Consumer trust in media is falling by the week, to the point where some of us feel a bit like polar bears, looking frantically on as the Arctic ice cap melts away. Ideally, we need the media equivalent of the Paris climate accord to reverse the current situation; but I’d settle for protecting trust in the more contained world of commercial content, a task which feels somehow more achievable.
But is it? Are there failsafe ways of ensuring that commercial content is always worthy of trust?
A good place to start is to explore what makes humans trust other humans. After all, until robots decide that homo sapiens are useful for nothing but reality TV pratfalls, quality content will continue to be conceived and created by people.
Let’s start by looking at the qualities that engender trust, four of which deserve particular focus.
Affinity: Understanding that the person across from us is actually a bit like us. Whether it’s the way we dress, utter devotion to the same footie team or a mutual appreciation of manga comics, affinity instantly creates trust.
Ability: If someone has greater expertise in a field than we do and they can demonstrate it, we will give ourselves up to their higher knowledge and experience.
Integrity: Proof that someone does what they say they’re going to do, over and over again. They’re true to their word. They show up. Who wouldn’t trust someone who consistently demonstrates integrity?
Benevolence: Perhaps the most compelling of the four qualities. When someone urges us to do something not just because they will benefit but because they care about the outcome for us, we trust them.
So, if these qualities are the cornerstones of trust in everyday life, the same should be true of trust in commercial content. How do we adapt these qualities for our world? Here are four key rules for media owners and content creators to follow.
1. Be authentic [translation: refuse to be something that you’re not]
This is easier said than done. Client advertisers often talk persuasively about letting you do your thing in your way; but the subtext is they really want you to do it at least a little bit their way too. But once editorially-styled content takes on even the slightest commercial tone, two things vanish: affinity and integrity. Affinity is lost because you, the content creator, lose the unique, recognisable features that make you ‘you’ while integrity is lost because your audience spots that you’re trying to pass something off as editorial in style, when it clearly isn’t. Be you. As Oscar Wilde said, “everyone else is already taken”. Audiences can spot an imposter, and no one trusts one of those.
2. Be opinionated [translation: stop sitting on the bloody fence]
Content doesn’t need to be wildly polarising; to be honest, commercial content shouldn’t be. But nobody wants to watch a video or read an article that doesn’t have a point of view and sticks resolutely to the middle ground on everything. Having a point of view engages your audience and encourages them to lean in and share their own view. And that ‘leaning in’ builds trust.
3. Be purposeful [translation: know what you want your audience to think and feel]
Do you want your viewers or readers to learn something and come away from your content feeling educated? Then don’t give them a ‘5 things to know’ that isn’t new or truly educational. Put in the preparation and research, turn their heads, remind them why they took the time to consume your content. Do you want them to laugh out loud on the train? Then test out your gags on the target audience. Do they resonate? Is the tone on point? If the answers are yes, you’re demonstrating ability and benevolence.
4. Be transparent [translation: show your audience the respect they deserve]
There’s a belief that adding a ‘promotion’ or ‘sponsored by’ tag to a piece of commercial content will somehow devalue it. Don’t believe it. The only two things that will make your content less desirable are poor content, and content that is trying to pass itself off as something that it isn’t. If there is a commercial element involved in some of your content, then you must tell your audience (it’s actually the law). In fact, I would strongly argue that you should go one step further and differentiate between true native content (where the advertiser briefs the content creator but has no control over the content) and advertorial content (where the advertiser briefs the creator and has some control over the content). Get this one right and you are demonstrating integrity all the way.
The most compelling and perhaps worrying thing about the subject of trust in commercial content is that there is no ‘trust scale’. Trust is binary. We either trust what we’re reading or watching or we don’t. And that means we as content creators must commit not just to getting it right, but to keeping it right. If we don’t take steps to stop trust melting away right now, we’re going to end up like the polar bears, swimming for our lives.
Carla Faria is director of The Foundry, Time Inc. UK