How Consumers Decide Who To Trust Online — And What Brands Should Do With This Insight

How consumers decide who to trust

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don’t believe everything that you read on the internet.”

OK, obviously it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln who penned that bit of wisdom. But the aphorism (which instantly became a meme, one of many spawned by Twitter after an inspirational quote was incorrectly attributed to Lincoln) nicely illustrates the fact that you really can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

This isn’t exactly breaking news. A Harris Interactive study conducted back in 2012 informed us that 98% of Americans distrust information found on the internet, with 94% claiming that “bad things can happen as a result of acting on inaccurate information online.” The rise of fake news and misinformation campaigns in recent years certainly hasn’t improved Americans’ dyspeptic attitude when it comes to trusting the internet (this Pew Research Center report outlines Americans’ declining trust in institutions and one another), but that doesn’t stop the majority of us from engaging with the online world — in fact, it’s where many of us spend the majority of our non-sleeping lives.

These stats about the distrust of information online illustrate why brands should take careful note of studies indicating that consumers consider brand trust a major factor in purchasing decisions. PwC’s Global Consumer Insights Survey of 22,000 consumers shows that “over the past decade, social media has changed the way consumers and brands interact, giving consumers more of a voice and placing higher demands on brands — to be authentic, respond to consumers’ concerns, be accountable for mishaps, and even take a stand on relevant social and cultural topics. Clearly, consumers’ trust has become more crucial for brands’ success.”

Overall, that isn’t good for brands, or at least it hasn’t been lately. PRovoke points to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report when it writes that “despite shoppers putting a growing premium on brand trust, the majority of companies are failing to foster the kind of confidence from consumers that leads to sales.” Or as Ad Age puts it, “Trust in brands is down and expectations of social responsibility from brands is up among consumers.”

Consumer focus on brands doing the right thing has been even more pronounced since the pandemic hit. Another global survey from Edelman, this one published in March and entitled “Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic,” reports 71% of consumers state that if they believe that a brand is putting profit before people, they will lose trust in that brand forever. And Adweek writes that “Nearly nine in 10 respondents from the global study feel that brands should not only tackle social struggles in light of the coronavirus outbreak, but also act accordingly to safeguard the financial security of their employees and suppliers.” That concern extends to workplace safety as well: “In the U.S., 44% of participants indicated that brands must do everything in their power to protect their workers and vendors — even if it means suffering monetary losses — in order to earn or keep their trust as consumers.”

Then there’s this, from PwC: “Although trust in the brand plays a strong role in determining where consumers shop, they rely heavily on other people’s opinions to decide what to buy. ‘Today’s consumers trust the wisdom of the crowd, what somebody in their network says about something,’” Rick Kauffeld, a PwC principal, is quoted as saying. Nielsen numbers back him up, showing that 92% of those surveyed trust word-of-mouth recommendations. All of which creates a challenge for brands and retailers to be perceived as authentic and trustworthy.

What brands can do to build consumer trust online

As noted in a recent Yext whitepaper, current events have shown us how much consumer trust hinges on brands’ abilities to keep people informed quickly, seamlessly, and with responses to the actual questions they’re asking. The coronavirus pandemic may be unique, but it shines a light on two evergreen truths: 

  1. Delivering official answers online is a critical component of customer success
  2. Success or failure in this area has a direct impact on consumers’ brand perception and level of trust

Given that 90% of customers report they use search at every stage of their customer lifecycle, providing customers with the essential information they need — across every platform they search — is crucial to both winning and maintaining consumer trust. Indeed, Inc. points to a study by consulting firm Walker that shows “providing a flawless customer experience will overcome product and price as the key brand differentiator.”

That starts with the availability of key facts, which can result in one business beating out another when it comes to winning a customer. (One bad interaction with a brand is enough to turn off a customer permanently, with 68% of people reporting they would not return to a site that provided a poor search experience.

Consumers are increasingly fickle and their expectations of brands are incredibly high. Advances in AI — like natural language processing (NLP), which enables a computer program to understand human language in the way that it is spoken — have raised the bar immeasurably when it comes to the kinds of online experiences consumers now expect. Given the evolving anatomy of consumer trust and loyalty, then, creating Walker’s “flawless customer experience” is the first step a brand can take to retain customers and turn them into advocates.

A word of caution, should your brand be considering an advertising campaign as a means of combating a trust deficit: “‘Trust me’ advertising is a strategy destined to fail,” as Arcature CEO Larry Light writes for Forbes. “The ‘trust me’ approach did not work for Richard Nixon and will not work for brands either.” Pointing out that “lack of trust is often a result of a trust-deficit culture,” the author advises that “When there is conflict between culture and strategy, culture wins. Fix the culture first. Be trustworthy in transparent and recognisable ways. To be trusted, you have to create a corporate culture worthy of trust. Then, you can advertise what you do and who you are.”

In short: “Brands need to build trust through actions, not ads.” Start by delivering transparent facts and readily available answers to important questions, and you’ll prove over time that customers can trust you for information. 

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