Finding: We Now Trust Each Other Less

Global PR firm Edelman put out its annual “Trust Barometer” last week, but I’m only getting to it now. It measures trust in brands, companies, CEOs and various media, among other things. One of the other things it asks about is how much we trust our peers.

What the most recent findings show is that since 2008 trust in friends/peers has dropped from 45% to 25%. As you also can see from the graphic below, trust has dropped in TV, radio and newspapers. AdAge summarizes and discusses the findings.

Graphic: AdAge

The interesting question is whether the rise of social networking online has in any way caused this decline, because it certainly coincides with the growth of social media. Edelman CEO Richard Edelman is paraphrased in the AdAge piece, saying that “consumers have to see and hear things in five different places before they believe it.” That’s probably not literal but means consumers need confirmation/validation of some fact or idea before they’ll accept it — no single source will do.

The findings cast doubt on the efficacy of social media as a stand-alone marketing strategy (nobody ever said it was). However, the notion that somebody on Twitter or Facebook says something or recommends something and means automatic acceptance by peers is clearly wrong. Companies that are seeking to cultivate peer or viral marketing via social nets need to be mindful of this.

Isolated recommendations or reviews — even from friends — aren’t really credible. They work when there’s no other option. But we look for multiple sources of information for confirmation of a choice, to Edelman’s point. Review consensus is what we seek.

The rise of social networks and corresponding growth of affiliations, which are mostly loose now, means that advice and recommendations coming through these systems will carry limited weight. They’re suggestions and not much more. For example every day practically I get an email saying Friend X has become a “fan” of organization or company Y on Facebook. I ignore 99.999999% of these.

As David Berkowitz of 360i says in the AdAge article there’s a lot of “noise” out there now. Friends can be filters or they can contribute to the noise. These days, however, they mostly seem to contribute to the noise.


Update: I should have posted that others have found something contrary. Here for example are Nielsen data (from a global survey for 25,000 people) stating that peers/friends/family (“people known”) are the most commonly trusted source followed by online reviews:

This isn’t “apples to apples” because of the phrasing of the question “some degree of trust,” but it is counter to the above. These data were collected in April, 2009. 

Beyond the framing of the question, how would you explain this discrepancy?


9 Responses to “Finding: We Now Trust Each Other Less”

  1. Julian Young Says:

    Mmm food for thought, have tweeted this. Makes me think of my buzz stream at the moment…

  2. Michael Says:

    Noise? Indeed. Try applying your own Media Crap Index to various online channels…

  3. Greg Sterling Says:

    Like the term “MCI.”

  4. Matt McGee Says:

    Didn’t an Econsultancy study last year say that 90% of online consumers trust recommendations from people they know? And there are countless other studies/surveys that are similar.

    So how do we explain such contrasting studies?

  5. Greg Sterling Says:

    Nielsen also.

  6. Ron Butman Says:

    I wonder if the definition of “friend” is changing. I seem to recall data that indicates that while the typical Facebook member has 120 friends, they regularly engage (trade emails or respond to postings) with only 7 active relationships. There is also a high correlation between how active a relationship is and location which seems to indicate that most of our online friends are not geographically close. Perhaps the surveys are picking up the somewhat subtle difference between “friend” and “people you know” (e.g I “trust” people I know) or the survey results may simply be reflecting the fact that many of our online relationships are A)not very active and/or B) not local.

  7. Greg Sterling Says:


    The theory is certainly plausible . . . And it may play into the wording of survey question(s. That would seem to have influenced the outcome, especially when you consider the Nielsen data above and how it appears to directly contradict the Edelman data.

    How does one account for the discrepancy?

    • Ron Butman Says:


      I’m not sure the Edelman and Nielsen surveys are actually measuring the same thing. Nielsen’s survey allowed respondents to differentiate between between “people you know” and “opinions posted online” while the Edelman survey makes no such distinction. Also, Edelman surveyed 4,875 college-educated, upper income U.S. households who actively follow news/public policy while Nielsen surveyed 25,000 internet consumers from 50 countries. Maybe, the results say more about the demographics of the groups being surveyed? Either way, it does make it difficult to extrapolate the Edelman responses to the overall public (irregardless this doesn’t explain the year over year drop in trust).

      So, do people actually trust their friends less or is there something else going on here? I’m in the something else camp. A survey we did a while back found that consumers most often (86% of the time) recommend local businesses. If the Facebook data cited in my previous comment is accurate then the majority of online friends are not local and, consequently, are going to be less influential when it comes to local recommendations. I’m not sure this actually explains the Edelman results but it’s something to consider…uh oh, I see another survey coming.

      • Greg Sterling Says:


        Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I agree that the edelman instrument is probably muddier and the results might be explained for this lack of nuance.

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