There is always a learning curve for society when it comes to new technology.
This has always been true, even long before the Internet or social media came onto the scene. But while there’s always been a slight, resistant tension between people and the tech that’s pulling them into the future, we have largely gone along with the development of social media as it has grown over the past 15 or so years. We’ve created accounts and shared personal information; we’ve posted terabytes of photos and written memoirs in status updates. Digital marketers know what this trade-off entails—a fun, convenient service in exchange for personal data—but it’s also easy to forget that ordinary users without a marketing background don’t readily understand the scale of how their social data is used.
And while platforms like Facebook have made middling attempts to explain their platform to their users, they’ve continued to pull them along—and it seems the tension may have finally snapped.
While watching the Facebook hearings a couple weeks ago—an exercise that taught us less about how social media works and more about how much the government has also been left behind by the rapid development—I found myself thinking about how crazy the past year has been for social platforms. While Facebook takes heat for data security and giving access to third parties, Twitter continues to update their account banning policies in an effort to keep up with complaints of unsavory content and bots, and Reddit also struggles to prune back tides of fake or automated accounts.
Social media as a whole is undergoing an intense stress test that, hopefully, will translate into systematic improvements to the platforms we know and love to use. But the stress test has come at a cost, and platforms are paying for that cost by expending audience trust.
Users are rapidly losing trust in many of the social platforms they love to use. Today, Facebook is the clearest example, having struggled to maintain a younger audience last year only to then lose more users and approximately $70 billion in light of the Cambridge Analytica data leaks. Twitter has had a less dramatic struggle in recent months, touting their first profitable quarter in nearly 12 years—largely driven by international growth while their US audience declined by a million users.
When this shift in trust is examined on a larger scale, the issue only becomes more pronounced. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer—a massive, global study conducted every year to measure public sentiment towards major institutions—rightly subtitled this year’s report “The Battle for Truth.” In it, they found that the world as a whole has become more distrustful over the past year, with the US leading the charge, dropping 23 places in global ranking for the informed public’s trust in media outlets.
Specifically, where social media is concerned, trust in social platforms continued to decline as it has since 2016, nearly bringing us to an even 50-50 split between trusting and distrusting audiences using social media. An interesting note, however, is that journalistic outlets have seen a significant increase in the percentage of the population that trusts them, jumping by 5 percent since last year to nearly 60 percent. And in this, there may be lessons for marketers to take note of.
Image attribution: Jon Tyson
Brands that want to maintain effective social media marketing during this tumultuous time need to fundamentally reorient how they approach social media.
To date, social media marketers have by and large taken a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to social media management. We offer content and conversation on our pages only to also run promotional social advertisements that we just simply don’t speak to. We use demographic targeting and audience insights to boost posts or plan for distributions, but work to ensure every step of our audience interaction comes off as solely organic. We exist on platforms embroiled in technological, political, and societal turmoil, but work to prune those conversations out of our comments and conversations.
This approach has worked for a long time because users were willing to engage with this fantasy—they also did not want to see, hear, or engage with the fact that the platform they used was collecting their data. But the coin has flipped, and now users are in a place where they more readily associate silence on social media matters with complicity rather than comfort.
Brands need to begin taking a more active role in earning audience trust if they hope to maintain it.
As users become more comfortable understanding and talking about the ways in which their data is used, transparency into brands’ practices becomes a highly sought-after commodity. Rather than disengaging or ignoring conversations about how your brand interacts with user privacy and data, try to proactively explain your processes and how you protect your audience.
One of the primary drivers of distrust recently has been a disconnect between spoken ideals and active ideals practiced by brands (for instance, Facebook promoting the idea of building community, but then selling inordinate amounts of data to third parties). This offers an opportunity for brands that are willing to speak openly about their ideals and back it up with content and action. Brands are seeing success with this tactic in even the most extreme, politicized scenarios, which formerly would have been considered PR suicide.
Even if your brand comes under scrutiny during this time, this doesn’t mean you should back away from hard conversations with your audience. Rather, take steps to engage your audience to understand what they would consider to be a solution, and implement it publicly to earn trust rather than defeat. You don’t have to take this as far as Elon Musk did and completely delete your Facebook presence, but listening and reacting will always go a long way.
Marketers are working at a unique time in history when society is contending with what privacy and big data can mean for them on a personal level. While the Facebook hearings may be done, these conversations are far from over, and it remains unclear how these conversations will shape the platforms we use, or how users interact with those platforms in general. What is clear, however, is that trust remains a consistently valued commodity throughout time, regardless of how our means of communication change. Brands that seek to be accessible, communicative, and responsive to the needs of their audiences will always find marketing success. But during times when trust is held at such a high premium, brands might also be able to turn success into even greater opportunity for growth.
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