Trust: The Internet Comes of Age

If you asked consumers to rank the most trustworthy media, you’d expect the classics to rank high: TV, newspapers, and radio (although none of these is really more trustworthy than any other). Consumers perceive them to be trustworthy simply because they’ve been around a long time. Certainly longer than online media. A study conducted some years ago by TIME and CNN supports this supposition, showing only 13 percent of teens 13-17 trust the Internet; 83 percent trust their parents; 39 percent trust TV and newspapers; and 55 percent trust religious leaders.

A June 2000 Greenfield Online study shows 61 percent of a survey group deemed it “very/somewhat” important that e-commerce stores have offline shops to spur online purchases. Similar click-and-mortar studies show people trust brick-and-mortar stores up to 80 percent more than their online counterparts. Brick-and-mortar represents solid values.

This means building brands online wasn’t as effective as building brands with offline media. Many startups and less-trusted brands concluded they had to concentrate the big marketing dollars offline to achieve the perception their brands were trustworthy.

Those older findings may now be invalid. A study conducted last month by Information Resources (IRI) and DoubleClick came up with the surprising fact that online advertising can influence consumer perceptions of brands positively. In the case of major consumer packaged goods products, offline sales were increased an average 6.6 percent by online ads.

This is the first evidence I’ve seen showing the old offline world is no longer the driving force behind brand credibility. The Internet is finally a member of the trusted media club. Internet-based marketing has been proven to affect offline brands — not only in the realm of innovative values, which has always been the case, but also in terms of trust. It even affects offline sales.

Why? If the picture created by this study can be considered an indicator of what’s really going on out there, there are only two possible explanations. First, the Internet has been accepted by consumers as an integral part of life. It’s no longer a new phenomenon. The Internet is perceived as a solid medium, on par with TV, newspapers, and magazines. Second, despite the fact there’s still is a lot of — how can I put this delicately? — low-quality stuff online, sites are raising the bar. Unlike two years ago, when some 100 online stores closed every day, today we expect most stores we’re dealing with will be there tomorrow.

If this is true and this study accurately reflects consumer perceptions, the conclusion is clear. Print and broadcast are no longer the only method available to generate trust in your brand. Offline media’s advantage over online is dissipating (or gone entirely). We can finally concentrate on the true potential of the Internet as a communications tool — no longer blinded by the offline trust factor.

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