Fake news, bogus online reviews, dishonest influencers – it’s no wonder consumer trust is eroding. But by building relationships, promo companies can be a breath of fresh air in the digital age.
The internet has made the world more convenient. After all, who doesn’t love the instant gratification of one-click shopping and next-day delivery? Or the ease with which you can hop on a video chat with friends and family half a world away?
All that convenience, however, brings a slew of complications. Think about all the high-profile data breaches over the last few years that compromised consumers’ most sensitive information, or the rise of social media bots spreading fake news and inflaming public discourse. Online shopping itself is a minefield of mistrust, from shady product reviews to the often murky relationship between online influencers and their sponsored content.
In the dinosaur days before the internet claimed every part of our lives, consumers turned to a select few sources to make their purchasing decisions: a friend or family member, a store salesman, perhaps a newspaper or magazine. With the rise of online shopping, consumers were awash in an ocean of information: search engine results, online reviews, Facebook friends. But now the trust in those platforms is starting to erode.
“The last decade has seen a loss of faith in traditional authority figures and institutions,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, a global communications firm that releases an annual Trust Barometer. “More recently, people have lost confidence in the social platforms that fostered peer-to-peer trust. These forces have led people to shift their trust to the relationships within their control.”
That could be good news for promotional products professionals who are focused on the old-fashioned arts of building relationships and consultative selling. Being transparent and authentic are key to winning a client’s trust; remaining consistent and following through with your promises will help you keep it.
Fake News, Fake Reviews In 2016, one-fifth of all tweets about the U.S. presidential election were generated by bots, as well as one-third of the tweets about that year’s Brexit vote, according to an article in The Atlantic. That same article by Harvard Kennedy School fellow Bruce Schneier posited that, in the near future, “AI-driven personas will be able to write personalized letters to newspapers and elected officials, submit individual comments to public rule-making processes, and intelligently debate political issues on social media. They will be able to comment on social-media posts, news sites and elsewhere, creating persistent personas that seem real even to someone scrutinizing them.”
As artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated, the lines between the real and the robotic are blurring – perhaps one of the reasons why fewer people are placing trust in social media and purely online interactions. Only 34% trust social apps as a news source, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, compared with 65% relying on traditional media and 61% on search engines. Engagement in the news is on the rise, with 72% consuming news content at least once a week, up from 50% in 2018, according to the Barometer. Despite the appetite for information, though, many people (73%) are deeply concerned about the prospect of false information and fake news being used as a weapon.
“People will see something in the digital world online or on social, and their first inkling is, ‘Oh, this is probably true.’ A lot of times it’s not,” says Jon Alagem, president of New York City-based distributor Harper+Scott (asi/220052). “There’s a lot of fake news out there.”
It’s not just news, of course. The web is littered with misleading and deceptive product ads and information. “There are so many things on social media with advertisements for products and services where you never know what you’re going to get,” says Candece Hadley, a salesperson with Centerville, UT-based Interform (asi/231501). “You click on something on Instagram to get what looks like amazing boots, but when they come, they’re vinyl and not leather.”
And, turning to user-generated product reviews doesn’t necessarily help a consumer make an informed decision either. Amazon, for example, has said it’s prevented more than 13 million attempts to post fake reviews and taken action against more than 5 million sellers’ accounts for review manipulation, according to BuzzFeed News. But fake reviews are still a huge problem, with unscrupulous vendors deploying an array of strategies to game the system and garner better reviews and higher rankings in Amazon’s search algorithm. Sellers will take to Facebook and other sites to offer users “free” samples of products in return for good reviews. A recent Buzzfeed News article profiled a 20-something woman who spent more than $15,000 on Amazon last year, all of which was reimbursed in exchange for those coveted five-star ratings. Another scheme, known as “brushing,” involves people setting up fake email accounts, purchasing goods with a gift card and sending them to a random person. The brusher can then write a glowing “verified” review for the product.
Then there’s “review hijacking,” where sellers swipe positive reviews from other products and use them in their own listings. “Buyers who can’t base a buying decision on accurate reviews are harmed because many of them never scroll down to the older reviews that relate to a totally different product,” Chris McCabe, owner of seller consulting firm ecommerceChris, told Consumer Reports.
“Every day, customers on Amazon are being shown things that aren’t true. They will lose trust in the site,” consultant James Thomson told BuzzFeed.
Crisis of Confidence: “Distrust is rippling through the country, and it’s particularly potent when concerning major institutions and concentrations of power,” reports the Morning Consult in its 2020 report, “The State of Consumer Trust.” Among Americans, no figure or group is trusted by more than half of the population. This suggests for businesses that it’s increasingly harder to win the trust of consumers, but represents a huge opportunity for those who do.
Despite all this, Amazon is still displaying envious growth, and e-commerce marches on unfettered. (Last year, online shopping overtook brick-and-mortal general merchandise sales – department stores, supercenters and warehouse stores – in market share.) Why? For many people, the convenience factor still outweighs trust. On smaller purchases, online shoppers are often willing to take a chance on a product that seems too good to be true, figuring they can take advantage of free and easy return policies if the purchase doesn’t work out.
As the price scales up, though, shoppers are more likely to turn to brands they know and trust. Consumers who trust a brand are more than twice as likely to be the first to buy a brand’s new products, more than twice as likely to stay loyal, even in the face of disruption, and almost twice as likely to defend the brand when things go wrong, according to Edelman.
Craig Nadel, president of Jack Nadel International (asi/279600), speculates that part of the reason brand names have become so prevalent in the promotional products industry ties directly into this need for trust. (The fact that the economy is doing better also plays a role.) “Instead of the no-name from eight or 10 years ago, people are going to go with a brand,” he says.
Bad Influence? Online product reviews seem almost quaint when you move onto the huge landscape that is influencer marketing. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that the influencer industry will grow to a $15 billion business by 2022. And Edelman reported that 63% of consumers trust influencers’ opinions of products “much more” than what brands themselves say; 58% have purchased something within the last six months based on an influencer’s recommendation.
At the same time, however, people are becoming more skeptical of the authenticity of so-called “spon-con” on social media. Reality stars like Khloé Kardashian are routinely called out for peddling unhealthy “flat tummy” weight-loss drinks on Instagram. And every other week, it seems, another influencer is exposed for overstating their reach by purchasing fake followers, for misleading their audience about the glamour of their lives and whether they use the products they recommend, or for failing to disclose that a social media post contained sponsored content at all.
Late last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a primer for online influencers, laying out the rules for how and when they must disclose sponsorships to followers. Though the FTC rules are mandatory, there’s little to no enforcement of them, and many influencers don’t disclose their endorsements and sponsorships, Leilani Carver-Madalon, an assistant professor in strategic communication at Maryville University, told Forbes.
“Word on the street with most millennials is that the whole world of influencer marketing is grayscale and there’s no more trust,” Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research, told Forbes. “When tech-savvy youth are scrolling their social media feeds on a constant basis, they’re quick to discern what’s fact and what’s fiction. At this point, they’ve seen so many YouTube videos or Instagram stories of people hyping a product, but who are obviously uncomfortable using it, that they tune out most product-related posts immediately.”
The most successful influencers are the ones whose authenticity is apparent, even when a post is clearly marked as a paid endorsement. Authenticity is also a key trust-building tool for salespeople. “We have one guy who sells to clients that are environmentally conscious,” Nadel says. “It’s what he does in his down time. He’s just Mr. Green. You wouldn’t see him get in a Hummer and drive around over the weekend.”
“You don’t have to be an expert in everything to be good in sales,” Nadel adds. “You just have to find clients who want what you have to bring.”
The Power of Being Real When so much of the digital world is opaque, brands that are truly transparent shine through. “Transparency simplifies and strengthens business relationships,” says Matthew H. Green, founder of Trusted Advisor Associates, a New Jersey-based consulting firm. “It increases credibility and lowers self-orientation by one’s willingness to keep no secrets.”
Transparency has always been the watchword at Harper+Scott. “Don’t hide anything,” Alagem advises. “It will only get you in trouble. … If you do something wrong or you’re not transparent in the beginning, that’s what you’re going to be known for.”
Harper+Scott makes a point of being up front about things like pricing, production issues, quality control and product safety testing. The distributor’s openness has paid off. Alagem recalls working with Nike, helping the brand create a piece of custom jewelry as part of a huge campaign. The brand’s marketing team loved what Harper+Scott had created, but the night before the product was set to launch, the compliance department wanted to scrub the campaign because they didn’t think the proper testing had been done. However, Harper+Scott had already sent the product testing reports over as a matter of routine, and the campaign was able to go off without a hitch. “If we hadn’t done that ahead of time,” Alagem says, “they wouldn’t have been able to launch the campaign and would have lost a ton of money.”
Being up front – and following through – is a great way to build a relationship, both personally and professionally, Hadley agrees. Often, that means managing expectations, having difficult conversations about what’s possible and being firm about which deadlines need to be met in order to ensure a client’s in-hands date. “Salespeople are ingrained to be ‘yes’ men,” Hadley says. “We’re so afraid of putting any opposition out there for fear of losing the sale, but sometimes saying no builds that relationship much better. … Our clients don’t want the fluff. They can get the fluff from anyone.”
As your relationship with a client grows, you’ll have more opportunities for collaboration, which Green says is also key to building trust. “True collaboration is a fundamental, default inclination to work together, creating both joint goals and joint approaches to getting there.”
Nina Bloomfield Shatz, director of business development at Top 40 distributor BAMKO (asi/131431), checks her calendar frequently to see if regular clients have events coming up. She recently gave one a nudge because she knew they had a huge trade show coming up at the end of the month and hadn’t ordered what they needed. “It didn’t come across as me being a pushy salesperson,” Shatz says. “It became me being part of her team. You need to take yourself out of being just a distributor and really work hard for your client to see you as part of their team.”
The bottom line is this: In a digital landscape where people have become resigned to faceless – and often nameless – interaction and skepticism is an unofficial national sport, providing a human touch and cultivating a relational, rather than transactional, approach to sales will set a brand apart.
“People have become used to logging on to Amazon, and it’s there in two days, and if they don’t like it, they’ll return it,” Shatz says. “There’s a lack of human contact. People forget how special that is. When you show it to them, that’s where the loyalty starts coming in.”
Stereotypes paint salespeople as slick, fast-talking, back-slapping wheelers and dealers. But that notion has faded over the decades. Today’s sales force is comprised of professionals cut from many different cloths – with personalities that range from overly outgoing and high energy to mild mannered, low key, even shy.
Despite that fact, David Mattson argues that winning over the trust of prospects and customers has nothing to do with the seller’s personality. “It’s more about the buyer, and how that person wants to take in information,” says Mattson, the CEO of Sandler Training, a global sales training organization.
It’s the responsibility of the seller to figure out how buyers want to be communicated with, and then “match and mirror their style,” he says. For example, if a potential buyer is a fast talker, the salesperson should speed up their rate of speaking a notch. “You can do this,” Mattson says. “Step out of your comfort zone for five seconds because it has nothing to do with you.”
And, for anyone who might argue that this is akin to donning a false persona, Mattson counters: “I’m not asking you to leave the ethical reservation. I’m saying communicate in the way the other person wants to communicate.”
Brian Camp, managing director at Creative Marketing Concepts (asi/170631), describes this as having a high level of emotional intelligence. “You need to shadow a client’s behavior and get into their emotional space.” With sincerity, he notes, and “without elbowing your way in.”
“Salespeople get paid to change the way they communicate,” sums up Mattson. “Buyers don’t get paid to change the way they buy.”
At the end of the day, Mattson says that people buy from people they like. “Who do we like?” he asks. “We like ourselves. Opposites don’t attract; that’s called divorce.” – Michelle Gillan Larkin
THERESA HEGEL is the executive editor of digital content for Counselor. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter at @theresahegel.