Forrester Research Gets It Wrong By Saying Corporate Blogs Aren’t Trusted

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Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research, just sent me his latest report on corporate blogs. He pegged his write-up to a U.S. consumer survey whereby participants scored corporate blogs low on trust:

Corporate blogs rank at the bottom of the trust scale with only 16% of online consumers who read them saying that they trust them. Furthermore, the consumers who say they trust these blogs are the most likely to trust all other sources of information.

Here’s how I responded on Josh’s blog: While the data selected to base the report are great for generating a headline, they’re mostly irrelevant. Blogs are a both a communications channel AND a medium. Their value are not proxied well by prompted survey questions among general consumer populations. Their value is defined by the trust developed among engaged niches over time — such as with very specific customer and industry relationships. Here’s an analogy: Do you trust telephones? No. But you may eventually build trust with the people with whom you talk and do business with via the telephone.

Former Forrester analyst Peter Kim expressed similar sentiment:

First of all, there’s a clear problem in how the question is worded and/or response quality. You can see this in the data – almost a quarter of respondents report they don’t trust or are neutral about email from people they know. The intention of the question is clear – so why would this number not be very close to 100%? When I ran the question before, it asked about advertising in the channels. This version requires respondents to respond with their own interpretation – might be editorial, might be ads, who knows?

So the numbers are what they are. You still have three variables mixed together that should be isolated and potentially produce a strong case for “why.” There’s channel, content type, and creator – examining these more closely will lead you in the right direction. The Edelman Trust Barometer does a great job here. So does Universal McCann’s Tracking survey.

The unfortunate part about the data and headline chosen to ground this analysis is that it preceded and overshadowed some great principles that businesses should consider in their blogging strategies, such as:

  • Blog about the customer’s problem.
  • Blog to your hordes of fans.
  • Blog about issues at the core of a community.
  • Blog because you’re a celebrity.
  • For B2B companies, get your employees in on the act.
  • In media, use blogs to expand the content and audience.
  • Blog to have a voice.

Finally, the report noted the importance of developing a succession plan for employee brands/blogs that eventually leave a company. Josh cited me as an example, referring to my departure from Nielsen BuzzMetrics (aka Nielsen Online) last year. On the issue of tension between company and personal brands, it’s a double-edged sword. But there’s far more benefit than risk because customers simply want relationships with brands PLUS the people behind them. It’s inevitable that the two will have to co-exist, and there are best practices that company brands and employee brands must adhere to. As for Nielsen BuzzMetrics, my departure simply means there’s one more independent, credible advocate in the marketplace. Is that bad? I don’t think so!

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Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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  1. The report made its way on my desk as well, and I had a similar gut reaction (although the note does frame some important issues for brands looking into this area). I do worry that the way the issue is framed/asked sets the stage for a low trust score (although I doubt that's the intent). I'm also not sure I agree that consumers don't want “product” blogs; I think there's a world of potential on that front, although there's no shortage of failed experiments that may tainted our soured perceptions about their potential.

    But back to the “trust in corporate blogs” issue. The term “blog” may be the wrong term from the get go, and I daresay most consumers are having a hard time making a clear distinction between a “corporate blog” and the foundational website. Here I recall a similar study I ran for Nielsen (many times in fact…in fact it found its roots in a joint study I co-led with Jim Nail while he was at Forrester) that found that “Brand Websites” ranked right after “recommendations from other consumers” on the trust scale. Those results generally held consistent year after year, and across multiple geographies. Corporate blogs are basically subset of the brand website (albeit with greater syndication potential) albeit more informal, real-time, and “first person” in form and delivery (all improvements on the base model). It's hard to argue that they “downgrade” the brand website, unless they push the extremes of overselling (which clearly happens). All of this will get more complicated as “blog publishing” formats become more central to how basic online content is managed from the get go.

    The bigger story, in my view, and this may well explain the low numbers, is that the word “blog” ranks below 18% in the Forrester study in BOTH the “personal” and “corporate” categories. For all we know, consumers are telegraphing distrust over blogs in general into the corporate space. If I were re-running the survey, I would add the “brand website” as well as “political blogs” (just to gauge whether political blogs have played a role in eroding trust).

    More thoughts forthcoming. Good post.

    – Pete Blackshaw

    1. Thanks, Pete. Your past work on consumer trust in brand Web sites is
      precisely the area I should have expanded on, so thanks for that build.
      Expanding on your addition of “brand Web site” and “political blogs” to a
      next iteration of this survey, I would like to see added corporate Twitter
      accounts, Facebook profiles and product-sponsored communities. As a marketer
      myself, the core question I want answered is: “To what extend does medium
      and content type influence the trust of creator and source? (A twist on Pete
      Kim’s variables.) And the second question should be what other variables
      should marketers consider in putting their most trusting foot forward (other
      than the obvious — acting honest, trustworty and authentic)?

  2. Not sure what your problem is with our research.

    Don't you find it shocking that only 16% of people react to the words “company blog” with any trust? I certainly did, I found it worthy of a headline.

    Survey space isn't infinite, which is why the question is worded the way it is. We can follow up, and we will.

    Since you agreed with our recommendations, where's the beef?

  3. Josh,

    Many thanks for your reply to my reply. For the record, I have tremendous respect for you and your body of work — have for many years, and you know that. But this was an exception. I explained my disagreements at great length in my post, and in the following comment thread — and several smart people backed me up on the validity of my criticism. If I have erred, I invite you to specify where and debate where this thread went astray.

    Your recommendations? They were awesome, and I called them out as such. In fact, I'll publicly endorse them right here by saying they concise and reassuring. I sent them to my own management team, and to several industry colleagues.

    But, as I underscored, they were foreshadowed by a headline pegged to what I believe was a survey question extrapolated too far. Yes, it is somewhat interesting that 16% of people react to the words “company blog” with little trust. But that's applying a broadcast mentality to a niche communications venue and channel. As a practitioner, I don't care so much how a general consumer population reacts to “company blogs in general” when prompted in an online, telephone or diary survey. (I have less and less faith in survey methodologies each day that goes on — and that's coming from someone who knows a thing or two about them. But that's another issue.) The numbers were the numbers and I don't disagree that that's really how your consumer panel answered the question.

    So what do I care about? The targeted stakeholders with whom we engage and build trust with over time. If I were in your shoes — again, as I underscore above — I would follow up on this work by trying to answer how one particular medium or channel and content type MIGHT influence the trust of a specific content creator and source. There is merit to the saying “the medium is the message.” Yeah, but how much? And the second question should be what other variables are out there that marketers must consider in putting their most trusting foot forward (other than the obvious — acting honest, trustworthy and authentic). This builds on Pete Kim's comment over key variables that must be considered but were not in this instance, as far as I can tell.

    Look, I'm a marketing guy, employed to promote and protect the brands where I work. And I do take the whole social media movement seriously — and I'm respectful of your work in advancing this new dimension of business. You've been among the clear thought leaders. But bottom line: I felt the 16% trust headline was more of a mischaracterization and distraction of deeper issues at stake. From a practical perspective, I believe it deserves less emphasis and more context. But damn, I'll give it to you: it was a great headline! I blogged about it, didn't I? You also motivated many others to as well, including mainstream press.

    To conclude, I hope you'll keep me on your PR pitch list. You've prompted me to think critically about a few issues I otherwise would not have — particularly those questions I extracted. And for that, I thank you. And since you are an analyst, I trust that you respect and enjoy healthy debate beyond your inner circle as well. We can agree to disagree.

  4. Terrific analysis as always, sir.

    One thing we need to keep in mind is that there is a generally low opinion of corporations in general, and the Forrester data reflects that. We talked about this with Josh in a private briefing with the Blog Council on Tuesday. By and large, people just don't trust large corporations as having their best interests at heart. So when they see that a corporation has started a blog, they see it as the Big Bad Wolf knocking on the door.

    What's sad is that they don't see that there are *real people* writing these blogs. The work these people do is outstanding, and comes from a good place. They genuinely want to help make their customer's lives better.

    For example, look at one of the example Josh wrote about in the report: Rubbermaid. (*) You have Jim Deitzel blogging about getting organized, preparing for the holidays, getting ready for New Year's, etc. It's fun and personal. He even posted pictures of his kids. Yes, he talks about Rubbermaid products, but in the context of getting organized and helping to solve real world customer problems.

    How any of that could generate mistrust is beyond me.


    312-932-9000 / / twitter: merubin
    I am a Blog Council employee and this is my personal opinion.
    * Rubbermaid is a Blog Council member. I write about them because I like them and they are good people.

  5. Great article, Josh.

    I know from lots of hard data and antectdotal experience that our “corporate” blog is very well trusted by many people. We get lots of leads and sales as a result of it. And many more people tell us all the time that we put out great content.

    Of course, many business blogs don’t “engage” in conversations, tell the whole side of the story. Many don’t stop promoting long enough to educate. So, it depends entirely on the company.

    However, I like to tell people that a blog is just a piece of software that lets you update your website and get feedback. It’s how you use it, that counts.

    Maybe we have a long way to go to get marketers to start “talking at” their audience and start “conversing with” their industry.

  6. Great article, Max!

    I know from lots of hard data and antectdotal experience that our “corporate” blog is very well trusted by many people. We get lots of leads and sales as a result of it. And many more people tell us all the time that we put out great content that they trust.

    Of course, many business blogs don't “engage” in conversations or tell the whole side of the story. Many don't stop promoting long enough to educate. So, it depends entirely on the company.

    However, I like to tell people that a blog is just a piece of software that lets you update your website and get feedback. It's how you use it, that counts.

    Maybe we have a long way to go to get marketers to start “talking at” their audience and start “conversing with” their industry.

  7. Peter, thanks for sharing your experience. Speaks directly to my point about what matters and the deeper issues: earning trust with your stakeholders, regardless of channel, in your specific niche. The medium is not the foundation of trust.

  8. While I agree that just asking someone if they would trust a corporate blog might cause them to quickly say no…I would think that anyone who has actually read a corporate blog and has become a part of that community has taken the investment of time in understanding that blogging at its core is about relationships and trust. Certainly I hope in the 2+ years that I have been blogging corporately for Pierce Mattie that our readership has come to trust us, our voice, our team and our vision. I would hope and have faith that other companies out there blogging are honest and forthright because that is the only way any company can remain an active part of the blogosphere.

    Back in November I was in our NY office teaching individual sessions to several brands on corporate blogging and social media as a whole. The most important thing I drove home was building trust and genuine relationships with their audience. I probably scared everyone when I told them to allow negative comments further explaining that it presents them the opportunity to provide good customer service openly and publicly through a dialogue there.

    I guess with this research I would want to know how long a person read a corporate blog before they came to the decision on trust. Right away? After a month or more? Was it just on brand name alone? Was it the person behind the blog? Was it due to a previous bad experience with the brand? I think there are a lot of factors and variables that can broken down…

  9. What's interesting about this is that the Edelman Trust Barometer, as reported by eMarketer, found something very similar this past January. The Opinion Elite survey involved 35-64, college, income upper 25%, significant involvement or interest in media, etc. At the *top* of the “credible sources of information about a company” list was “persons like me” (60%). At the bottom was “bloggers” (12%).

    Max, your point about trusting the phone versus trusting the conversation occurring on the phone is well taken. The Trust Barometer cited above (I think) supports this distinction: If I know the blogger, or if the blogger is someone like me….then trust is higher. In other words, it's not the blog…it's the person talking and the context of what's being said that matters. If the blogger is just a name…if the blog is obviously ghost written or fails to adequately disclose…then to Mike's point, corporate trust is low and so that impacts findings in ways that the questions probably didn't get at.

    Should a company be blogging? ABSOLUTELY. As I say in “Social Media Marketing,” to not participate is to implicitly sanction what is being said about you. By participating–and only by participating–one opens the door to trusted relationships. Even if trust is low–a contentious finding to be sure but assume it is–it's still a net gain to the extent that the trust factor is greater than zero.

    In practical reality–and exactly to your point–to the extent that readers/participants build relationships with individual corporate blogger then over time trust almost surely goes up, significantly.

  10. Great point vis the niche-targetting Max. I blog for myself and 20 key readers. “US consumers” be damned!

  11. A) Love the phone analogy. I haven't trusted a phone in years. But I do trust the relationships and individuals I connect with through it. Same sentiment with a blog's community.

    B) I love it when people question the prevailing wisdom. Forrester isn't always right. Nice work.

  12. Thanks Shannon. “How long a person read a corporate blog before they came to the decision on trust?” That's a great question. Difficult to answer, but indicative of the investment required to earn trust.

  13. Henry, you're the man, and you know what niche publishing is all about — including what it takes to earn attention and trust. I'm like you: I write for myself and about 15 other people, many on this thread. I hope and believe I've earned their trust, and yours.

  14. Max, I think this post was spot on. And Pete makes some excellent points as well: there is, in general, a lack of trust in corporation to begin with; there is potential confusion among average consumers around the word “blog” (the 18% is telling)….and often, consumers don't really seem to know the difference between a “blog” or a “website” as I hear them used almost interchangabley now.

    Great post, look forward to the follow up comments from Josh

  15. Thanks Max. I think that oftentimes when it comes to social media in general people are ill prepared for the investment of time across the board–from the corporate standpoint on blogging…how long it takes to build an audience, gain their trust, but also to keep the search engine spiders engaged to continuously be scanning content to gain traction and visibility. From the readership perspective, they too have to make that investment of time, not judging a book by its first (or second or third) blog post. In all relationships, online and off, trust takes time and patience.

  16. Classic problem of dirty data in surveys. A sign of a badly designed survey. But don't fear…it's nearly impossible to design a good one. That's pretty much why surveys are a bad mechanism for anything other that stirring up random thoughts — but clearly NOT for measuring anything.

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