This system of linked hypertext documents allowing users to search information by moving from one document to the next was supposed to foster democracy. The web was built on egalitarian principles. “Individuals without great wealth or bases of power and the industrial world economy can exert influence on others who find their ideas resonating with them,” said Al Gore. “It represents the emergence of a new information ecosystem that will have a more profound impact on human civilization than did the printing press.”
Along with that profound impact, however, comes a great deal of unanticipated side effects.
Tim Berners-Lee’s egalitarian vision for the World Wide Web focused on creating an online world where the net was neutral. Fast forward to 2017 and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a massive repeal of net neutrality laws, which the commission approved in a 3-2 vote on December 14, making Internet users skeptical that the web will remain free and open. But the risk of losing net neutrality was not the only web-related topic dominating news in 2017.
More skepticism arose when information came to the surface regarding controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica, a company that combines data mining and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. The company has found itself amidst an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by the Trump campaign in 2016, uses psychographic profiling to collect data and create personality profiles for voters that they then use to target individuals with content specifically tailored to their profile. While big data is being used to influence U.S. Presidential elections, people have begun to wonder what else their private information is being used for online.
Perhaps the most talked about web-related concern of 2017 was the abundance of fake news distributed through social media. The issue became so severe, in fact, that Facebook changed its algorithm in hopes of making a user’s experience more meaningful.
These issues of trust likely contributed to the findings of the newly released 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which produced one central theme: We’re experiencing a crisis of trust. The results from over 33,000 respondents found that “nearly seven in 10 people globally worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon” (2018 Edelman Trust Barometer). The report also found an aggregate 37% drop in trust across government, media, businesses, and non-government organizations in the United States. This poses a challenge to those of us representing institutions of higher education on social media, as rebuilding trust and fostering authentic connections is now as vital as ever.
Utilizing user-generated content is poised to become one of the most effective methods of combating the trust crisis we’re experiencing. But before implementing user-generated content into your strategy, it’s important to understand the underlying factors that make this type of content work so effectively. One such factor is the psychological phenomenon known as social proof.
When people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect appropriate behavior in a given situation, they are playing into the phenomenon of social proof. But social proof manifests in various ways, some of which translate very effectively in the realm of social media. User social proof is “when your current users recommend your products and services based on their experiences with your brand.” An example would be social media takeovers, when an individual who has experience with your brand shares his or her true experience with the brand’s followers.
Having a large following on a platform or an abundance of reviews on your brand’s page contributes to the “wisdom of the crowd” social proof. If your product or service is endorsed by a large number of people, individuals are more inclined to believe it is also good enough for them.
Similarly, social engagement is a strong contributor to the “wisdom of your friends” social proof. When people notice that their friends “like” your page or use your products, their behavior is more likely to reflect that of their social groups.
FastCompany mentions “studies show that 70% of consumers say they look at product reviews before making a purchase, and product reviews are 12x more trusted than product descriptions from manufacturers.” Though social proof is often examined through the lens of selling products, its impact goes beyond just that. An institution of higher education, for example, could generate higher enrollment with a strong social media presence that highlights authentic reviews from real students and positive feedback from a large digital following.
User-generated content brings power back to the people.
Of The People
During a time when institutions are distrusted, consumers tend to find a “person like yourself” to be a credible source. People have become very motive aware and resist marketing tactics that are inauthentic. In other words, brands who never share user-generated content risk being perceived as inauthentic. Featuring real people in a brand’s content provides consumers the ability to trust the product when they see it being used or experienced by someone “just like them.”
By The People
Content that is created by the audience itself increases the authenticity (and therefore the effectiveness) of the overall message. Audiences have become very keen to the motives of brands to “sell” a product or idea. For the sake of engagement, brands are now encouraged to harness the power of micro-influencers. Markerly examined engagement on Instagram and discovered that “As an influencer’s number of followers increases, their number of likes and comments from followers decreases.” Markerly also determined the following information:
- Instagram users with fewer than 1,000 followers generated likes 8% of the time
- Users with 1,000-10,000 followers earned likes at a 4% rate
- Users with 10,000-100,000 followers achieved a 2.4% like rate
- Users with 1-10 million followers earned likes only 1.7% of the time.
For The People
Getting to know your audience is as important as ever. A web search for the effectiveness of UGC produces a wealth of statistics that are difficult to ignore:
- UGC is 35% more memorable than other media, and 50% more trusted
- 86% of Millennials say that UGC is a positive indicator of a brand quality
- 74% of consumers rely on social media to inform their purchasing decisions
- 84% of consumers say they trust peer recommendations above all other sources of advertising
In the current state of distrust, brands face an ongoing challenge of building and maintaining trust. It’s not an easy challenge we face, and our results won’t appear overnight. But we can find solace in the fact that user-generated content is proving to be one viable method of establishing trust by allowing the audience to be the voice of the brand.