Stop being business-like to boost credibility

James Naughtiein the Daily TelegraphThe BBC presenter James Naughtie and his producer got into a bit of hot water again recently over a simple Tweet. A few weeks ago it was swearing online, now it is staying at a Japanese “love hotel”. Indeed, the Tweet caused such a fuss within the BBC that the institution sent an email to staff reminding them of social media guidelines and the producer closed down his Twitter account (which suggests the BBC is in a lather over Twitter). The BBC, it seems, is concerned that this personal Tweeting is reducing the status of its presenters and thereby harming the reputation of the organisation. But new research from Pennsylvania suggests that it is precisely this kind of Tweeting which increases believability.

What the research did was to rank the credibility of academics based solely on their Tweets. The academics which were professional and business-like, who Tweeted in a scholarly way were perceived as the LEAST credible. Conversely, the academics who Tweeted in a personal way, with non-scholarly Tweets were ranked as the MOST credible. So, the personal Tweet about James Naughtie standing in a “love hotel” actually increases his credibility, not reduces it.

This study appears, at first sight, to go against common sense. After all, one of the things that increases the credibility of academics is the showing of their knowledge. But that is a false assumption. What really happens is we tend to believe people who are personable, who show us they are real human beings and who appear “normal” to us. We then justify our credibility ranking with so-called “real reasons” to believe them.

Consider this example from my university days. We had two entirely different academics in our department – one was a leading professor, the author of a significant text-book in his field and was quite brilliant. But he wasn’t approachable very much. He was nice enough and very helpful to students, but he was somewhat stand-offish, with an academic air about him. The other was “one of the lads”, who would come down the bar with us and get drunk. who would chat up the female students like crazy, but had no books to his name, did no academic research and was not any kind of expert. Guess which one we believed the most? That’s right – the non-academic – we later justified our credibility of him by saying he had studied the subject for ages, had done research for years and clearly knew his stuff. But it was his personal nature that was at the crux of things. Academically he was poles apart from the professor, who we believed less.

OK, I admit, this is anecdotal and not real evidence – but if you think of your own academic past you will find that the teachers and lecturers you had who were personal were much more relevant to you than those who were strictly academic.

It is much the same in business. The customers who you do most business with are almost certainly the ones who know something about you personally. Online, the companies that have embraced social media in a personal way – such as Starbucks and Dell – are the ones doing the most business through those channels. Everywhere you look, there is evidence that being personal beats being business-like, hands down.

So, why, oh why, do so many businesses avoid being personal on Twitter or Facebook? Why do people want to separate their business life from their personal life online? It is because we look at things with supposed logic and common sense. But as this new study on academic Tweeting shows us, logic and common sense is providing us with false information. Being personal online will bring you increased credibility – not less.

What can you do about this? Start Tweeting about your personal life, mix your personal and business information on Facebook and let your customers know the real you. After all, how else are they supposed to relate  to you? I am assuming, of course, that you think relationships are at the heart of all business. And if you think that, you can ONLY develop them in any depth if you are personal online – not business-like.

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Graham Jones
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+
Graham Jones

@grahamjones

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist, professional speaker and author of 32 books who helps businesses understand the online behaviour of their customers
RT @JonesDean77: Reminded me of a pitch I saw today from one of our 2yr degree #Enterprise groups. @grahamjones provided useful insight int… - 9 hours ago
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9 thoughts on “Stop being business-like to boost credibility

  1. Thanks Graham for that fascinating article. I agree with you – I hate faceless, impersonal corporate twitter accounts where there's no indication, either in the companies' twitter bios or in their tweets, that there are actual real PEOPLE behind them. I want to communicate with people, not a corporation. So I hate tweetstreams (they're usually automated) that consist of nothing but the titles of articles, with links. Sure the articles might be useful, but that's no enough. There's no engagement, no conversation, no personality. For me, a company's reputation is enhanced, not harmed, when I see that a real person is managing the twitter account.

  2. I just want to add a clarification. It has been suggested that I am proposing that by "chatting up female students like crazy" I am condoning unacceptable behaviour from a lecturer. I am not.I was merely describing a person who was himself in every situation – whether academically or socially. He was no different on the academic stage or off it. We may not like the kind of person he was – but the point is we knew who he was. The professor who always presented his scholarly self never let us know the real him – and that's why he was less credible. I am not suggesting for one moment that the lecturer's credibility came from unacceptable, sexist behaviour.

  3. Absolutely. If social media has done anything for the marketplace, it has made it become real. I travelled to Brussels recently and had checked out a few places on tripadvisor. One place was reported as a complete dive, and people had to ring or visit the police often when staying there. The other was clean, comfortable, and the owner was friendly. We picked the latter (obviously) and when speaking with the owner about this, he said (in terms of marketing), "You can't lie anymore". That's why we believe people who are real, even if we don't agree with all their principles. At least they aren't lying about who they are – so therefore we believe they're not lying about business, either.

  4. In principle this is a fine idea but some level of control does need to be maintained.

    I know of one small company, employing a dozen or so people, whose official Twitter feed has been left in the hands of an individual who effectively treats it as their own personal account.

    There are dozens of messages throughout the working day detailing what this person's friends and family are up to, what movies they're going to see at the weekend, what jokes they've heard recently and exhaustive lists of "follow Fridays". Most alarming of all, many of the tweets complain about how much this person hates being stuck in the office and how they're looking forward to going home at the end of the day.

    Being open and personable is one thing, but surely these aren't the sort of messages you want broadcast to the world as part of your business communications?

    I happen to know that this is an office full of very hard-working people, but the Twitter stream gives the complete opposite impression. I hate to think how much custom they may have lost because of it. Meanwhile the MD, seemingly unconcerned about the actual content of the feed, has been heard to say that Twitter must be good for business "because of the number of followers we have."

    There's a place for some openness and honesty with these new communications tools, but you still need a basic level of professionalism if it's not to backfire. The key, as with so many things, lies in striking the right balance.

    • The real problem with your company example is that they are only letting one person use it. If everyone in the company Tweeted using that account (CoTweet or HootSuite will achieve that) than it would be much more reflective of the company personality. That's the real issue for many businesses with Twitter – they give it to one person, not realising that because it is conversation it ought to be for everyone.The MD you quote also clearly hasn't thought things through – equating followers with success is missing the point completely.

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