Earning trust on social: Deploy your fans

This was first published on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. It is part of a series. If you’re just tuning in, start here

What do we know about how trust and sharing on social media work? We know that people trust their own friends and families. They trust people who are already trusted by people they trust — much more than they trust brands.

We also know that social media is based on a culture of sharing. Users share their own lives, but they also share ideas, products and services that they find some sort of value in.

So, as you look to grow your brand’s network — to increase the number of users who trust you and have a relationship with you — it makes sense to tap into the network you already have.

Let’s explore how you might ask for the help of the people who already trust you. Can you ask them to declare their support for you? Would they be willing to encourage their friends to use you as a resource? Could you teach them to help you correct some of the world’s misinformation?

Why don’t journalists ask users more often to pass along their content? Done badly, that can be intrusive or feel like cheesy self-promotion. But done well, it can speak to a shared desire to make people smarter or an altruistic goal of getting needed information into as many hands as possible. So many informed news consumers cultivate a social identity as someone who helps keep their networks informed. How can we more strategically tap into that user goal? Social capital and influence are often used to contribute to the greater good and can contribute to more informed communities as well.

What is it that makes someone want to tell his or her friends about what you offer, or encourage their friends to see you as a trusted resource?

WEGO health

Does your newsroom tap into its network of engaged, informed users? Check out WEGO Health. According to its website, it is a network of more than 100,000 of the most influential members of the online health community. “We are the empowered patients that drive the health care conversation online.”

Let’s look once again to parallels in the health care field. Patients love to hear from other patients, not just from professionals. They can come across as more relatable, and they talk in a language that’s informal and credible.A company called WEGO Health actually gathers expert patients who can act as advocates and advisers, sharing credible information to a community of other patients.


How could journalists tap into something similar?

Elissa Adair, Ph.D., has worked in both health journalism and disease advocacy nonprofits. I met her at an event devoted to community-focused journalism, and she shared insights with me about earning trust face to face.

Adair’s work has sometimes involved going into a new community to make headway on a sensitive issue of public health, which can be especially tricky as an outsider. She said she has to first understand a community well enough to know what messages would resonate in it. She tries to understand their distrust so she can know what not to do, and she listens well so she can meet people where they are. (See the second strategy:Engage authentically.) She gives the community a chance to learn who she is and hear what she has observed about them, a step that serves an accountability function.

Then Adair identifies people who can help her get the word out in an authentic way. An invitation is often more effective if it comes from someone you already trust, rather than from a stranger. So she might seek out health care providers, social service workers or influential community members who have earned a community’s trust and ask them to partner with her. (That only works, of course, if those people believe in her mission and share her goal.)

The partner/messenger in Adair’s case might be an expert of some sort. But the idea of “expertise” is changing as trust in institutions declines.

Jan Oldenburg works to make health care more focused on patients. She said that in medicine, as in journalism, access to better, deeper sources of information and the ability to share it with others enables anyone to be a maker and a participant, not just a passive consumer. Doctors who embrace that idea have relationships with their patients that feel more collaborative and respectful. Patients trust and feel trusted. “It’s this whole idea that when the expectations of your audience change, you have to figure out new ways of connecting with them,” Oldenburg said.

Oldenburg’s reflection on the enhanced role patients play sure feels a lot like Jay Rosen’s concept of the people formerly known as the audience, doesn’t it?

Journalists have a real opportunity to embrace the active role news consumers play in informing not just themselves but also their networks. Users are doing that already, but journalists are missing opportunities to actively encourage that.

Don’t most journalists have a network of committed users who wish the world were better informed? Try asking your newsroom to identify users they think of as superfans. Here’s another idea: Ask the same question of your marketing and sales departments.

As an organization, who do you know who might be willing to tell their friends that they trust you, or to use what you offer to improve the community?

Want to play along?

RJI consulting fellow Joy Mayer can help your newsroom figure out how these concepts can work for you. Get some free advice while customizing and helping test out these strategies. Send an email to Joy for more information.

Three University of Missouri School of Journalism capstone students contributed reporting: Anna Brugmann, Katie Grunik and Hannah Smith.

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