Insight and opinion

The end of belief

Can anyone believe anything they read, see or hear anymore?

The advent of fake news and the rise of false information is a phenomenon that forces us all to question which messages we should – and shouldn’t – be putting out there if we want our brand stories to ring true.

But isn’t it really easy to tell fake news from real news? Can’t intelligent people distinguish misleading agendas from correct information?

Apparently, many intelligent people cannot. A recent study carried out by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education assessed more than 7,800 responses from middle school, high school and college students in twelve US states on their ability to assess information sources. Researchers were left “shocked” by the students’ “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their inability to evaluate information at a level even as basic as distinguishing news articles from advertisements.

With little regulation and constant noise, digital media blurs the lines still further.

For anyone with a brand to promote or protect, the worrying thing is that this relentless rise of un-believability is clearly being driven by unscrupulous businesses determined to attract online readers at any cost. Forget what’s real, just look at the clicks. It’s not just my view, but the opinion of Apple boss Tim Cook:

“We are going through this period of time right here where unfortunately some of the people that are winning are the people that spend their time trying to get the most clicks, not tell the most truth,” he says. “It’s killing people’s minds.”

If educated students cannot tell the difference between fake news, real news or even advertisements, why would people believe marketing messages of any kind?

Can all broadband providers expect to be believed when they say they are the fastest? Can all network companies expect a sudden influx of new business when they claim the widest coverage? Can all supermarkets think their customers will trust the promise of filling your shopping trolley for less?

The 5,000 advertising messages UK consumers are allegedly exposed to today (up from around 500 in the 1970s) has led to a level of exhaustion and cynicism that can only reduce advertising’s effectiveness.

And like it or not, consumers’ new cynical filter applies to your messages too.

So during our times of fake news and deliberate misinformation – when digital TV viewers can fast forward through ads, website visitors can block ads and emails can be junked without viewing – perhaps it’s time for businesses to think more carefully if they want to get their voices heard and, more importantly, believed.

A good starting point is surely to view your content with a more critical eye. Is it believable? Can it compete with the outlandish claims of fake news pedlars? Will your audience even care about what you have to say?

Be sure when making claims in your content that you have third party references to back up your claims. It always helps ensure authenticity. And instead of sharing your own perspective or opinion, let your customers and brand advocates tell your story. It’s always a good idea to involve such people when you’re creating your content, because your prospects prefer to hear from the people who’ve been there and done it than they do from your own axe-grinding marketing agenda. Think Trip Advisor.

When you quote others’ content, check it’s from a reputable source. Dig deeper to validate that the statistics you use in support of your marketing are authentic, valid and supportable. Be highly transparent. Label content for what it is, not what you want it to be.

Admitting weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and makes other claims more believable. As an example, Northwestern University analysed 111,460 product reviews and linked ratings to probability of purchasing. This did not peak with perfect scores, but instead at 4.2–4.5 out of 5. Perfect ratings have less impact because they are seen as too good to be true.

Finally, look to using those forms of media that naturally lend themselves to authenticity. Live video, for example, is harder to manipulate than almost all other forms of media. Think about using live video broadcasts as a platform for your customers to share their stories, or your own people to introduce product launches, share company news or launch special offers. And always, always do it in an exciting and engaging way – remembering at all times that this is not about what is important to you, but what is important to your customers’ worlds.