In case you missed it, there was a great article on Nielsen Wire yesterday about the lack of trust consumers have for paid media — particularly text, display and banner ads, which performed the worst among all advertising channels in terms of consumer trust. The article argues brands should be working toward a more holistic union of paid, owned and earned media by leveraging paid media to drive the other two forms of advertising. While I generally agree with the article’s assertion — a mixed approach works better than a paid-only approach — I’d like to make two important points, mainly with regards to how easily and foolishly we’ve accepted the power of social recommendations and paid advertising.
For years now, the advertising industry has been touting the importance of social recommendations and reviews for selling products and services. The premise has been: If John sees that Jack likes (or “Likes”) a product, he is much more likely to purchase that product. I agree that honest-to-goodness product recommendations are incredibly valuable. If I ask friends in my social network to recommend a product and they do, that’s plays a humongous role in whether or not I buy the product. However, it’s important that we as an industry distinguish between honest recommendations and a simple Facebook “Like.” Think about how often you “Like” something half-heartedly only because it gives you access to a sale or promotion. Think about how many “Likes” you see each and every day. Back in 2008, when your Facebook friends were 200 of your real friends, and not a collection of the thousand people you’ve met once over the years, “Likes” actually meant something. Now, when you see that your friend “Likes” something, you’re more likely to skip that post on your way to baby photos and links to honest-to-goodness content (more on this a little later). That isn’t to say that “Likes” are totally worthless. In fact, a “Like” is an important way for brands to connect directly with consumers to share (valuable) content. However, our industry has lumped “Likes” in with consumer testimonials, and we’ve lazily accepted these casual clicks as honest praise. Take away casual “Likes” and shares and I’m positive that the amount of recommendations brands are getting on social networks don’t hold as much weight as the industry thinks they do.
A major point of contention I have with the piece is that it accepts as gospel that paid advertising can’t be given up, and it doesn’t even make the argument that paid should be scaled down. “For most brands, [giving up paid media] isn’t really feasible given both the broad reach and historical success associated with paid media.” Look, you won’t ever hear me argue that paid media should be done away with completely, but I don’t think “want[ing] more earned and owned” media is good enough. If people don’t trust your paid ads — but they do trust your editorial content and branded websites to the tune of 58% — then why should you maintain your paid media budgets? Shouldn’t someone come right out and admit that it’s time to scale back your TV ad budget, especially since only 47% of people even trust your message? Shouldn’t someone snatch the checkbook out of your hand as you try to buy more banner ads, mobile display ads and mobile text ads? Of course! Especially when you consider that only 33% of people trust online banners, 33% trust mobile display and a measly 29% of people trust mobile text ads. I would argue that merely supplementing these untrusted tactics is a huge mistake. Scale back on your paid ads dramatically and give the people what they’re looking for and what they’re responding to.
What are consumers responding to? According to the research, people trust earned media and branded websites above all forms of advertising other than consumer recommendations. What the research doesn’t ask is whether or not branded content is trusted. That’s because content isn’t a form of advertising — it’s a way for brands and publishers to educate, engage and entertain consumers without a hard sales push. If asked whether or not they trust honest, editorial-style content from brands and publishers, I’m positive consumers would overwhelmingly say that they do. And gaining consumer trust should be top-of-mind for all businesses, above and beyond generating awareness and making sales. As anyone at Outbrain will tell you: If you provide valuable content and services, you’ll undoubtedly generate awareness and make sales.