We live in a cynical time. A few decades ago, anchorman Walter Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Now, just 40 percent of Americans trust the mainstream media, and only 6 percent express “a lot of confidence in the media.”
The numbers on brand advertising are dismal as well, as less than a quarter of people have faith in what companies have to say.
The message is clear: Whatever the media is selling, people aren’t buying.
The Post-Trust Era
In the early 2000s, brands relied on emotional marketing to persuade people to buy their products. A little patriotic music, a glimpse of the American dream, maybe some cute kittens or little kids — it didn’t take much more to convince consumers that you deserved their money.
Then the economy crashed. People felt duped by the government, Wall Street, corporations, and the media. All of the goodwill that brands had generated disappeared. No one was safe from consumer skepticism as we entered the post-trust era (PTE).
The economy eventually recovered, but the cultural psyche remains skeptical. People assume that brands leave out important information in their advertising, and they deride out-of-touch marketing gimmicks.
To recover what was lost, companies and media organizations must go back to basics. But there are three barriers to regaining people’s trust:
1. Skepticism over marketing: Online shopping opened the floodgates for every sort of business to ply their wares to the public. With so many options, many brands will do anything to stand out — including using cheap, deceitful marketing practices to attract customers. People are jaded, and they’re less inclined to believe a brand is sincere or trustworthy.
2. Consumer control: Customers are no longer content to be rapt audiences. They want to decide what content they see and when, which is why ad blockers have become so popular. People don’t want corporations telling them how to think; they want to gather information and decide for themselves. Brands must connect by providing valuable content, not simply repeating the same ad slogans.
3. Short attention spans: In a world of infinite content, you must act fast to hold people’s attention. Between social media, entertainment sites, and the general noise emanating from our smartphones, you have about the width of a banner ad to make an impression. You get a few seconds to make a compelling case for why people should click your ad instead of navigating away.
The challenges to establishing trust are real, but they’re not insurmountable. By developing useful content and personalizing interactions, brands can regain the public’s respect. Consistently positive experiences will persuade even the most doubtful consumer that you can be trusted. But first, you have to think like a skeptic.
What Is a Skeptic?
From Aristotle to Nietzsche to Sagan, skepticism has long been at the heart of philosophical and scientific inquiries. But skepticism recently escaped the confines of philosophy and now permeates our culture.
That’s not a bad thing. Skeptics challenge commonly accepted beliefs in the hopes of uncovering truth.
With so much information at our fingertips, people are able to fact-check what they hear in the media and research brands and products before buying. Research shows that 81 percent of people read product reviews and compare items online. Consumers are empowered, and they’re keeping companies honest.
The trouble occurs when skepticism turns to cynicism. Cynics see the negative in everything and are quick to perceive malice where none exists. If you want to win over skeptics before they turn to the dark side, here’s what you need to do:
1. Be personal. PTE consumers have high standards. They drive customized vehicles, order specialized dishes at restaurants, listen to music on iPods filled with the music they like, and don’t bat an eye when placing elaborate coffee orders at their local cafes. They expect similar hyper-personalized experiences in every aspect of their lives.
Whether they admit it or not, people are narcissistic. They want to be treated as individuals, even by companies who serve hundreds of thousands of other customers. You can’t send out generic emails and expect people to do anything other than click “Report Spam.” Your messaging must tell people what you can do for them specifically. If you don’t speak to their circumstances, they’re not interested.
2. Be plainspoken. Famed writer William Butler Yeats said, “Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.” He would have made a great PTE marketer. The harder you try to sound intelligent, the more likely you are to come across as phony. Clear language establishes understanding, and that’s crucial to building trust.
3. Be positive. When you try to sell people based on disaster scenarios, they resent that you’ve tried to scare them. There are enough things to be afraid of in the world; they don’t need to add nightmares about their vanishing retirement savings or their businesses falling apart to the mix.
Even if your fear-based message resonates, it will likely cause people to freeze up. They don’t want to take any action when they’re scared, including buying from you. Instead, use reassuring language, and demonstrate how you can help them prevent problems and improve their lives.
4. Be plausible. In “The Matrix Reloaded,” Neo learns that the alternate universe he’s escaped was designed to include death and destruction. Its creators made it that way because people don’t believe in the possibility of true utopia. The same is true of marketing to consumers. Everyone is skeptical when a company or product seems too good to be true.
Connect with people in an authentic way, and be realistic. They’ll trust you more if they sense you’re being honest instead of simply trying to edge out your competition. You always want to exceed people’s expectations rather than disappoint them.
Earning consumers’ trust is a lot like connecting with a new friend. When you consistently show up, pay attention, and take an interest in people, trust grows over time. It may take longer to win over skeptics, but they’ll come around if you sincerely respect them.
Build trust across channels
Building a strong, relatable brand in today’s marketplace is contingent on engaging in conversations across different channels – especially social media. You can’t be too promotional or too passive.
Get more tips that will help you achieve this delicate balance by downloading Engage in Social Conversations Around Your Brand. This free guide outlines how to participate on key networks without wasting resources or missing opportunities.
Michael Maslansky, CEO of maslansky + partners, helps the world’s leading companies find the right language to address strategic challenges like crisis management and rebuilding brand trust. He wrote “The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics,” is a frequent commentator on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, and was named a Top Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business.