Let’s get down to the big question: Why should people buy your stuff, instead of the other guy’s? Because as the saying goes, people do business with people they know, like, and trust. You and the guy down the street might sell the same widget, but you’ll have the edge if your customers have confidence in your brand.
Organizations establish brand trust over time by establishing a history of perceived reliability and positive brand association. Unlike with brand loyalty, your audience doesn’t have to have made a purchase to regard your brand as trustworthy; they may have formed their opinions based on lifelong positive brand exposure through advertising and social proof — recommendations from respected personal or professional contacts, or influencer endorsements. When it’s time to make the purchase, it’s that emotional connection that triggers the conversion.
Social proof: Basking in the glow of the “halo effect”
Today’s consumers rely more on word of mouth and peer behavior than on traditional advertising when evaluating future purchases. During the decision-making stage of the buyer’s journey, they’ll visit third-party review sites, solicit advice, watch product demonstration videos, and consume content on the brand websites and social media feeds. When they see people enjoying or supporting your products or services, they vicariously experience that glow of satisfaction.
“On-page” social proof
Your website visitors want to see customer logos and testimonials, certification and award badges, case studies, and media mentions. These credentials position your brand as a low-risk, high-reward investment, and increase the likelihood your audience will convert to paying customers. Positive feedback posted directly on your social media pages also qualifies as on-page social proof, as do the likes and follows generated by your content.
Speaking of content, collaborative marketing efforts let you borrow trust from reputable, non-competing brands with overlapping audiences. Exchanging guest posts with your strategic partners, for example, enhances your brand authority and introduces you to new, qualified prospects — and vice-versa.
On-page social proof extends to other branded media, including packaging and ads. If a famous author in your genre writes an introduction for your book, she boosts that book’s value and elevates your brand as an author.
Social proof “in the wild”
Unsolicited endorsements by your brand’s consumers, whether or not they’re intentional, are often called “off-page social proof.” Once your audience is aware of your brand, they’re more likely to notice when mentions pop up in social media, or they encounter it in their daily lives. If you’ve ever shopped for a new car, you’ll suddenly see your top pick everywhere. That’s how brand awareness works. When you identify with the people driving that model and allow that comparison to support your purchasing decision, that’s off-page social proof in action.
If you’re searching Google for local restaurant recommendations, will you pick the barbecue joint with four stars out of 30 reviews, or the sushi bar with a single, five-star review? Assuming you’re hungry for either (and you’re not feeling particularly adventurous), you’ll probably pick the former — even if there are a few outlying bad reviews. I’ll touch on the importance of reviews later, and how third-party review sites are among your best opportunities for building brand trust.
“Our online influencer survey of 18-to-34- year-olds found that 63 percent trust what influencers say about a brand more than what the brand says about itself. In addition, who are the top three most trusted spokespeople for a brand message? People like me, experts and company employees – more authentic and relatable voices.”— Edelman’s Amada Glasgow, “How Brands Can Earn Trust“
Among the most compelling off-page social proof is user-generated content. Unboxing videos, photos of customers interacting with your product, and online communities in which customers can share their experiences with one another — and with prospects in the decision-making phase — offer the next-best thing to firsthand experience.
Your business blog content is another means of generating off-page social proof. When your audience shares, likes, or pins your content on their own feeds, they’re letting their connections know it’s worth checking out. Backlinks to your blog articles, brand mentions on other sites, and quotes attributed to you and your associates improve SEO (essentially Google’s take on social proof) and cement your thought leadership role.
The more your audience witnesses its peer groups and favorite influencers positively and organically interacting with your brand, the more clout you earn. Effective digital marketing strategies use your audience’s preferred channels and media to deliver engaging, authoritative, and shareable content.
Blurring the lines between social trust, social proof, and brand trust
These three terms are often confused, but social trust is a term used by social scientists to describe the fragile bonds, mores, and rules that shape interpersonal behavior, communities, economies, and political landscapes at every scale. That’s the cheat sheet answer. If competency and reliability earn brand trust, social trust requires that brand to have a positive impact on the world that’s unrelated to the bottom line, and a commitment to transparency so consumers can make informed purchasing decisions based on their own values.
Citing information from its 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer data, the world’s largest public relations firm reported that “68 percent of respondents said that when a brand earns their full trust — across product, customer experience, and societal impact — they will buy first, stay loyal to, advocate for and defend that brand, compared to just 47 percent who trust only the product alone.”
Certification labels for fair-trade materials, organic ingredients, and ethical labor practices help boost on-site social proof, but consumers are skeptical. They read the fine print, and they’ll sniff out and turn their backs on disingenuous marketing campaigns. So if you claim to have pledged 500 employee hours to community cleanup, you’d better be ready to explain to your staff why they’re spending an entire week in August picking up dog dook at the park.
Positive engagement and trust-building through social listening
Hubspot’s Swetha Amaresan defines social listening as “the monitoring of your brand’s social media channels for any customer feedback and direct mentions of your brand or discussions regarding specific keywords, topics, competitors, or industries, followed by an analysis to gain insights and act on those opportunities.” Citing data from the social media management platform Sprout Social, Amaresan wrote, “83% of respondents like when brands respond to questions, and 68% like when brands join conversations.”
Your audience wants to hear from you, and they want to be heard. Social media interaction, including your responses to online reviews, shows that you value your customers and are willing to interact with them in an open forum. Let’s face it: No matter your product or service, you’re in the business of offering solutions and social listening lets you stay in touch with your current audience. In return, you’ll have insights that help you improve your brand and predict and prepare for future customer needs.
Character building begins with your target audience
How can you earn your customers’ trust if you don’t understand their values? You may have heard of the buyer persona — a fictionalized version of the consumer you want to attract — fleshed out from research-based data. Where does she work and live? What are her spending habits? What problems does she need to solve, and what are her priorities as she seeks solutions? You’ll definitely want to know about her peer group and preferred social media channels, and how she prefers to consume information: Video, infographics, downloadable content, podcasts, or blogs?
Fine-tune your content to suit your buyer persona, and she’ll be more receptive to your message. Be sure to create personas for different market segments and stages in the purchasing cycle.
Trust-building strategies and best practices
How do you use digital marketing to build brand trust? That depends on your brand, budget, industry, and buyer persona. Here are a few ideas scalable to businesses of any size and scope.
Be authentic! Customers want to do business with brands whose values reflect their own, and as with any relationship, trust is earned. Don’t underestimate your audience’s sixth sense for fakery — Millennials are the most formidable consumer generation, and they came of age in an era of social distrust.
Consider compensated endorsements or “shout-outs” by social media influencers, celebrities, or other industry authorities. If this sounds like a direct contradiction to my previous point, don’t worry: Your audience knows you’re paying for the exposure, and they even expect it; they’re interested in what’s being said. Still, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a disclaimer, and you want to make sure your new spokesperson truly enjoys your product. If you’re exploring influencer marketing, do your homework; selecting and negotiating with the right influencer can be tricky, and that’s an understatement.
Solicit unpaid reviews from satisfied customers: “Perhaps the most commonly used form of social proof is the customer testimonial. According to research done by Nielsen, 92% of people will trust a recommendation from a peer, and 70% of people will trust a recommendation from someone they don’t even know.” — OptinMonster’s Jacinda Santora. Most customers are happy to send in a review if you ask, but get permission to use any identifying information before you publish their endorsement. While you’re at it, ask for a high-quality profile picture to include in the review, or…
Curate user-generated content on your website or social media channels, and encourage your customers to record and share honest reviews about your brand. Ask your customers to answer questions or address specific product features. If you’re reminded of “old-school” focus groups, you’re on the right track but remember, you’re not the only one gathering data!
Use social listening tools to keep track of brand mentions, especially those on review sites. Treat negative or lukewarm feedback as an opportunity to demonstrate integrity and willingness to empathize with and solve customers’ problems. You might not change that particular reviewer’s mind, but you’ll win the hearts of those who are paying attention.
Introduce your staff to your audience with on-site bios and professional headshots. Your customers feel more comfortable when they can identify with the person on the other end of a call, text, or e-mail exchange.
Collaborate with thought leaders in related industries for content sharing, social media shout-outs, and cross-marketing opportunities. Seek out guest posting opportunities with industry associations, including those adjacent to (but compatible with) your own industry.
Consider building a user community on a free or paid platform. If hiring a professional community manager is beyond your means, recruit skilled moderators from your user base.
Map out an editorial calendar, and commit to generating original blog content, infographics, and downloadable content such as e-books and white papers. Be sure your content is factual, entertaining, informative, on-brand, and most of all, relevant to your audience!
Promote your content across all your social media outlets, including LinkedIn, Medium, Quora, and Reddit. Be sure to follow platform and community guidelines, as users can judge “spammers” quite harshly.
Develop a distinct brand voice and character that’s relatable to your audience. There’s a lot of overlap between authority and approachability, so find the sweet spot that gives your audience the confidence to convert!
Maintain consistency with your branding across all media and interpersonal interactions so your customers know what to expect. Reliability and trust go hand-in-hand.
Need to work on your trust issues? Ask for professional help!
All this talk about social proof and brand trust might bring up some anxiety. It sounds like a lot of work, with a narrow margin of error, but you’re not in it alone. A reputable digital agency will help you plan and manage a comprehensive branding campaign, or you can lean on specialists to handle any or all of your content creation, social media presence, reputation management, and website development and design. And don’t forget to choose a contact management system because once you earn your customers’ trust, you’ve got to work hard to keep it — But that’s a topic for another day.