APU Business Original

Social Trust and Its Relevance in Marketing Communications

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By Rebecca J. Stigall, D.B.A (c.)
Faculty Member, School of Business

and Dr. Samantha Bietsch
Faculty Member, School of Business

Some people may argue that social trust is at an all-time low here in the United States. For instance, the year 2020 brought about an election from a very divided population, following months of uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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What Is Social Trust?

According to the Pew Research Center, “Social trust is a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others – a faith in people.” So where does the United States fall on the continuum of trust? We fall right in the middle.

Pew Research also notes that “About seven in ten Americans (71%) think people are less confident in each other than they were 20 years ago.” This fall in confidence is not exactly the direction in which we want to be moving. But the future outlook for rebuilding social trust, however, does not look promising.

Social Trust and Marketing

It is understood that in business, trust is necessary. We must trust sellers that we receive what is promised. We must trust buyers to pay for goods and services. We must also trust suppliers and transporters. But it seems that social trust goes beyond hand-to-hand transactions and can be looked at in a much more macro sense.

Knowing that social trust is more impactful than it initially looks, can U.S. marketers move in a direction where we start to foster trust more? If so, how can this trust be achieved in practical terms?  

Social Media Can Be Used to Change Customer Trust

As marketers, we are taught that social media is one tool we may use to build social trust in our brand. Traditionally, consumers put their trust in brands that take an ethical stand. In the past, those ethical stands consisted of issues such as saving the rainforest, human rights in other countries and global warming.

However, as marketers and consumers, what do we do when building trust and taking an ethical stand require strategies and solutions that are focused on issues dividing people within our own country? What do we do when social trust becomes a political issue and divides consumers in ways that prevent marketing leaders from fostering trust in one side without alienating the other side?

Setting aside the argument that most consumers do not trust marketers and their ads and by understanding that there are tactics that marketers can use to enhance social trust, the last few years have presented U.S. marketers with a unique set of challenges related to building social trust through marketing communications. For instance, some brands had no trouble meeting the early call of supporting polarizing conversations surrounding racial injustice. Others chose to wait or not to take action, believing that consumers did not want brands to play a role in social discourse.  

Generational Differences in Trust

The pressure on companies and the marketers who support them is often generational. While most consumers are loathe to trust commercial marketing efforts, millennials and Gen Z consumers care more about meaningful issues and causes than their Baby Boomer counterparts. But social trust issues can run even deeper.

Currently, mistrust extends to the media and U.S. leadership. This mistrust is at least partially political, with individuals who lean Democratic displaying more trust than their Republican counterparts, according to Pew Research.

Rebuilding Social Trust

The majority of consumers agree that brands have a significant impact on society and social trust is critical to a brand’s survival, especially in today’s global society. A recent Edelman Trust report concluded that traditional media has regained its place over social media as a trusted news agent, likely due to the unchecked spread of misinformation on social media over the past several years.

The Edelman report makes some suggestions to marketers looking to regain consumer trust. First, some companies may need to take an ethical stand. Consumers have expectations, and those expectations must be met. Corporate leadership must weigh the needs of their customers against the business goals of the company.

Second, marketers must focus on the future. The coronavirus pandemic and the current division in politics will eventually pass.

Expressing concern about consumers and the recovery of the economy is one way that brands can connect with consumers without entering the political fray. Ideally, brands should find ways to connect with consumers on issues that are not inflammatory but still meaningful.

Finally, business leaders should remain mindful of their advertising efforts. Consumers are wary of marketer’s use of data and the bombardment of advertising on social media. Marketers could engage consumers without direct advertising, a tactic that should be already employed as part of a social media marketing strategy.

It’s important to communicate with customers on their terms. The use of social media as a way to build social trust by building relationships with consumers is not over; it’s merely experiencing unprecedented challenges.

About the Authors

Rebecca J. Stigall graduated from American Public University with an MBA in marketing. She is currently a doctoral candidate. Rebecca is also a digital media and marketing professional and serves as an adjunct instructor. Her research interests include social media, digital marketing and ecommerce. 

Dr. Samantha Bietsch is currently a Professor in the School of Business. She has an M.B.A. in finance and a D.B.A. in marketing. Prior to entering into higher education, Dr. Bietsch held numerous roles in the financial services industry. Her research interests include social media marketing, communications and economics. 

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