Over recent years, the narrative of trust in peers supplanting trust in institutions has become accepted wisdom. The steady decline in influence of institutions such as the church, government and business has been matched by a concurrent rise in the influence of peers; a process catalyzed by the explosive growth of online social networks, which make the opinions of those peers so readily available.
Numerous studies have posited this hypothesis but it really appeared to gather momentum on the back of Edelman’s (highly influential in its own right) annual Trust Barometer, which in 2005 asserted “Trust shifts from ‘authorities’ to peers”, explaining that “trust in established institutions (business, government, media) and figures of authority (CEOs, heads of state) is being supplanted by a personal web of trust that includes ‘colleagues,’ ‘friends and family,’ ‘a person like yourself’”.
This school of thought has taken firm hold in the marketing world, devaluing previous assumptions about the ability to influence consumers via 1-way communication and obsessing us with the creation of influencer-strategies where we seek to stimulate conversation and participation, encouraging networked influencers to spread our message to their peers on our behalf (what Griffin Farley has termed Propagation Planning).
So it comes as something of a surprise to note more recent Trust Barometer findings which suggest that our trust in peers is now in decline. This trend was noted last year by my colleague Patricia McDonald (then of BBH Labs) who pointed to a 20% decline in the influence that US respondents ascribed to peers between 2008 and 2010, a trend that has continued in 2011. Concurrently, the influence of CEOs (and ‘experts’ generally) increased by 19% between (2009 - 2011) see the full report here.
Edelman data shows declining influence of peers vs. increasing influence of CEOs between 2009 and 2011
Edelman seem not to offer an opinion as to the underlying causes of this shift so we are left to speculate. I wonder whether the changing nature of our relationships (catalyzed by social networking) is causing them to weaken with a consequent decline in the level of trust we ascribe to them? Is the way we use Facebook weakening the influence of friendship?
Naysayers (and your parents until they joined Facebook) have long questioned the substance of friendships conducted virtually. But an uneasiness around the number of ‘friends’ we have amassed and our ability to actually maintain relationships with all these people has become more prevalent recently. This trend was the focus of the launch campaign for Microsoft’s ill-fated Kin smartphone, a sociological study following individuals as thy sought to build real-world relationships with friends they had only ever encountered virtually.
The scientific basis of this questioning of the validity of online friendships is provided by the oft cited Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University first put forward the theory in 1992 that “the way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces”.
Back to Edelman’s findings, a contributing factor to the declining influence of our peers would appear to be that we simply have too many with whom to sustain relationships built on “trust and obligation”. That our mania for collecting Facebook friends and unwittingly rendered these friendships less meaningful. So what does this mean for brand’s carefully-constructed influencer strategies?
Whilst friend influence (as defined by Edelman) may not reach the heights of 2008 again in a hurry, our peers have always influenced us (we’ve just paid attention more recently because we’ve been better able to follow and influence their conversations) and will continue to influence us. However, for this influence to be useful in the building of brands, we must focus more on the quality of ‘friendship’ over quantity.
For social networks looking to command brands’ marketing budgets, the key will be helping people manage different kinds of friendships and prioritize more meaningful ones (whether through the segmentation of an existing network like Facebook Groups or the creation of new, tighter networks like Path which limits users’ total number of connections to 50). For our part, marketers need to pay less attention to generic metrics like ‘likes’ and more to defining exactly what we’re hoping to achieve, how peer-influencers will help us to achieve these objectives and how to engage with them in their social networks in order to achieve this.
As we know, the recession that we have experienced over the last few years has had a profound impact on our industry; trimming any remaining vestiges of fat and hastening the shift away from traditional approaches to marketing towards something more interactive and participative (“Digital and new media are the strongest forces of growth…we’re certainly not an advertising agency anymore” Sir Martin Sorrell). And whilst this situation presents many exciting opportunities for marketers and their agencies, it has also brought about confusion: what Sean Corcoran of Forrester terms “an agency purgatory.”
In what Corcorran calls the “great race for relevance”, agencies of all disciplines recognize the opportunities and attempt to state their case as the gate-keeper to the new world of marketing. Once harmonious ‘all-agency-groups’, previously clear and secure in their roles now vie for the clients’ attention, presenting their credentials in every conceivable discipline and looking to undermine one another at every juncture – we’d love to set up a meeting to talk you through our new social media / events / creative technology unit. In addition to the hiring of more diverse talents, this land-grab has seen a spate of agency repositionings with ad agencies such as Crispin Porter and Goodby building formidable interactive capabilities, digital natives R/GA taking on the role of lead agency for Ameriprise, Starcom Mediavest repositioning themselves as a “human experience” agency (no me neither), and PR agencies like Edelman extending their ‘influence’ remit deep into social media.
But if agencies are confused, spare a thought for the poor clients trying to work out how to deploy them. Despite agency posturing, Forrester research suggests that clients find themselves in a state of confusion “most marketers don’t trust their traditional agencies with digital work and yet most don’t believe their interactive agencies are ready to lead yet either.”
The result is that many of us find ourselves in a catch 22 position. The best way to prove our capabilities is by creating great work for clients. But how do you convince the client (who has you pigeon-holed in some or other discipline box) to give you the opportunity to do great work? Faced with this conundrum, a handful of farsighted agencies are getting on and building stuff, creating self-initiated projects demonstrating their capability to the world.
Mother are the masters of these sorts of projects – seeing creative opportunities at every turn. Whether it be producing a movie, creating their own comic book, making light of the Wikileaks controversy with their Christmas Lappileaks Twitter effort even seeing their recent New York office move as an opportunity to present their unique take on the world.
But we’re also seeing a group of less well established agencies putting themselves on the map thanks to self-initiated projects. To call advertising powerhouse Dentsu ‘less well established’ seems strange but in the UK where they have recently set up shop, this is exactly what they are. Initially without client work to show, they have set about creating a series of high-profile, attention-grabbing projects which demonstrate their creativity and thoroughly modern approach to marketing. They brought innovation to print teaming up with Wallpaper Magazine and artist Robert Wilson to create a moving magazine. Capitalizing on the excitement around the UK launch of the iPad, they collaborated with super-smart creative technologists BERG to “invent a technique using long camera exposures to record the iPad moving through space in order to make a stop motion film of 3-d light forms” (something beautiful to behold if difficult to explain). And then followed their New Paper where they teamed up with London free sheet Metro to create stylish, sustainable wrapping paper for Christmas.
Another new agency creating noteworthy self-initiated projects is Happiness Brussels. A timely and eloquent comment on the BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they teamed up with British artist Anthony Burrill to create Oil and Water do not mix, a limited edition print, made using oil collected from affected beaches. Then for Christmas they created Gift a Stranger, a project built on Google Maps allowing users to send a gift to a complete stranger somewhere in the world (more info on how it all works here).
With projects more focused on strategy and trends than creative output, JWT have caught the eye recently with their future gazing. First their comprehensive 100 things to watch in 2011 trends presentation was everywhere on Twitter at the end of last year, and now, they’ve followed this up (for people too lazy to read it all) with this nifty short animation. And finally, BBH consistently impress with their Labs blog which enables them to punch above their weight and provide genuine thought-leadership to the industry - a must-read / follow.
The moral of the story: stop talking, start doing. If I was a CMO with a newly restored marketing budget burning a hole in my pocket I’d be rewarding the agencies with tangible examples of their new and innovative approaches to marketing over the ones which write powerpoint about it.