Building Audience Trust in the Age of Fake News

Posted on 15/12/2016 by Team Hallam

Fake news is likely to impact how much people trust information on the internet. If you run a business, now's a good time to consider what you can do to boost your online credibility when audience trust is low.

Given how easy it is for anyone to publish information online, I expect we’re all sceptical about some of it. Fake news exposed in the aftermath of the US election has highlighted how easily fabricated information can spread online. The widely shared fake Trump quote in the meme below is just one example of this phenomenon.

An example of a fake news meme featuring a fabricated Trump quote.
This Trump quote has spread all over the internet but has now been exposed as fake.

Google and Facebook have faced a lot of scrutiny in the debate about how to identify and stop fake news spreading. They are both looking at how to ensure the credibility of information they provide. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he’s working with fact checking sites to stop fake news spreading. Google is extending its policy to stop advertising on sites with deliberately misleading information.

How should your business respond to fake news?

If you run a business, you probably publish adverts and editorial content online because they are vital forms of marketing. You may already have come across a sceptical audience. People seem to trust adverts on the internet less than those in traditional media, according to a global survey of 30,000 people.  The 2015 survey by the Nielsen Global Trust found people in Europe are the most sceptical. Fake news could further erode trust in online information in general. So, are you doing everything you can to boost your online credibility?

A Summary of Results from Nielsen’s Global Advertising Survey

Consumer opinions posted online                                           60%
Branded websites 54%
Adverts on TV                                          45%
Adverts in newspapers                                         44%
Adverts in magazines                                          43%
Adverts on radio                                         41%
Adverts served in search engine results                                         36%
Online video ads                                         33%
Adverts on social networks                                         32%
Online banner ads                                         27%
Adverts on mobile devices                                         26%

Trust in Brands on Social Media

Social media apps like twitter facebook pinterest and linked in.

Social media is part of many marketing strategies nowadays but using it can prove tricky, as consumers are getting more discerning.

Trust in brands on social media is thought to be declining, according to a survey of 3,000 UK consumers. Censuswide conducted the research on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) in April 2016. The only site to significantly buck the trend was Facebook. So it’ll be interesting to know if this will be affected by the scrutiny it’s facing for featuring fake news.

A Summary of Results from the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Keep Social Honest Survey

Social media site Trust in brands in 2016 Trust in brands in 2014
                     Facebook                                      62%                                     46%
                      Twitter                                     47%                                      55%
                      Blogs                                     43%                                      67%
Instagram             38%           49%

Brands certainly can’t afford to ignore social media because 62% of people surveyed said they use it when deciding whether to buy a product. But they also said they believe branded online content that’s paid for lacks authenticity.

As part of their Keep Social Honest campaign, the CIM has five top tips for marketers using social media. The tips include making sure you have a social media policy that all employees understand. They recommend sharing the policy with the public to foster transparency. They also highlight that marketers need to understand the law and regulatory guidelines for online advertising.

Regulatory Guidelines for Online Advertising

An instagram user featuring a watch advert in her feed.
The hashtag #ad is used to clearly identify this instagram post from a user’s account as an advert.

Understanding the legal and regulatory guidelines which apply to your sector can be complex but it’s worthwhile because slipping up could make it harder to earn trust.

The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) offers advice on complying with UK advertising rules. Recent rulings by the Advertising Standards Agency, who administer the rules, will give you a sense of the kind of practices to avoid.

You’ll need to make sure you know whether your content is classed as editorial, or an advert, to help you determine if its within the scope of the CAP code. The classification depends on factors such as if you’re paying to be promoted and if you have control over the content. Adverts need to be made easy to distinguish from editorial content by using identifiers such as the #ad hashtag.

Before placing your advert, check the policies of the social network you’re using, so you know if there’s anything they won’t allow. For instance, Facebook doesn’t allow misleading images which set unrealistic expectations about products or services.

Trustworthy Reviews and Testimonials

Reviews and testimonials can be incredibly useful to businesses. Over 50% of people in the UK are estimated to use reviews to help them decide whether to buy a product, according to research from the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) in 2015. They believe reviews could influence £23 billion worth of consumer spending a year.

They found that while some businesses take care to verify reviews, others follow bad practices, such as commissioning fake reviews, or cherry picking positive reviews.

Trust levels in online reviews seems to vary. The CMA’s research estimated that as much as 80% of people using online reviews believe they are ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to be genuine. But the CIM’s Keep Social Honest research found only 25% of people believe comments on review sites are genuine.

The CMA offers detailed advice on complying with consumer protection law in relation to online reviews and endorsements. Their tips include:

  • Not dissuading customers from leaving a review of a negative experience – even if the problem has been resolved
  • Making it clear to customers how you collect your reviews
  • Not offering incentives to give positive reviews

Sending Trust Signals

An example of a contact us page with am business address and map.
Giving your physical location will help build trust in your business.

Social media and online reviews can both offer powerful trust signals when done correctly. There are also several other steps you can take to build your credibility:

Make sure your website has a professional design

Within seconds of visiting your website, customers will form an opinion of your business, so you need to come across well. If your website has a dated design, or is difficult to navigate, you may completely turn off the visitors you get.

Tell customers who you are

If people haven’t heard of you, they’re likely to visit your about us page to find out who you are. Try to give them every reason to trust you. You can do this by letting them know about any relevant qualifications you have. You can also share the story behind your business, to make you come across as human.

Make it easy to contact you

A good contact us page will help you come across as approachable. Adding a physical address to let people know where you’re based will also help show you’re genuine.

Offer secure payment methods

If you’re asking people to part with money they need to know they can trust you. Offer familiar payment methods like Paypal. Make sure your website follows SSL security protocol, which puts the https:// prefix before your website to show you encrypt sensitive information.

Writing Trustworthy Content

A screenshot of a Wired article on clickbait.
An article in Wired magazine explains why we fall for clickbait but find it annoying.

The quality of the content you write will also help give users a sense of whether or not they can trust you. Taking the following steps will help you write trustworthy content:

Avoid ‘click bait’ headlines

The headline is likely to be the first thing your audience will read when they make a judgement about your content. Aim to write a headline that’ll entice people to engage with your content without misleading them. You don’t want to leave them feeling duped once they read the article.

Provide evidence

When making claims, it helps to provide evidence to help people make their own minds up and it shows transparency too. Quote original sources and either link to them, or give enough information so people can easily find them.

Use credible sources

Be discriminating when deciding which sources to use for information. Go to official sources like government websites and refer to reports by industry experts. Check if the report is written by someone partisan and disclose any affiliations that might lead to bias.

Handle data carefully

Providing data is a useful way of illustrating your point but be careful you don’t misrepresent it.

Give a balanced view

Although people expect some hyperbole in marketing copy, you don’t want to mislead consumers by exaggerating the benefits of your products.

Avoid typos and grammatical errors

Take time to proofread your content for typos and grammatical mistakes, which can make you look amateurish.


Online marketing is an important way of reaching consumers, so it’s worth investing time in building your credibility. If you need help with your online advertising, why not get in touch?

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