Do you trust a virtual handshake?

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This is the sixth in a series of posts that Don Bulmer and I will publish over the next few weeks, highlighting the more significant findings from The New Symbiosis of Professional Networks study that we recently conducted as part of our fellowship with The Society for New Communications Research. Please visit both Don’s and my blog regularly for the latest analysis.




Trust is an elusive thing – we as professionals have spent a large part of our careers finding and relying upon people to help make decisions. We apply criteria when figuring out who to trust or who to believe when we are in search of information and validation. Sometimes, trust is established due to proximity – I see you often and we have built a relationship and therefore your opinion matters to me. Other times, trust is steered by expertise – I know little about a certain subject matter but believe that you know more or a lot, and therefore I seek out your point of view to inform my decision.

Trust is typically dependent upon a relationship with another and the medium by which we communicate with trusted people rarely sways the outcome – An email from a trusted colleague is not less trust-worthy than a phone call, for example as the information relayed remains the same.

Through the use of peer networks, professionals are now able to reach their trusted peers and find trusted experts more easily. Through the use of professional networks, a “stranger” – someone we don’t know – now has a visible and traceable trail of information associated with their persona. Using online networks, someone’s body of work and ideas are “out there” on the internet for the viewing over time.

Armed with curiosity about the role social media could be playing in relationship-building activities, Don and I explored how online and offline trust compares in the business arena to see if social media is being considered a trust-worthy source of information as compared to offline networks or whether people still need to shake someones hand in order to establish or support relationships. How much do people trust those that they meet online?  Can online support decision-making in similar ways as offline networking activities?  Do people trust the information they get from the social channel?  Are companies wasting time building up online referral efforts, social media influencer programs and customer communities?

The New Symbiosis for Professional Networks survey results indicate a strong increase in trust from information obtained through online and offline networks. This increase in trust can be explained as people engage more and gain comfort with online community and professional networking. These data reinforce the reality that online is not a silver bullet and that online strategies need to compliment offline activities. They go necessarily hand-in-hand. However, it is also clear that offline is strengthened by online engagement – to extend relationships and collaborate. Information obtained from offline networks still have highest levels of trust with slight advantage over online (offline: 92% – combined strongly/somewhat trust; online: 83% combined strongly/somewhat trust). 



Personally, I often consider a tweet chat or an email exchange to be a “conversation” – and experience the feeling that I “spoke” to someone even if the exchange was virtual.  Especially as a community builder – as I am facile with social tools and technologies – I often experience kinship with peers who also belong to the professional communities I belong to.  I know them because I understand their ideas, I see their background and the roads they have walked, and I experience their point of view more frequently because of the social channel than if I simply relied upon (infrequent) in-person meetings.  The interviews we conducted in support of this research reinforced this experience.  With all this in mind, I can’t help but wonder how much the lines between offline and online will continue blur over the coming years. 

The complete findings of the research can be found here.

Please visit Don blog later this week where he will discuss additional findings from the study.
 

The methodology for this study involved a mixed methods approach supported by quantitative data gathered via online survey of 356 professionals to understand their perceptions and experiences with social media in support of their decision-making. Select interviews of 12 professionals were also conducted using a semi-structured interview guide as part of the second phase of the study. Key demographics of the research include:

  • Close to a quarter (23%) of respondents identified themselves as CEO of their organization; 50% as “Director” (24%) “Manager” (24%)
  • Company size ranged from less than 100 to over 50,000 full-time employees
  • Age was well distributed with the greatest proportion in the 36-45 range
  • 25 countries were represented, with 58% of respondents living in the US
  • All respondents were either the decision makers or influenced the decision process within their company or business unit


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