How to build trust in your customers' words

In my last post, I addressed the issue of friends vs. strangers when it comes to delivering trusted opinions to shoppers online. Shoppers can’t always get the information they need from their friends, so brands should gather opinions from their customers – strangers to other shoppers – to help shoppers find the right products for them. In combination, brands should use the power of social networks to amplify the effects. To understand how to make strangers’ opinions more trustworthy for shoppers, first consider the question: Why do we trust our friends?

Ask brands which products to buy and they all say the same thing – their own. As consumers, we don’t trust brands to tell us which products are the best, because they are naturally biased. They want us to buy their products, the source of their livelihood.

This is a large part of what makes recommendations from friends trustworthy. I know the person recommending, so I trust their motives – they presumably aren’t benefitting if I buy the HTC Evo versus the iPhone4; they’re just in it to help me out. And while to a somewhat smaller degree, opinions from strangers online are trustworthy for the same reason. We learned a few years ago that the number one motivation for people writing reviews is altruism – a desire to help others. With the exception of astroturfing, reviewers don’t stand to gain if I follow their recommendation – they’re just writing to help others shop.

At the end of the day, shoppers just want trusted information to help them buy, leading to better experiences in their life free of buyer’s remorse. It’s good news for brands: a relationship between the shopper and reviewer is just one important factor in a long list of factors that affect trust. As a brand, your job is to gather opinions, work to keep them positive (by embracing customer oxygen), and work to make those opinions more trustworthy to your shoppers.

So, how can brands build trust? Here are a few factors that contribute to the trustworthiness of opinions, and what you can do as a brand to boost these factors.


There is trust and safety in numbers. The average Facebook user has 130 friends in their network. For most brands, achieving a significant volume of advocates within each potential customer’s network is currently unrealistic.

By amassing a large collection of strangers’ opinions, however, brands can reach a trustworthy aggregate opinion – Gladwell might call it a tipping point of trust. If three strangers rate a washer-dryer set four stars, then no, maybe a shopper won’t take their word for it. But if 150 strangers give it a four-star average rating, their aggregate opinion is a lot more relevant, and often more accurate than an individual opinion – Surowiecki called this the “wisdom of crowds.”

Best practices for driving review volume could fill another blog post, but some of the most effective are also the simplest:

  • Post-purchase emails. Send emails to your customers shortly after they purchase, inviting them to review the products.
  • Leader boards. Display a running leader board of your most active reviewers, and recognize them in your marketing. It’s good ego capital for the leaders, and creates aspiration among other reviewers to be more active.
  • Contests. Giveaways are one of the best ways to break through the noise of the inbox and drive review volume in the short term.


“Is this reviewer like me? Are they using the product the way I want to use it?” If a shopper can relate to the reviewer or the way they’ve used the product, the review becomes more relevant. Among mothers, for example, 73% feel they find trustworthy information about products in online communities focused on parenting.

Take our client Golfsmith. In a sport like golf, there are a lot of factors specific to the individual golfer to consider when choosing a driver, for instance. Do your drives hook left or slice right? What’s your swing speed? To increase relatability, brands can employ:

  • Profiles. Allow reviewers to create a profile, giving context to their reviews. Your friends all started out as strangers; getting to know someone better can make them more trustworthy. Golfsmith’s user profiles include information like skill level, frequency of play, handicap, and favorite brand. All of a user’s reviews, questions, answers, and even stories should be included in their profile.
  • Filtering. Allow shoppers to filter reviews based on profile aspects to find reviewers like them. For example, a shopper may narrow a search for Wii games to games rated four stars or higher by mothers with children ages ten and under.


For a shopper to trust a stranger, brands should answer their question, “Says who?” Turn your brand advocates into trusted experts to create your own influencers. You can do this using:

  • Helpfulness voting. Crowdsource your trust-building by letting users decide which reviews are the most helpful, trustworthy, expert. If 18 people vote a review helpful, it means 18 people trusted the review enough to let it help them make a decision. Shoppers feel safer trusting a reviewer knowing others did too.
  • Badging. Badge your most active advocates as “Top Contributors” or “Most Helpful” to denote experts.
  • Profiles. Again, giving context to a reviewer can increase their trustworthiness, and even give them expert status (evoking the aspiring maven in many of us). If a user’s profile shows that they’ve reviewed dozens of products and received hundreds of helpfulness votes, the reviewer is more trustworthy to shoppers.

Notice the overlap between these factors of trust. Volume is a way to build expertise, expertise can boost relatability… There’s no concrete formula here, no magic equation for the ideal mix of opinions from friends and strangers, experts and average Joes. The right balance for your brand will depend on a number of factors – what you’re selling and who your shoppers are, to name a few.

The bottom line is, the world is a more enjoyable place (for brands and for their customers) when shoppers find the right products for them – through whatever combination of friends, strangers, advertising, and location leads them to purchase. There’s no one element that makes a recommendation trustworthy to every shopper – not even a real-life relationship. The best strategy for brands is to listen to customers, and drive a combination of these trust-building elements to make customers’ recommendations relevant to as many shoppers as possible.

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10 Responses to “Friends vs. Strangers, Pt. 2: How to build trust in your customers’ words”

  1. Jeff, the “persuading” is just to evoke the emotional reaction for people to share word of mouth with their peers. This is very different from persuading customers to fill out a survey by incentivizing them or participating in a focus group, where they are paid to be there. The #1 reason people write reviews is altruism. They expect transparency and reading reviews leads to writing reviews (to pay back those that helped you, if you will). This is no different from talking with a friend about a movie you liked and another friend jumping in the dialogue to start talking about a movie they liked. You are all getting value from the conversation, and listening to word of mouth (just like reading it) leads to speaking/participating. The key in “persuading” them is just to break through the noise of the cluttered inbox with the message – “people like you want to hear from you, so why don’t you help them?” And everyone wins in the end – people buy products they will have a better experience with, and better products and services are produced as a result of companies listening to the authentic conversations taking place on their property (or on the “property” of their Facebook tabs as well).

  2. Absolutely agree! Our clients love that we make it as easy as possible for them to send a follow up survey and ask permission for that survey to be included in their customer reviews. And users love the fact that the testimonials have been third party verified so that don’t have to wonder if they’re authentic or not…

  3. Hi Jeff, I definitely think so. As long as it’s an authentic opinion from a real customer, that’s user-generated content. Brands should do everything they can to get customers talking. As long as they aren’t skewing the results or posting fake reviews, there isn’t anything wrong with encouraging customers to talk and learning from their feedback — it’s the best way to improve. What do you think?

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Great post! I agree that transparency of customer reviews and consumer trust is the next wave of web wide compliance, nicely nudged by the FTCs new laws regarding testimonials and reviews… I’ve been working in this arena for the past 5 years and run a third party testimonial verification service that is perfectly inline with your philosophies of gaining consumer trust. We’ve recently made a huge number of changes and would love your feedback. Our site is

  5. Graham Penrose

    Hi Ian, great post – i would value your opinion on my company – and my blog at Maybe I could interest you in co-authoring a piece on social commerce engines available in the market?

  6. austen trimble

    great post, enjoyed the Gladwell reference

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