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Do You Trust the Internet?

Why lack of trust undermines the effectiveness of Internet advertising

Woman looking at computerEver since the emergence of the Internet into our lives over fifteen years ago, digital media companies have been trying to convince themselves that they FINALLY figured out how technology can create new forms of advertising and marketing which will be more effective than those in traditional media.

First there was Internet 1.0, which presented new forms of advertising based on digital technology. While consumers do respond to online promotions (similar to direct mail), digital advertising such as banners are not effective at communicating brand messages. Internet 2.0 introduced social media, which were going to take brand marketing away from the advertisers and put it into the hands of consumers. This vision of brand zealots spending time praising their favorite consumer product on Facebook and other social media sites didn’t materialize. More importantly, it ignored the need of marketers to control their brands’ messages. Most recently, digital media are attempting to reinvent advertising by merging brand messages seamlessly into the information and editorial content that consumers go online to see.

Forrester Research, a company that focuses on the integration of technology and marketing, recently published data to support the purported opportunity to integrate brand messages into content. Forrester’s study reported that while 70% of US online adults trust brand or product recommendations from friends and family and 46% trust consumer-written online reviews, just 10% of these consumers trust ads on websites and 9% trust text messages from companies or brands. Since consumers don’t trust brand advertising on the Internet, Forrester concluded that marketers should integrate brand messages into online content rather than use overt forms of advertising. This hybrid message is called “branded content.”

There are several problems with Forrester’s argument, starting with their research finding that consumers have higher levels of trust in personal recommendations than in paid advertising. This is not news. As long as there has been advertising, recommendations of family and friends always have been trusted more than messages from advertisers. However, the question is not the effectiveness of advertising versus personal communication. The question is which medium is most effective source of consumer advertising. Forrester’s data showing that only 9% to 10% of consumers trust online messages indicates that consumers have lower trust in advertising in digital media than in traditional.

Other research supports the fact that the Internet has a “trust” problem. A 2012 study by research firm Harris interactive found that 98% of people distrust the Internet as a source of information. And a study conducted in 2013 by Nielsen found that consumer trust in advertising seen on the Internet is far lower than for advertising they come across in traditional media.

There is a long history of research into media credibility and its influence on communication effectiveness. Studies show that consumers develop relationships with media in the same way they develop relationships in a social context. Consumers perceive the same attributes in types of media that they do when making judgments about other people. These include trustworthiness and other human characteristics like honesty, sincerity and integrity.

Other studies demonstrate the influence that these human characteristics have on consumer judgments. Advertising appearing in a distrusted medium is likely to be received with perceptions of skepticism and doubt.

Effective advertising begins with the trust that consumers have in the media in which it appears. The separation of advertising and editorial is the one of the primary foundations of reader trust in traditional media. Blurring the lines between advertising and content is likely to increase levels of distrust that consumers already have in online media.