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Typically, I pay more notice to my VHS collection of MacGyver episodes than to political conventions, but in 2004, even I cared about politics, as a handful of bloggers was issued press credentials for the Democratic and Republican conventions. This small act of validation signaled a large-scale shift in the way that Americans consume media.

No longer were we, as a whole, willing to receive information only, or even primarily, from mass media outlets. The causes of this shift are dissertation worthy—including ideologies (post-postmodernism), events (the handling of the Iraq invasion), and technological evolution (the proliferation of free, easy blog templates). This blog is no platform for academic speechifying, but noshing on a thesis is worthwhile.

Since that important moment, consumer calls for transparency and authenticity have grown exponentially and have sounded beyond sources of information to, now, the sources of consumer goods. This longing for transparency and authenticity is new, but it’s not.

Those words, transparency and authenticity, are a buzzy way of describing what the human heart has always craved. Beneath every decision we make, behind every impulse and consideration, lie two fundamental questions: Who will love me? And whom can I trust?

Those questions are inseparable, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll address, specifically, the issue of trust, the profound, human desire that moves and shapes our decisions, from claiming what we know to be true to deciding whom to marry to choosing an airline to selecting a wine on a first date. Even the simplest equation is a matter of trust. You believe that 2+2=4 because your teacher told you so, and though you didn’t know it then, your willingness to agree was a result of trusting your teacher’s authority.

All transactions, all knowledge, all beliefs, and all decisions are, ultimately, shaped by our desire and willingness to trust. This is as true for the kindergartener as it is for the 35-year-old paralyzed by the toothbrush wall at the grocery store.

So what does this mean for you, perhaps a B2B or a B2C company, and what does this have to do with social media?

A mess of literature exists that justifies the need for most companies to have a social media strategy, and most companies recognize that social media should be a part of their marketing strategies. Most companies know that social media connects them to consumers, providing valuable brand exposure and generating business leads. Most companies even know how significant is the degree to which buyers make purchase decisions based on third-party opinions.

What most companies don’t consider, however, is that every time a consumer says yes to a purchase, small or large, that “yes” points back to that fundamental question: “Whom can I trust?” That “yes” is an answer: “In this case, I trust you. Yes, I’ll buy that.”

Before the social media revolution, our sources of trustworthy information on consumer goods were, primarily, immediate contacts (friends, family, colleagues). That’s still true; consumers continue to purchase based on what those contacts think:

90 — Percentage of consumers who trust recommendations from people they know (Source: buddymedia.com/spinback)

83 — Percentage of consumers who tell their friends online if they got a good deal on something. (Source: JWT Intelligence, December 2010)

3 — Number of bad reviews it takes to deter 67% of potential customers from making a purchase. (Source: econsultancy.com)

Social media is a great way for consumers to expand their circles of trust, to find trustworthy reviews and opinions on goods and services. We’re joining online communities and using tools and programs that hook us into reputable sources of information. We’re discovering new companies and products as a result.

Applications exist that allow consumers shopping in a physical store to scan an item, upload it to their Facebook and Twitter pages, and receive instant feedback from trusted contacts. Every second, millions of consumers are asking and answering the question “Can I trust you?” with the help of social media.

Companies unprepared to adjust their social marketing strategies interpret this as bad news, social media further wrenching brand reputation from the company’s marketing hands. Wise companies, however, know that this is an amazing opportunity to insert themselves into that circle of trust. To become one of those trustworthy sources. After all, companies are equipped better than anyone to speak meaningfully about their products, to give the consumer anything he wants to know about a toothbrush or a bottle of wine before making a decision.

A company that uses social media to listen to consumer questions, to understand consumer preference and concern, and to engage thoughtfully with consumers positions itself to answer, in the affirmative, “Yes, consumer, you can trust us.” In so doing, that company joins the circle of trust, uses social media to increase brand equity and reputation as or more effectively than any traditional marketing campaign.

This is more than simply cranking out a Facebook page and asking people to like you. This is about discerning the varieties of ways that your target consumer is asking that trust question and then using existing social media tools or crafting your own (or letting one of our design geniuses craft one for you) to answer that question. This is about understanding the deeply human nature of your customers’ longing to trust and then finding a way to answer that longing. This is still business, but trust us, your business can no longer afford to be anything less than completely, fully human.

Author
Jeremy Huggins oversees our creative team, leads naming projects, and ensures that all of our brand development work is thorough, thoughtful, and meaningful.

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