When we talk of digital communication strategy, we typically talk in numbers. Numbers are absolute; they show clear correlations and patterns. To a communication strategist, percentages are both comforting and reassuring. Upward increments speak of success, whilst downward trends highlight the need for course corrections. In our last piece, we talked about how disinformation successfully impacts politics: those responsible understand that, as content consumers, we first react through our emotions, not through reason. We are triggered by what we see, and our subsequent interactions then help legitimise the strategy of propagating the captivating-but-untrue.
This is why audiences are becoming more selective about what they consume, and, more importantly, where they consume it (which has helped the success of subscription-based publications, such as the New Yorker). Because even though we may respond to fake news, or to posts that appeal to our worst instincts, we don’t necessarily like it. It’s not an enjoyable experience. In fact, it’s often accompanied by regret or shame as our other mind – our thinking mind – kicks in, and we realise the hoodwink, and resent the duplicity. Audiences value the truth because they dislike the experience of being lied to.
In a remote world, credibility is everything
With the increase in remote work and distributed workforces, catalysed by a global pandemic, the role of trust in digital communication is more important than ever. Slowly but surely, the points of physical interaction disappear from our lives, as efficiency and convenience – undergirded by better technologies – supplant the old and true. As a species, we’ve undergone more change in the past 10 years, more rapidly, than at any other point of our history, and then some. There is more pressure on digital communication than ever, and an even greater requirement that digital communication be a source of truth. Without the idiosyncrasies of human communication – the facial movements or body language that tell us whether somebody is lying – we’re left to trust what we consume wholesale. The difference is what we consume, and where we consume it. Truth is determined through credibility and authority. We listen to the sagacious town elder, and less to the town trickster. Behaviours are developed, at least in part, through trial and error. What happens to us yesterday informs how we behave today.
Disinformation can be effective. It begins with the mundane and innocuous. We make choices based on what we believe of a product or an individual, and those beliefs can be swayed. Our data reveals our desires and pain points. Because we’re a certain individual, identified through a laundry list of past interactions, advertisers can better sell us products. And, in the extreme, as recent history shows, malicious actors also use this information to prey upon our fear, suspicion, or pre-existing beliefs to guide the choices we make, and even how we vote.
Truth and lies form perception, which drives future success and failure
Behind every disinformation campaign exists a strategy. This strategy has goals, ranging from the predictable – increasing traffic, driving sales – to the sinister and coercive. Almost invariably, however, these strategies focus on short-term goals. Let’s take an example from politics. A politician’s deliberate mistruths may get them elected, but those same mistruths may prevent their re-election. In the intervening period, lessons are learnt; the perception of the individual has irrevocably changed, from one that speaks the truth to one that circumvents it, from a seer to a spinner.
Likewise, it may take that same amount of years for somebody that initially spoke the truth to be credited and praised for doing so. Our actions are seeds that grow into the future. The challenge of digital communication is that many strategies focus on relatively short-term goals, and compelling action is prioritised over shaping perception. Whilst the long-term is commonly defined as up to a year, the curvature of success or failure is much broader. Companies, products, individuals, campaigns all must survive another day, but meaningful success is built to last.
What truth means, and why it’s valuable
There are few objective truths. Most truth is subjective. For brands, individual, product, or corporate, the truth that must be told is an individual truth. What is communicated must be true to the communicator, to the extent of their knowledge, for the audience to feel respected, and a genuine connection created.
Honest communication is no less valuable, but it is harder to quantify. It’s human nature to gravitate towards those that make us feel good and respected, and resent those that make us feel foolish. A company or person that scams a community is unlikely to be welcomed back a second time. This is why the value of truth is frequently underestimated. It requires a long-term plan. The foundations of any structure must be maintained: whereas good deeds reinforce, bad deeds cement rot. Interactions, and even conversions, tell a short-term story that may not reflect the long-term reality.
In the end, truth requires faith. Brands and corporates must believe that their audiences are more than numbers; that they’re people, and as people, require sincerity in their connections, and are likely to end relationships that do not offer it. To quantify it, we’d have to look across half-decade or decade periods. One day, undoubtedly, technology will make this easier; an intelligence that can read between the lines of what is said to see what is perceived, and how those perceptions drive behaviour.
With the majority now doubting the veracity of news sources and politicians, and more aware of the tactics – the deft blending of the true and untrue – used, the value of selling short credibility is diminishing, and the value of developing trust-based connections increasing. Especially in saturated markets, the lines between the credible and non-credible will become more defined, to the point that we’re able to better correlate the perceived authenticity of a brand to its success.
Telling the truth isn’t just an obligation, but, increasingly, a requirement. How digital communicators are perceived alters how they’re engaged with, which impacts conversions and interactions. What we do and say every day defines us. Oftentimes, too much, we focus so much on how our audience acts that we forget to consider what they feel – and it is ultimately how an experience makes us feel that determines whether we repeat it.