Recommendations & Online Trust

Product Recommondations and Trust

Trust me.

Now there are two words which can make you cringe. If someone has to tell you or ask you to trust them then it’s a good bet you either don’t know them or don’t trust them. Knowing someone (having a relationship with them) is a big factor for trust. Sometimes that relationship might not even be direct and personal. After all, people have made careers out of pitching products based on the reputations they’ve established via TV or some other medium which makes them appear trustworthy.

And then there are the experts, those people who have dedicated a good portion of their lives (you’re told) to becoming brain trusts in their field – you trust them because you feel you should. Not because you know or even like them, but because you’ve been told by some letters after their name or the friendly announcer on the news program, you ought to.

Trust is a funny thing. I trust my doctor because he’s got the credentials and the license, but, that trust only goes so far. I had to develop a relationship with him where that trust built up over a number of years of good advice and the kind of professional compassion and skill I look for in a health care professional. The time it took for that to happen would likely have been greatly reduced had he been my neighbour. A neighbour (I might add) who returned my lawnmower without prompting from me.

I invest trust in people because over time, they have demonstrated to me that I can. I cast a jaundiced eye towards anyone who expects me to trust them just because something on their wall or uniform states I should.

So, who do we (internet users) trust when it comes to product recommendations online? According to information from the GlobalWebIndex “Annual Report 2011” which was reported this week in eMarketer, when it comes to product recommendation sources, the numbers show a 47.5% increase for social network contacts over their July 2009 report statistics. That’s more than double microblog contacts at 21% in second spot and far more than trusted bloggers at just 16%. Traditional media didn’t see such increases (not surprisingly) with radio at 8%, followed by newspapers at 3% and TV with only 2.5%. Maybe traditional media sources are simply maxed out on trust or perhaps word-of-mouth has been undervalued in the past because it didn’t have the amplification of the web — I believe it’s the latter.

The web does cast a spell on people where they may feel an intimacy and connection with others they have met online which really is not justified. However, even if the person we are trusting online is redistributing some amount of professionally sourced information about a product, just having that recommendation come from someone we believe we have a connection/relationship with is going to increase the perceived value of that recommendation. As well, there is equity which comes from shared friends via social networks – if you’re a friend of mine and a dozen other friends of mine too, that adds weight.

Of course there’s the “every person” factor – the perception that they are not being paid to shill and have actually used the product or service because they needed it.

I don’t think WOM has become any more credible (it’s always been powerful), but the internet has amplified WOM beyond anything we’ve seen previously. That reach and volume is only going to increase as people use technology to document their lives and experiences. When almost everyone has a smartphone and starts using them to record and broadcast the minutes of their lives, they will also broadcast every experience with each brand and share that with countless other consumers they have connections with. All the experts in the world won’t have the power to sway consumer opinion if one “soccer mom” with a smartphone tells her friends you suck.