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With consumers getting better at blocking out blatant ads—despite having to do so across a rapidly expanding number of channels—marketers are struggling to connect with audiences. Companies desperate to adapt to a constantly changing marketplace are relying on industry research when devising their next strategy. Fortunately, there’s a lot of research out there. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of conflicting information contained therein.
Global public-relations firm Edelman may have one of the oldest standards. In January, the firm released its 10th annual Edelman Trust Barometer (ETB), in which consumer trust in businesses had reached record lows. Conducted in November and December 2008, Edelman’s participants were still feeling the immediate aftermath of September 2008’s financial devastation, which may have contributed to the study’s relatively negative skew.
In mid-June 2009, market-research firm Harris Interactive released a study that asked consumers to name their sources of prepurchase information-gathering—an implicit expression of trust. Interestingly, face-to-face conversations with a peer came in behind both a company’s Web site and an in-person interaction with a sales or company representative.
In early July, The Nielsen Company’s annual Global Online Consumer Survey introduced a happier note for companies: Trust in advertising, across every marketing channel Nielsen tracked, was up compared to two years earlier (when ETB-measured trust in businesses was at its peak).
So, to recap: One report tells you consumer trust in companies is at an all-time low; another tells you of rising trust in the advertising produced by these companies. One study tells you that trust in “someone like me” is a buyer’s most reliable source of information, and another touts corporate materials...or those provided by third-party experts. It’s no wonder marketers are a little confused—but that doesn’t mean any of these studies is invalid.
In evaluating reports that seem to be in conflict, especially on a measure as subjective as consumer trust, there are bound to be some inconsistencies, says Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, a provider of e-commerce solutions. Still, in each of the four reports CRM compared, the trustworthiness of some segment roughly akin to “recommendations from a friend” was a top-three response.
It’s all a matter of context, Decker says, adding that marketers should consider these three factors:
- Are the reports talking about the same thing?
- Are they asking the question in the same way?
- What nuances are in each finding?
In late July, digital agency Razorfish released “Fluent: The Razorfish Social Influence Marketing Report,” an in-depth guide to navigating the complex social landscape. One significant difference in methodology, according to Shiv Singh, Razorfish’s vice president and global social media lead, is that, unlike Nielsen, Razorfish separates offline friends (those you interact with in the “real world”) from online ones. That alone, he says, complicates any apples-to-apples comparisons.
Meanwhile, Rick Murray, president of Edelman Digital, emphasizes his firm’s focus on the “opinion elite,” compared to studies that examine the “general public” and therefore provide “general data.”
“The devil’s in the details,” says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen’s digital strategic services. “[Companies] have to do a secondary level of analysis.” When it comes to putting out its Online Consumer Survey, Nielsen references other research as benchmarks to help gauge whether relevant questions are being asked to the right audiences. Even so, inconsistencies are unavoidable because, as Blackshaw puts it, “you’re never going to have a perfect melting pot in a world of competing parties.”
A cofounder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, Blackshaw recognized early the need for standardization to drive credibility in this space. “Everyone’s got a vested interest in figuring this out,” he says—and doing so before overzealous marketers pollute the social space and degrade word-of-mouth credibility. “There’s enough buyer activity in the market that we’ll all benefit from consistency—a stable yet dynamic yardstick for measuring this critical area,” he says.
Researchers know that discrepancies are bound to arise when trying to take a snapshot of the ever-changing consumer mindset. Singh declined to comment on possible inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the industry’s efforts, saying only that “[we’re] all learning from this space and doing our research.”
Studies indicate that consumers, for the most part, trust online reviews, but even Bazaarvoice, which sells a ratings-and-reviews solution and has a vested interest in proving its value, has yet to report a trustworthiness score above 95 percent.
If there’s no absolute truth when it comes to consumers, that’s just because every consumer and every company—and every relationship—is different. Research, no matter the source, may never be more than a rough guide.
“There’s no right or wrong,” Murray says, adding one piece of advice certain to withstand any market forces: Marketers can become more relevant simply by listening.
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