THE BLOG
09/20/2013 11:00 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2013

Big Brands, Social Media and Trust: How to Avoid an Online Crisis

According to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 50 percent of American customers trust business to "do what is right." On top of that, a better deal is always a click away, and when a product or service isn't 100 percent in alignment with expectations, buyers are quick to amplify their grievances online to all who will listen.

In this competitive environment, its more important than ever for businesses to create opportunities to develop trust -- internally in their organizations, on the front line with customers, through great products and service, transparency, and follow-through. Social media, offering a direct and candid connection to customers, can be an excellent tool to support this deepening of the relationship.

And yet, sometimes it seems that social media acts as a global megaphone for disgruntled customers, drowning out a company's positive track record even when the critics are exceptions rather than the rule.

Smart companies minimize the risk of entering the social game with the help of companies and people who specialize in moderating a brand's social media channels. I recently sat down with Peter Friedman, the CEO of the social content marketing company LiveWorld. "Companies who successfully master the social environment see potential PR crises fizzle online," says Peter. "Inappropriate customers get challenged and out-voiced--not by the company but by the company's loyal fans who become brand defenders."

Twenty-nine years ago, Peter helped build and manage Apple's industry wide social network, one of the company's earliest initiatives in growing the "Apple cult" that is so widely evident today. "Not many people know that Apple's following wasn't just built on great design and products--it was one of the earliest companies to engage people in an online community, and they're still creating and profiting from that dynamic today."

Peter gave me some inside tips on how the world's biggest brands - or companies of any size - can build and sustain trust through social media.

• Create a shared culture that represents the brand through dialogue, engagement, and moderation.

This means creating a context consistent with the brand's values and positioning, letting visitors know how to interact, enabling them to join the conversation and feeling the brand experience together. "Your customers will perceive and run with the cultural experience of your social platform," according to Peter. "As such it's critical to get that cultural feel right." Remember, this is about being who you actually are and being trusted and not anyone else.

• Co-create through social storytelling so their audience isn't just engaged but involved.

If you can create a brand story your customers don't just like but actually feel they contribute to, they're much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt should miscommunication or a crisis arise. The two-way forum of social media is an excellent place to create that shared story, through ongoing dialogue and moderation.

"Maybe you've heard that doctors who have a like-able bedside manner are less likely to be sued for malpractice. Studies have shown this," says Peter. "In social media you find a similar effect--if customers like the experience they're having, and are emotionally taken up by the conversations they've engaged in, they are more likely to trust the brand community they've become a part of. They won't immediately become your worst critics. They'll stop and listen first."

• Embrace transparency and don't try to shut down critics.

The fastest way to erode trust is to try to brush criticism or mistakes under the rug. "Do that, and customers will immediately wonder what else is hidden there," says Peter. "Besides which, it doesn't help you contain the bad press, since on the Internet another venue in which to complain is always just one hyperlink away." What you can do to both preserve trust and contain a flash point is move controversial discussions off the main social page to a dedicated page. This alone often defuses a situation since it's often a vocal minority that are creating furor.

• Build a system through social that lets you deal with criticism against a larger backdrop of data and experience with customers.

A properly maintained, moderated, and tracked social platform helps a company gauge where its most important constituency--customers--stands on an issue. That kind of information is incredibly valuable to strategic decision-making. "One of our biggest clients thought it had a crisis on its hands when an interest group criticized its decision to stay open over a holiday," Peter tells me. "But customers immediately spoke up to defend the company's decision, outnumbering the critics." After about two days of back and forth, they gave up, and the holiday season continued successfully.

• Listen to customers and truly care.

In social media, as everywhere, authenticity is a key ingredient to trust. For big companies, that means fulfilling their brand in every single touch point the customer has with your company, including the social space. It means that when customer feedback is solicited or acknowledged, employees take it seriously and show the customer they do. It means the people you have representing your brand, in social media and elsewhere, aren't speaking from scripts and genuinely embody the values you stand for as an organization. And, in all listening, organization's must be careful to stay within their values in order to remain trusted.

"Marketing should lead the initiative, but the most innovative companies are finding ways to weave social communication throughout the organization," say Peter. "Social media presents a terrific opportunity for even the biggest brands to unleash their humanity--all those people whose collective efforts make the product happen. They quickly find that's a much better, deeper space for building trust than a company logo."

The bottom line on social media and offline is that if you do what you say you are going to do, in the way you promise, you will stay trusted both online and off.


This article is by David Horsager, author of National Bestseller The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line.