When Edelman came out with their annual Trust Barometer report in January of 2008, "a person like me" was viewed as the most trusted source of company information by 58 percent of respondents.  Industry experts and analysts were right behind them with 57 percent and 56 percent respectively, and coming way behind with only 40 percent of respondents trusting them to provide company information were corporate CEOs. 

With these numbers in mind, it was surprising to see the 2010 Trust Barometer report recently released.  Industry experts/academics charged way in front of the pack with 64 percent of those surveyed looking to them for trusted company information.  Industry/financial analysts were a distant second at 52 percent.  Surprisingly, "a person like me" dropped to fourth place (directly behind Non Government Officials) with 44 percent.  Maybe even more surprising is that corporate CEOs are nipping at their heels with 40 percent of respondents looking to them for company information.

So what's up?

Why did "people like me" become 25 percent less trustworthy in two years? In fact "people like me" were the only group of people who lost ground from last year's study.  This loss of trust, and the accompanying turn towards experts and authorities, seems to be coinciding with the rise of social media and networks.

Brand building on Facebook and Twitter

Back in January 2008, Facebook had recently crossed over the 40 million user mark. In 2010 they crossed over the 400 million mark.  Twitter was basically unknown to everyone but the early adopter crowd -- now there are 50 million tweets flowing back and forth each day.  And the tools for creating and distributing content has made it unbelievably easy for "people like me" to crank out an incredible amount of stuff. 
On the business side of the social Web, there's been a great deal of attention on brand building -- and understandably so.  More relationships are started from online interactions, and these interactions are less expensive to create.  And blogs and social networks allow you to get the word out about who you are and what you have to offer. 

With the economy being in the shape it's in, business "people like me" are trying to find every way possible to survive.  This may be why there seems to be an overabundance of self promotion and branding.  Many out there may feel a sense of desperation to be viewed as an expert in order to survive.
Even when it's unintentional, an overemphasis on branding and self promotion can really turn off prospective clients, which in turn may send them in to others when in need of advice and information.  And one thing that may be harder to overcome than anonymity is a bad reputation in a given industry.

More interest in trusted authority sites

All the information being created and distributed is overloading most of us, which may be why there is a return to trusting authority sites, and recognized experts.  So, as the trust study is indicating, it's becoming increasingly important to be viewed as an expert -- more than ever before.  But I think that there's a unique opportunity for "people like me" to leverage social tools to also be viewed as trustworthy experts, while keeping the values that made them most trustworthy a few short years ago.

I think the reason why "people like me" were viewed as being more trustworthy in 2008 centered on us being more focused on shared experiences than on branding.  Branding is very important, but it should never overshadow the most important part of business -- understanding what's important to customers, and then delivering solutions that speak to those issues.

If we're able to keep that in mind it will show through in everything we do.  The best brand we can build for ourselves is that of people (and businesses) who care about our customers.  Couple that with more strategic, thoughtful, intellectually-infused content, and our brands will grow in a more consumable, trustworthy manner.

Building trust takes more than constant tweets about what we're doing or what we think.  It takes understanding where our customers need help.  It takes doing real analysis and research to create the kind of content that will show deep knowledge of their challenges, and how to solve them.  That's the work experts do to be branded as such.  It also shows a real interest in that comes from being a person like them.  That's the kind of brand building that will work for us in the long run and keep us in business. 

People like me can learn a lot from that approach.

Brent Leary is a small-business technology analyst, adviser, and award-winning blogger. Leary is also host of a weekly radio program heard on www.BusinessTechnologyRadio.com. He is the co-author of Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Business. His blog can be found at www.brentleary.com.