I look forward to the yearly release of Edelman's Trust Barometer, a global study of where the public places its trust, and what that trust truly entails. The 2011 Trust Barometer was just released, and some of the shifts year-over-year are fascinating. I'll have more to say in this space about these shifts in the future, but some of the more notable changes from the previous year's data were in the graphs showing where the public places its trust. One of the telling questions from the study relates to the credibility of information about companies, products and services: "If you heard information about a company from one of these people, how credible would that information be?" If we combine the percentage of respondents who selected "Extremely Credible" and "Very Credible," we see Academics/Experts lead the way, at 70% (up from 62% last year.) While last year's number two answer, Financial/Industry Analyst, still performed well at 53%, it was supplanted this year by "Technical expert within the company," at 64%. The most dramatic shift? CEOs went from 31% to 50%, signaling a clear shift in trust and certainly the need for companies to have credible, articulate CEOs at the helm. The trust afforded to "people like me" actually showed a slight drop, from 47% to 43%, while "regular employee" remained nearly static at 34%.
The implications are clear - the locus for a brand's credibility is shifting towards the representatives of that brand. This, of course, means that the people who represent brands online (and in social media in particular) have a critical role in fostering trust, and that trust is based upon the quality of both their product and their knowledge of that product. The number one way for a corporation to enhance its reputation, according to the 2011 data, is simple: have a superior product. In other words, you can't polish a turd. But the evidence of a product's superiority will be in the quality of those who represent it.
All of this places a new importance on, and a shift in, the role of the community manager, and anyone else who represents your brand online. What I hope we learn from this data and future, corroborative studies, is that the community manager role is not intended as a sop to the public; nor will community managers be successful who spend their time writing thinly-veiled, self-serving infomercials as comments, posts and tweets. My hallucination here is this: the "passionate amateur" days of social media are waning. Community managers are at the sharp end of the stick for fostering public perceptions of credibility and trust. Increasingly, what your audience and customers want to see is mastery.
The best community managers out there have this already. Lisa Barone wrote about some of these yesterday in her excellent piece, "8 Ingredients That Make A Community Manager." Still, for every Jennifer Sable Lopez, DJ Waldow, Amber Naslund and Jason Falls out there, there are others who have yet to establish thought leadership, either through mastery of their subject matter, or through knowledge of a credible product. That's OK, too, as long as you know what you don't know. Knowing what I don't know may, in fact, be the only thing I've truly mastered.
On the HR side, the Edelman data should send a clear signal to companies that your community manager is more than just your early tweet-responder and corporate goodwill-spreader. Community managers are empowered to represent your company online, and directly affect your brand and how it is perceived. The Edelman data suggests that while some portion of the buying public appreciates relationships with "guys like us," most people are looking for thought leadership - and it is imperative that community managers have, develop or serve as conduits to this mastery. Good communication skills are just table stakes.
When I look at Lisa Barone's list and consider it in this light, the great community manager is a rare bird, indeed - and should be hired, developed and compensated accordingly.
Here is the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer presentation for your considered perusal: