Anonymity vs. Influencers: Where Will Trust Live Online?

Are brands reaching people where they invest their trust?

"We made #rnb official in Rioja, Spain and we are so happy our @riojawine family could be a part of our Big Day! 🍷🇪🇸 #abasolutelyinlove," reads a post from a former Bachelorette contestant. Featured are two wine bottles against a too-polished arrangement of flowers, glasses and wedding-inspired burnt wood plaque.

"My version of the yellow brick road by @originalrunners 💛 #abasolutelyinlove #rnb," reads another, accompanied by a photo featuring the runner created by the mentioned brand. A fellow Bachelor celeb responds, "Love it!! They did our runner!! Just love seeing all your photos of your happy day! Congratulations beautiful!!"

"IT'S ALL ABOUT THE DETAILS and thanks to @mintedweddings and @greenleafgifts our details were immaculate. Thank you 🙌🏾," captions yet another post—again, entirely absent any people but prominently featuring products. 

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it smells like influencers. Even weddings are no longer sacred—in fact, they're a tradition that's been heavily co-opted as an opportunity for brand integrations. There are plenty of examples of brands deriving real business value from influencer integrations. But something strange is happening to our ability to trust the internet and its new breed of celebrities. 

Compounded by the threat of "deep fakes," fake news and the rest, people's trust in the system is fractured. In 2017, Forrester reported that consumer trust was at an all-time low, and reports since haven't shown much improvement. Meanwhile, we're using up the little trust equity we have left by paying good-looking people on Instagram to pretend to like products. 

The problem for marketers: The most powerful brands in the world are built on trust, so when online spaces erode that trust, we're looking at lost opportunities.

It's probably no surprise that Amazon and Google reviews are among the most trustworthy places to get information on brands and products, at 89 percent and 88 percent, respectively, according to a recent survey. It probably isn't surprising that platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook lag behind—at 66 percent, 64 percent, and 58 percent. What might surprise you is that 86 percent of Reddit users trust the brand and product recommendations of other Redditors. 

Counterintuitive as it may seem, online trust is returning to where it began—anonymous communities organized around common interests and ideas.

The evidence...

Skepticism is the Internet's healthy, natural state.

The future of trust online already exists. I can show you that future by showing you where anonymous trust began—just click on On 4chan, everything said by everyone is by default (and intentionally politically incorrectly) "fake and gay." People on 4chan inherently disbelieve everything everyone else posts because 4chan strips away any semblance of pretending you're the same person online as you are offline. Online, you're "anon," and offline, you might be my boss or my annoying adolescent neighbor or my uncle. But 4chan understands that whoever you happen to be offline is someone different than who you are online. 

Trust is fading in traditional social networks.

Intuitively, platforms like Instagram and Facebook once seemed to be the more trustworthy side of the Internet. After all, they're attached to our offline identity, and organized (mostly) around people we know in real life. Whether distrust in these platforms stems from Facebook's corporate practices or people simply not trusting their average social connections for product recommendations, we need to start thinking differently about where people are making their purchasing decisions. More than any other social network, Reddit users say they trust their community. Why? 

Online communities are different from social networks.

In some important ways, Reddit is more an online community than it is a social network. As the largest network of anonymous communities, Reddit is a good example of how the best online communities function. They're user-curated, user-moderated, and user-driven. But even platforms like 4chan, 9gag and Tumblr manage to foster a sense of online community that's distinctly different from what we generally consider "social media." 

Shared passions generate shared trust.

Communities tend to be organized around psychographic principles for lack of demographic information, and as a consequence, tend to foster more group experiences. We don't add our friends on 4chan because we don't know who they are. Content is surfaced based on the community's group curation rather than an algorithm focused on us as individuals. As people interact with consistent, similar content, these shared experiences foster a deeper sense of community and trust. 

Ultimately, in anonymous communities, what you say and how you act are vastly more important than who you are, what your profile picture looks like, or how many followers you have. And that builds trust. 

As we invest our brands' time, resources and creative energy into developing our story to build connections with our audiences, the question we ought to continually ask is: Are we reaching people where they invest their trust? 

The future of trust online will continue to flow toward platforms that value honesty over influence and connection over clout. 

Profile picture for user Joe Federer
Joe Federer
Joe Federer is a strategist, author and former head of brand strategy at Reddit.

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