David Amerland

Trust in a Social Media Environment

Full Disclosure, apparently, is no safeguard when it comes to taking the advice of those we encounter online or offline. This is why I have some guidelines you may find useful.

Here’s an interesting thought: as an SEO author with a vested interest in SEO continuing to be crucial in working online and promoting your business, I am bound to have a certain bias in the advice I give you, after all I want you to continue to visit my blog for SEO tips and I want you to continue to buy my books on SEO and online marketing. The question this raises is, does this make my advice less trustworthy?

The answer is not as easy as you may think. I am very open about my own interest in SEO and online business marketing. I am also very generous with my advice, often providing SEO tips on my blog which you would normally have to buy a book to get. As a matter of fact, some time ago, I made a conscious decision to never water down the advice I give online as a hook for buying the more detailed, ‘full-on’ advice in my books. I hate that when I am on the receiving end of it because I feel I have been short-changed for my time and I am careful to not be guilty of the same conduct.

Whether we like it or not however we are all in a world of vested interests. Those who write about social media, for instance, are often consultants or advisers who want you to use their companies, I write extensively on SEO and social media marketing and I am active on both fronts, mostly through my books, I want readers to buy my books and put their advice to work for them. You may counter here that as along as you know in advance what I am doing and why it is OK. And yes, you are right, disclosure makes for transparency and honesty and maintains a more ethical approach to everything. Here’s the catch: it does not always work that way.

Full Disclosure is no Guarantee of Honesty

A piece on The Boston Globe which I would urge you to read, reveals that the latest research by psychologists on the subject revealed results which go contrary to expectation. The logic behind the practice of full disclosure is that by disclosing a conflict of interest, putting all the cards face up on the table, so to speak, we show that we have nothing to hide. We also alert those taking our advice that what we say is not entirely impartial. Theoretically all this works fine. When quizzed in the study, for example, about whether they would take advice from a doctor whose summer house was partially paid for by the drugs company whose products he is prescribing, or a financial adviser who got a commission for every sale of a product he promoted, respondents said they would trust that advice a lot less.

The results of the research study showed quite the opposite. Full disclosure did not provide the protection which we envisaged it might. The reason why is as interesting as it is frightening. While policies of disclosure are based upon a mechanism which relies on logic, relationships between people do not. The doctor proclaiming his vested interest, the financial adviser warning of a potential conflict of interest and the SEO who already told you he really wants you to buy his book, are all engaged in a complex behavioural pattern which is often exhibited by crime suspects who confess under interrogation by Police to crimes they have not committed.

The psychology of false confessions has nothing to do with misleading the Police or drawing attention to one self and a lot with a (sometimes skewed) cost-benefit analysis which makes the confession appear the only rational choice available. Similarly, by disclosing a conflict of interest, the person in question, does two things: first they reveal that their advise has an inherent bias in it, so now they are free to exercise that bias because they have given you fair warning. Second, the remove the onus from themselves (they have told you they are biased) to you, if you decide to take their advice, it is on your head.

Why Logic Does not Protect our Decision Making Process

Logically, when a potentially biased piece of advice is on offer we should be less likely to take it. Unfortunately although we think logically we do not operate in the same way. The moment someone has offered ‘Full Disclosure’ we see this as behaviour which is:

  1. Transparent and therefore, perhaps, more honourable (and to be fair the policy of disclosure is intended to promote such conduct and the perception of it).
  2. Honest - we have been told the truth.
  3. Trustworthy – the person in question has opened up to us and trusted us with the information that their advice may be biased.

These three things create a reciprocity in ourselves which is hard to overcome. This becomes even more complicated by the fact that we also perceive that not taking that person’s advice is akin to now calling them biased, self-serving liars to their face. We are conditioned by our bioneurophysiology to avoid conflict and respond to openness and here this becomes the mechanism which can, potentially, subvert the intention of the full disclosure policy to safeguard us from making bad decisions.

Is there any solution to this? Do we, should we, instantly discount any advice we get given by a professional who has been very open and forthcoming about their vested interest in taking that advice? I admit that I have often been troubled by the same question myself, conscious of the fact that many of my posts tell you how important SEO is to being found online and how critical it is for business success (all of which is true).

I have come up with my own guide to keep my writing and advice in the straight and narrow. It may be useful to you when creating content on your website intended to help someone make a purchasing decision or it may help you when you are on the receiving end of advice (including mine) which is linked to a product or service.

01. Give advice which is independent of the product you are selling. If you are a professional handle this as free, actionable advice the final action of which does not require accessing your service or buying your product. (I do not, for example, put up posts which say ‘This is really complicated, hiring my services or buying my book is the only way to get it done.’).

02. Provide a 360 degree perspective. Do not give advice as if you are a salesman. Give advice as if you are and adviser and assess it the way you would like to find it if you were the one on the receiving end.

03. Do not make your advice conditional. At the end of the day the reason we go into all the trouble to create content on the web is exactly because we are selling some service or product or promoting ourselves. That does not mean the advice you give has to have strings attached. Be generous with it and let the person receiving it decide what they want to do next and which product or service they will go for.

04. Do not be hypercasual. I wrote a piece on being authentic and how it can be overdone to the point that the term becomes meaningless. Being friendly, approachable and non-patronising with your advice is great but, at the end of the day, you are giving advice because you are good in something and because you genuinely want to help. Water it down with cutesy antics and it becomes hard to take seriously.

05. Do not make things over-technical. Yes, you are a professional and yes again, many times, the things we need to explain are complicated. This is as true of SEO and the complexity of interaction in social media marketing activities as it is of real estate or medicine. Make it too technical however and you have removed your reader’s ability to assess it properly which makes the whole point of giving advice a little moot.

06. Deliver value in what you give. The moment someone decides to read what you have written they have entered into an unwritten contract between you and them. They give you their time and willingness to listen and you must deliver value in what they read in terms of what you say, how you say it and what they can do with it. Never abuse that relationship.

My take on this is that provided you approach giving advice this way then you self-check your bias and full disclosure then works more in your favour. It enables your audience to better judge what you say, rather than think only of who says it. I wonder what you think.

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