promotional communication is something of the past. Consumers no longer trust information shoveled at them through a few large channels, and are far more interested in retrieving content from sources that they select and cross-checking for accuracy. Though there is increased usage of online postings to glean information on the experiences of others, there is also increasing skepticism. The Fleishman-Hillard study found that 39% believe it is safe to communicate with others online, but 19% felt it was unsafe to do so. We can conclude that, insofar as online dialogue is concerned, consumers are ‘cautiously trusting’.

So, paraphrasing Oppenheimer, in this expanding world of human community, where technology makes vast amounts of information available to anyone at any time, any company’s current and potential customers will be increasingly sensitive to the level of honesty, objectivity, and transparency represented in all content as they gather knowledge and make decisions. What we are all looking for is sincerity, or genuineness. The word sincerity, by the way, comes from the Latin root ‘sincerus’, or without necessity of a wax seal on a transactional contract between supplier and customer. Sincerity is at the core of trust creation.

Stripping away the effects of technological advances as Oppenheimer saw them, nothing much has really changed in the building of trust and value between vendor and customer in thousands of years. ‘Humanness’ endures. Personally, I find that very reassuring.

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