The Skinny on the Trusting of Strangers in Social Media


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It seems a little strange. In the physical world we seem increasingly suspicious of strangers. Yet, there is growing evidence that in the online social media world, we are increasingly find strangers trustworthy and are influenced by their opinions.
Here are the highlights from a Universal McCann study of 17,000 Internet Users from 29 countries. To be included in the study one had to be an active internet user—meaning they used the Internet at least every other day. That would include over 90% of my friends.

  • There has been a massive increase in the use of social media since 2006. It varies by the vehicle (blogs, social networking etc.) with doubling of participation very common and 4x increases being observed.
  • There has been a steady shift from passive participation to active creators of content. Writing blogs has risen from 28% to 44%; creating a social network page has grown from 27% to 57% and uploading a video clip from 10% to 42%. People are not just getting influenced by others, they are becoming influencers.
  • Personal experience and the personal experience of someone you trust are the main motivators for sharing opinions about products and brands. In spite of some folk lore, good experiences are more important motivators than bad experiences in getting someone to share opinions online.
  • Peer reviews are just as influential as professional content and product comparison sites.
  • The top four trusted forms of recommendations are all direct conversations: personal recommendations from friends/family; personal recommendation from a professional; emails from a trusted colleague; instant messenger from a friend or colleague. Not everything online is trusted: emails from companies are only marginally more trusted than celebrity recommendations that ranks at the bottom.
  • Age is assumed to be a big factor but this was simply not evident in the results. Trust of online sources did not significantly vary by age or gender. However, the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to trust the opinions of strangers.
  • A big surprise was the high levels of social commentary on what one would might have been low interest topics like utilities, financial services and groceries. The implication of this is that all products are now exposed to customer pre-purchase scrutiny.

In sum, this study adds to the growing evidence that companies must be concerned about their social media visibility. Furthermore, they must find open and credible ways to become part of the conversation.

John Todor
John I. Todor, Ph.D. is the Managing Partner of the MindShift Innovation, a firm that helps executives confront the volatility and complexity of the marketplace. We engage executives in a process that tackles two critical challenges: envisioning new possibilities for creating and delivering value to customers and, fostering employee engagement in the innovation and alignment of business practices to deliver on the new possibilities. Follow me on Twitter @johntodor


  1. Thanks for sharing this insight. Well before printing presses created mass-produced information, people shared product opinions and information–many times without distinguishing between the two. For the most part, this information was shared face-to-face, where tangible trust builders or trust breakers could be experienced: what a person looked like, the clothes he or she wore, how he spoke, whether or not there was eye contact during the discussion. Of course, little of that is possible in an online world. So what exactly makes an online stranger trustworthy if we can’t use the senses that humans have been wired to use over millions of years of evolution? In an online world, how, exactly, does trust convey between people?

    These are challenging questions that should be answered as companies invest in social media strategies, an important recommendation you make in your blog.

    In my own experience, when I read the opinions of people I don’t know online, there are some I’m more inclined to trust than others. What makes them so, I can’t totally put my finger on.

    Perhaps this is a subject for a valuable study: What facilitates trust in Social Media? If you know of any articles that definitively address this topic, I would be interested in knowing about them.

  2. Andy,

    I think you are on to an important dimension of customer generated content and influence. At this point, more reviews seem to be better, even if they include some weak or negative reviews. Here is my take on this. When reading reviews, people are trying to determine if this person is someone like themselves. They want to know if they value the same things, especially when it comes to the experience. For example, someone might review a hotel and say the hot tub was not hot enough. That might not resonant with me. Another might say the hotel is within walking distance of great restaurants and coffee house. This would resonant with me. The latter would carry weigh even if the star rating was not a five.

    On negative comments, if they are all negative then they may have an impact. If a few are negative, they can add credibility as we know not everyone like and values the same things.

    A good source for online peer influence is They are a vendor in the space but do provide a list of research and statistics on what is happening in this area.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Get With it! The Hands-on Guide to Using Web 2.0 in Your Business.


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