Branding, Selling, and Building Open Trust in a Fake News Era



“Trust is the glue of human connectivity.” Steven Bartlett, CEO, Social Chain Group


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Artificial Intelligence. Data. Influencer campaigns. Social media management and fast-thinking, real-time platforms. With these technologies growing in the digital marketing space, companies need to stay on top of the game in order to use these tools to their advantage.

Steven Bartlett, CEO of Social Chain, shared insights with attendees at his #SMWNYC session, Nobody Trusts or Cares. Here’s How to Sell Anyway. How can brands optimize tech tools to create quality content against their competitors, while keeping up with the fast changes of the digital world?

Bartlett told a story about how he built his first startup company, WallPark, while in college in the U.K., how he was trying different marketing strategies, but nobody cared.

“Three years of blood, sweat, and tears, poured my heart into something, and nobody came to my events; and that’s when I learned my first real lesson about marketing, thinking you’re special — nobody really cared,” Bartlett said. “Really, my job as a marketer was to give them something and to reach them where they were.”

Bartlett turned to the Twitter world for inspiration. He saw viral accounts like the UK-based @FactsofSchool (which tweets about common university student struggles) finding a huge, target audience in 2012, and he partnered with their owners to help beef up their social presence. (@FactsofSchool alone drove about 35,000 student views and engagement per day).

While the typical business strategy is partnering with brands to drive traffic to your website, Bartlett wanted to keep building big social channels across social media, because he understood these platforms were only going to get bigger.

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His group began to partner with over 40 young people running viral Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts — including @FactsofSchool, @SPORF,@BeFitMotivation and @cupcakegrid — and acquired over 400 of these popular social channels, each with their own robust, active communities online.

Building a young, savvy team (which understands social media more than anybody) with a huge reach in and of itself became an important strategy, Bartlett discovered. Two companies with this audience and knowledge were born from these experiences: Social Chain, a social-first marketing agency; and Media Chain, a leading media group with over 2.5 billion views on social media.

#FakeNews: social media has a PR problem

But with great influence comes great responsibility. When trust is impacted in the social media space, especially in a very non-private way, it can spread a message: both negative and positive.

“It’s been a rough time to be in the industry; there have been stories of fake news which we’ve seen impact everything, not just social media, but trust generally,” says Bartlett. “Fake news just sort of came out of nowhere.”

Understanding culture and customer sentiment, while using emotion and employing a kind of distribution, are all key ingredients to getting fake news to travel.

“These are moments of cultural sensitivity—you see them across politics, with xenophobia, and with ISIS — but if you can take one of these pieces of inflammatory sentiment, you can go a long way.”

With the dawn of fake news, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and public political scandals like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, trust online and with social media has decreased.

“We put money before trust, privacy, morals, and accountability, and now we are paying that price.”

This is why it’s important for brands to be transparent, because “trust is so vitally important,” Bartlett added. It is the glue of human connectivity.”

“We are living in an age of authenticity — and there’s an opportunity to be transparent. One of the most important decisions in branding is leaning into transparency.”

Black box vs. glass box

Whereas a traditional corporate model structure is usually kept internal, as in a “black box,” Bartlett suggests brands transitioning into a more transparent “glass box” approach.

“In a glass box world, you don’t have internal company culture, you have public company culture. Your company culture is your brand.”

By leveraging transparency, business leaders can better reach their consumers and target audience—and thus, build trust and open communication.

Openness is really “on brand.”

“When you look at stats, transparency is actually working for people like Elon Musk, versus Mark Zuckerberg,” said Bartlett.

He compared both CEO/tech giants’ vastly different, active presence–or lack thereof–on social. While Zuckerberg doesn’t interact with his users on Facebook, and seemingly “lives in a bunker,” Bartlett said, Mr. Musk’s blunt, sometimes-controversial Twitter presence actually makes him feel “like a friend to me — even though I don’t know him.”

Transparency and interactivity are in style, and openness should be the main goal.

“With influencer marketing, we know nobody actually really believes it. Everyone knows influencers are paid to show off this stuff. But, there’s a different approach required if you’re going to be effective,” Bartlett finished. “It’s an extension of word of mouth.”

It comes down to two things: the authority factor (having an influencer’s natural endorsement) and the actual reach.

What’s more important than high engagements is having influencers who trust with their audiences/followers. This keeps the lines of communication — valuable selling points for a company — open.

“In order to believe the authority factor, you have to believe endorsement, but the real impact is in the reach.”

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