The Influence Continuum: Who We Trust in a Post-Truth World

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Scott Baradell
Published: Jan 21, 2022

By now you may have heard the term "post-truth." According to Oxford Dictionaries, it means "circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." 

The term was first used by writer Steve Tesich in The Nation in 1992 after the press was shut out of covering the First Gulf War with little public protest. Tesich believed that Americans had made the conscious decision to avoid ugly truths in public life. He wrote at the time: "In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world." 

While post-truth is a politically loaded concept, it has implications for business as well. Every brand must have trust to succeed, and earning that trust typically requires third-party validation from the media and other sources. That goal is harder to achieve in a post-truth world, when the sources of third-party validation themselves are less trusted.

The disappearance of shared sources of truth, such as media gatekeepers and civic institutions, means that a brand must carefully sift through a highly fragmented information landscape to cobble together a collection of sources that will have credibility for its target audience.

The Continuum of Influence

Brands must also recognize that in a world without gatekeepers, influence is a continuum. It begins, on the low end, with any consumer who leaves a review of your company or product online. While the reviewer might not have a recognized name, their review nevertheless has influence on those who read it. 

If a consumer has a following on their own social media platforms, their influence when saying something positive (or negative) about your business is even greater. The greater the influencer's following, the larger their megaphone. As influencers increase their name recognition and audience size, they progress on the continuum from nano-influencer all the way up to mega-influencer.

You can think of mega-influencers as major media outlets, like the New York Times, and big celebrities, like the Kardashians.

The New York Times and the Kardashians are obviously very different sources of information, but both are highly trusted by certain segments of consumers. Your job as a marketer is to identify the continuum of influence—from the individual customer to major media outlets—that are the most valuable sources of "truth" for your audience.

This underscores the importance of creating buyer personas based on research. During this research, you should ask buyers in detail about their decision-making process, walking through all the touchpoints and influences that guided them to ultimately choose you (or a competitor). Their answers may surprise you.

Additionally, companies may wish to consider working with an agency in this new environment. Niche agencies are more likely to have a nuanced understanding of the continuum of influence within your space.

Do It the Old Way at Your Peril

Years ago, I began seeing the implications of a post-truth world on business. My PR agency was able to land a major New York Times feature opportunity for one of our oil and gas clients. In the past, this would have been considered a huge coup for our agency and client. This time, the client turned it down at the last minute because "nobody trusts the Times anymore."

Of course, it wasn't true that nobody trusted the New York Times. But it was true that the Times had lost significant credibility with many in the energy industry, including this client's own customers. For them, Fox Business Network or even the local newspaper had become a more trusted placement by that point.

The fragmentation of trust has only accelerated since then. Do your research to identify a continuum of influence that squarely targets the sources of truth that are most important to your customers.

This post originally appeared in Forbes.

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