Sales & Marketing

The Trust Factor in Technology Companies and Social Media Marketing

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Editor’s Note: The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer is the 12th annual trust and credibility survey of more than 30,000 people including regular employees as well as executives. The Edelman Trust Barometer examines trust in business, media, government and NGOs as well as communications channels and sources. This year’s study took a deeper look at what drives trust. I spoke with Maria Amundson, general manager of Edelman’s Silicon Valley office, regarding the findings, the public’s trust level for technology companies, and the trust factor when companies communicate their messages in social and traditional media.

SandHill.com: Are more CEOs and leaders paying attention to trust now and last year than in prior years?

Maria Amundson: Anecdotally, we’re certainly getting a lot more interest directly from C-suite executives as well as a lot of attention from the media. We’ve seen companies more than ever responding to our data by asking, “What should we be doing? We want to take a hard look at our reputation and our trust factor, both within our market sector and for our particular company, and figure out what we need to do.”

SandHill.com: Do you have a feeling about whether this has arisen because of the adoption of social media and it driving more attention to trust and customer care, or do you think that the lack of trust is driving the social media adoption?

Maria Amundson: I think both are happening. Social media is giving a loud and ever-present voice to concerns that customers and citizens have had all along. And it’s a great way for people to connect and be able to speak out. I think that’s probably the major factor.

But it’s also a matter of major stumbles on behalf of governments. Look at the EU and what’s happened there. Look at the U.S. economy and the political turmoil with this year’s presidential campaign. Our trust barometer has seen almost every type of organization taking hits in trust over the past several years.

SandHill.com: Why is trust in social media on the rise?

Maria Amundson: In part it’s because in social media we’re able to isolate ourselves to follow those people and those sources that mirror our own opinions. It’s very easy to get away from opposing opinions and just follow blogs and news sources and people that share your opinions. Our data says that most people trust people like themselves. That’s fine, but it’s a concern when we’re only listening to those who agree with us.

SandHill.com: The Executive Summary for this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer points out a company can build trust by treating its employees well.

Maria Amundson: Yes, and this is very important because we’re more likely to trust an employee of a company than the CEO of a company. Social media gives us access to other people we consider to be highly credible, even if they don’t necessarily share our opinion. For example, you might talk to a CEO of a company and then an employee you just met who is a friend of a friend. You’ll probably give more credibility to that friend of a friend’s view of the company than you would the CEO giving a speech.

The smartest companies are figuring out how to get their employees engaged on behalf of the company. They can’t tell them what to say, but they can inform them, teach them, motivate them and arm them for communicating about the company. That’s an incredible asset for any company, and the companies that aren’t informing and empowering their employees to do that are leaving an asset on the table. [Editor’s note: See the SandHill article about Baynote for a real-world example of how to do this.]

SandHill.com: What is the trust factor for technology companies?

Maria Amundson: Trust for technology companies in general is always high, compared to other companies in the United States. People try the product and it works or it doesn’t work. That’s their experience. It’s hard for a company to deceive you and tell you a product can work when you know from experience that it doesn’t. So it’s a very transparent industry.

Even though people don’t generally have a lot of trust in CEOs, this is not the case with CEOs in technology companies because they represent companies that are highly trusted. Tech industry CEOs are among the most highly trusted business executives in the United States. In other industries, not so much. Look at banking, where CEOs are not as well trusted. The CEO of a technology company that has repeatedly delivered on its promise to deliver great products and has delighted its customers and continues to do so is trusted. But it’s really about the track record on delivering great products and experiences.

SandHill.com: Startups have limited budgets for marketing and often don’t yet have a product or it’s still in beta and not many people know about it. Other than getting their own employees to talk about it, how can they help people to develop trust in their company?

Maria Amundson: It’s hard for startups to build trust before they have a product or service to offer. But a potential customer can have trust based on the management team. Does the management team have credibility? In your experience of that management team, have they been straightforward and transparent? Have they had successes in the past? Who’s investing in the startup and do those people have credibility?

The management team and investor set can certainly bring a lot of credibility to a startup early on. And that rubs off on trust. But I don’t think you get trust in that company and its product until the offerings are in the hands of people who get to try it out.

From there, the best way for a startup to gain credibility and trust is to find those early adopters, those highly energetic initial customers who try out the product, are excited about it and will get on social media and start telling their friends and family and whoever will listen about their excitement about the product. And that’s how you get a viral adoption to begin – which is one of the best ways for any startup to build credibility and trust.

SandHill.com: If CEOs or other leaders in any industry read the report on the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer and also realize their companies have a trust problem, what would you recommend they do first to start building trust? Is the first step to assess where the trust gaps are?

Maria Amundson: Yes, they first need to understand where the lack of trust comes from. Is it coming from company behaviors? Is it coming from the industry halo effect because they’re in an industry where there is a lot of bad behavior or problems of trust? Where is what the company says not aligned with what it does? Where does the company disappoint people or let them down? And then they need to address those issues.

The world now expects companies not to follow just the letter of the law but to also act like leaders and follow the spirit of the law. Leaders rise above what they’re required to do. We expect that as consumers. Our data shows that we want companies to behave ethically. We want to buy from companies that pay attention to sustainability. We want to know that they’re a good corporate citizen. That matters to us as much as how strong their stock price is.

SandHill.com: Given the trust level in social media, how important are the traditional media outlets when communicating a company’s messages to the market?

Maria Amundson: The media has changed tremendously. There’s no doubt that social media is a heavy influence, yet, it’s a mistake to write off traditional media. Stories and messages ricochet back and forth between them.

There are still some wonderful resources within traditional media – the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, for instance, have some great journalists who are very closely followed and they have high journalistic ethics. You can argue with their point of view or the fact that they can put an opinion into where it maybe doesn’t belong. But there are some very well-researched articles that come out of those traditional media outlets.

In fact, a good percentage of the tweets that you see on Twitter or posted on Facebook and LinkedIn link back to the traditional media. Social media has actually breathed new life into the traditional outlets. Sometimes getting something highly picked up in social media that becomes viral or in hybrid media (such as blogs, Huffington Post, or news aggregators) impacts what gets carried in the traditional media and vice versa.

Edelman likens the four parts of the media to a cloverleaf: one leaf is the traditional media, the second is hybrid, the third is social media and the fourth is a company’s own properties such as its website. For companies that are trying to navigate the media and their markets in general, it’s important that companies pay attention to all four of those areas of the cloverleaf and also where those leaves overlap.

SandHill.com: It’s difficult for a small company with time and resource constraints to do social media.

Maria Amundson: It is, and it takes momentum. It can be slow to build. One of the things that we talk about in terms of how to build that momentum is to figure out who your amplifiers are. There are those people who are within your world, who follow your topics, who are amplifiers in the sense that they will latch onto a story and retweet it and post it, and they have lots and lots of followers. And that creates a multiplier effect.

But our message is that you can’t leave out any of the media channels, any of the four parts of the cloverleaf, and you need to understand how they work with other. Yes, it’s important to know who’s influencing the people you want to reach and make friends with those people – but it’s important to, at the same time, try to get visibility across all the media channels – traditional, hybrid, social and owned. Companies need to work across these and tell their stories in the appropriate way for each.

Maria Amundson heads the Edelman Silicon Valley office, counseling companies from early-stage startups to Fortune 50 leaders in thought leadership, executive visibility, change management, product launches, brand positioning, social responsibility, employee engagement and financial communications. A senior partner with A&R Partners for 15 years, Maria was instrumental in the company’s rise to the leading independent PR agency in Silicon Valley and its subsequent acquisition by Edelman in 2006. Maria founded or contributed to the growth of numerous A&R tech practices and created innovative employee development and service quality programs. Maria’s client work has won numerous awards from PR Week, the Holmes Report, Communicator Media, Mercury Excellence, and LACP Magellan. Contact her at maria.amundson@edelman.com.

Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor at SandHill.com

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