Diane Shortland

Freelance Writer


Trust in the age of Trip Adviser: How can online tourism guides use writing to build reader trust in their brands?


Edelman’s recent global trust barometer revealed that only 1 8% of people believe CEOs tell the truth (cited in black 2013). Trust in our leaders has gone. This finding is not surprising; Trip Advisor has monopolised the last decade where it has become the norm to take travel advice from a media of people we don’t know.  A study even showed that an extra half star online rating is worth a 5-9% increase in revenue for tourism venues (cited in Fisman 2012).


Whilst TripAdvisor revolutionised trust – ‘the extent to which a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis of, the words, actions and decisions of another.’ (McAlister 1995) - they later became a catalyst for another shift in opinion.  In 2011 KwikChev challenged Trip Advisor suggesting 5-10 million of their reviews were fake.  This together with Amazon accidentally revealing that many of its book reviews came from publishers and authors themselves (Fisman 2012) caused people to turn their trust towards friends and family recommendations over strangers.  Indeed later that year a Nielson survey revealed that 92% of people put their trust into earned media (word of mouth and recommendations from people they know) over all other forms of advertising (2012).  Travellers are clearly moving away from crowd based opinion in search of something more reliable. The Nielson survey also identified that 58% of people trust branded websites (2012) suggesting a good balance of editorial content and user credibility is the way forward for tourism guides.  


So what is a brand and what makes people trust in it?  Essentially a set of perceptions that represent a service, branding refers to the promise of what could be experienced.  Once recognised in the marketplace brand trust is created by the intrinsic believability the entity itself then evokes. But as Kramer states ‘trust is hard won and easily lost.’ (cited in Goodman 2012); customers need to believe you have their best interests at heart.  Social media is now crucial to brand trust as a result of ‘social proofing’; the theory that an individual’s beliefs are positively impacted if enough of their peers believe something to be true or valuable (Fiorella 2013). Inevitably this has brought ‘cyber shills’ to the forefront who will increase the social rating of a business profile for mere pennies.


There is a clear distinction between obvious advertising and more trustworthy content though.  These fake reviews tend to be overly gushy: ‘We are so lucky to have his expertise and candor in sales’ (Cytosol 2013), without any evidence to support their praise: ’This is the most grand and unique hotel in Hong Kong’ (Volpe 2013), and are usually full of marketing content rather than layman’s talk: ‘Takes you back to a bygone era’ (Tsergent 2013).


With the introduction of advertorials marketing is merging into editorial but brands take a risk in this tactic; MediaBrix revealed 86% of internet users had been misled by content that was really advertising (cited in Olenski 2012).  The general lack of trust in society means customers want balanced content from which they can make good decisions themselves.  Brands can play to this ‘customer control’ by writing honestly and by addressing consumer concerns.  Martin Lee refers to this in his discussion of types of brand trust: companies like John Lewis have ‘old trust’ behaving with impeccable integrity, rooted in their customer orientated values.  Brands that have ‘new trust’ are now built on transparency; having nothing to hide.  Pret a Manger for example put their recipes on the outside of their bags (ac 2013).


In attempting to build trust we must be clear of its meaning: ‘the expectation that arises within a community, of regular honest and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community’ (Fukuyama 1995).  So how can the actual writing of website content help to build this shared vision? In 1942 George Orwell outlined how language is most powerful when used economically (cited in mtholyoke.edu).  This is doubly true online since people read digital content differently, usually whilst multitasking (Baron ca 2012).  Digital is about fast access to information so prose is best divided into chunks with sub-headings for easy scanning. After all it only takes 2.6 seconds for a user to make a first impression of a website (cited in Careasa 2012)...