The language of trust is, as far as I can see, the common language marketers and corporate social responsibility teams. By and large, they have very different perspectives on the dynamics of business but the one thing they will agree on - if you lose trust, your job just got a lot harder.

So one of the core skills of either group, therefore, should be to understand how to build trust with key constituencies. One problem. Trust is not a fixed reference point - a reliable outcome from a set of practiced techniques. It changes and evolves over time.

For instance, the latest version of the Edelman Trust Barometer suggests that there have been significant shifts in who trusts whom since the last one. The headlines tend to focus on how much business is trusted, how much government is trusted and so on.

One of the things I found most remarkable was this: Over the last year people's trust in their friends as a source of information or recommendations has dropped dramatically - from 45 percent in 2009 to 25 percent in 2010.

Let's put aside the suspicion that our most reliable friends have deserted us en mass during the last year and focus on what this means.

It means that the revolution of online social networking - and the engagement by marketers of the same - has had an effect - and not the one that was generally anticipated.

Companies such as Amazon pioneered the use of peer-recommendation, by introducing customer reviews of products. Then came Facebook where you gathered about yourself the online expressions of your closest trusted friends.

And marketers came to understand that the language of trust worked best through people we know and like. So they started aiming to utilise approaches that would get people recommending their experiences to those friends. They focused on things they could use to 'go viral'. The focused on ideas that would spread.

The result has been the same as any where a previously strong technique has been widely adopted, imitated and exploited - diminishing returns.

Now, suddenly, people are finding that their friends are just as susceptible as they themselves are - and that their recommendations don't always hold true. So trust is going down. Yet another triumph for the world of marketing.

Marketers are already responding by saying that they shouldn't rely too heavily on peer to peer marketing as its power is reducing. There doesn't seem to be any particular reflection on the causal chain there, though.

The so-called blogosphere doesn't score well, either, by the way. Trust in information from blogs and other free-content sources like Wikipedia is very low - below 22 percent trust information from these sources.

That is only realistic. But as with all things, there will be individual sources that become more highly trusted than others over time. You might think, therefore, that trust in traditional media is on the rise. Since we have become disillusioned with the self-appointed commentators (what, me?) and our rather gullible friends, we are probably ready to pay for news we can trust again.

Nope. Trust in media companies is still on the way down. TV news plummeted 20 points. Newspapers by 14 points.

It's interesting, because most 'social media gurus' (and there seem to be thousands of self-appointed gurus - but at least a few are widely respected) tend to argue that businesses need to engage in social media as a way to build trust. They have to be "part of the conversation" on Twitter and on blogs. They should be responding, and promoting their message - in an authentic fashion - through those channels.

And yet it could be that it is the increasing number of companies doing precisely that which is resulting in this growing lack of trust.

The point is that you have to be aware of the action - reaction cycle when it comes to building trust. Ultimately, the ability to build trust doesn't depend so much on which channels you use, but whether you show that you genuinely care about the outcomes you have on people, and show yourself to be trustworthy by delivering on your promises.

What you do changes the nature of the thing you do it to.

If you take something, like 'hours spent on training', which is generally an indicator of good things happening - and then you make it into a target, it changes the nature of the thing. Suddenly, people have an incentive to create new training courses to clock up those all-important brownie points, and after a while you realise that you're capturing the quantity of training, not the quality of outcome.

So it is here. Engage with social media, and you are part of the process that is changing social media.

It's not a problem so long as you look after people and deliver on your promises. Unfortunately, the majority of marketing engagement with social media either does not pass this test or, at the very least, is not perceived to pass this test.

Too late now. The well is poisoned - at least in part.

By the way, trust in NGOs continues to rise. Why? Surely in part because they are seen as being motivated by the common good, and even though some of them may engage with companies they haven't yet been co-opted as a channel for marketing - cause marketing (a minority sport) notwithstanding.

This might make for a fascinating conversation between CSR teams and marketing teams, by the way. Why not see if you can kick-start it?

Mallen Baker

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