How friend recommendations can make or break trust

Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet

Friend recommendations are becoming increasingly important in commercial transactions. They come in different forms using different technologies. The thought behind them is simple. When someone you know endorses (‘likes” is the buzz word nowadays) some advertisement/product/service/brand you will be more likely to trust that opinion.

Recommendations come both explicit and implicit. Facebook tested both forms. Beacon wasn’t a big success. The “Charlene just bought product x in store y” was a bit too explicit for most. They have now moved to a more implicit form called Social Ads. We are now all co-stars in the their advertisement production. When you see a brand or service advertisement it might have references of friends “liking” it.

This phenomenon started with the success of comparison sites and maybe best know with Amazon’s book reviews. We don’t trust companies or brands selling us stuff, so instead we turn to the opinion of the consumer. The drawback of those methods is that you can never be sure if a good or bad review was written by a competitor, the seller, a genuine consumer, or just a plain idiot. By making it more personal, adding people you know into the mix, trust should go up.

New technologies will allow more sophisticated forms. Real-time search (well, we should really say near real-time, but that doesn’t sound quite as snappy), augmented reality. Services like Yelp, Friendfeed, Twitter, Lattitude and the ultimate social database of Facebook. They will all be concentrating on getting you and your friends linked to advertisements/products/services/brands. Whether it is about finding a good restaurant in the vicinity, reading a blog, buying a book, downloading music, friending someone online. At some point in the process you will get either explicit (“Alexander liked Coupa Cafe“), or implicit (“John, Peter, and Alexander are now in Coupa Cafe, drinking a coffee”) recommendations from friends.

I’m sure it will be a big commercial success, but I don’t like it. There are 2 main reasons for this:

  1. It turns my online experience into a bad copy of the . Its great at first, but after you find out that half the planet already visited that one tiny little restaurant deep in the jungle before you did, it is all of a sudden not so exciting anymore. Part of any adventure is that you do your discovery yourself (even if half the planet did that discovery before you did). Spoiling the end by revealing it  isn’t always very exiting.
  2. If a recommendation is not explicit, it will easily destroy the trust I have in an opinion of someone I know. Sharing needs to be a conscious and intentional act to be meaningful. Consider the difference between these two forms. “Alexander visited/liked Coupa Cafe” versus this dialogue. Tom: “Hi Alexander, do you know a great place for coffee?”.  Alexander:”I went to Coupa Cafe yesterday. They have excellent coffee”. Which recommendation form is more effective do you think? The first one is implicit and unconscious, therefore meaningless (try reading 500 of these). The second one is intentional, and even more important, called for.

I see both things already happening every day. Just look at a typical Twitter, Friendfeed, or Facebook stream. It’s full of implicit, unintentional and uncalled for advice, getting in the way of the relevant stuff. This form only works with people that consistently try to be an active part in sharing recommendations. When it becomes an unconscious process quality and trust deteriorate fast.

Maybe we should take a different direction with this whole implicit recommendation stuff. If the main reason for this is commercial, why not turn the process around entirely? It’s simple really. Stop providing me unsolicited recommendations. If I need something I will ask for it. If you then provide me with the best offer I’ll take it. It’s the ‘looking for’ section of eBay. I want to know a good restaurant in the vicinity. Give me a local auction site where I can ask that question. Any restaurant nearby can respond, using not only great offerings (30% discount on curry dishes tonight), but also my friends recommendations (“Tom and Jeff liked the vegetable curry). This would be the optimal form. It’s explicit and called for!


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3 Responses to How friend recommendations can make or break trust

  1. Bertil says:

    I really appreciate the way you look at sollicitation.

    What about letting the initiative to your friends? There already are many Fb Apps that do that, through often rather clumsy invites mecanism—and little help from Facebook to let them decide who to recommend to you. If an gaming app could have access to who are the people you tend to share other gamings apps with, they’d be able to say: “Mike doesn’t know about us, but he might enjoy playing with you.” then you’d have both a relevance filter (Facebook expertise), contextualised interactions (play with a friend) and a social filter (your friend vouches for your likely consent).

    I’d love to know more about this, because I’m struggling to find a business model for a ‘carers’ community (people who spend significant time helping a ill or elderly relative). Banner ads for private insurance are lucrative, but those don’t help us with the non-for profit who don’t want to see them anywhere; carers tend to spend all their money on help, so they have little extra cash; relevance can be both social or based on type (people you know vs. people who are like you) but sollicitation are at the heart of the issue given the semi-medical nature of what we are trying to offer.

  2. @Bertil,

    I was focusing a bit on one side (demand), but when it comes to sharing/recommending then intention and a conscious act are important to me.
    So if a friend decides to recommend something specific to me (instead of sharing unconsciously with the world), then it will have more value.

    This mechanism is however often misused by unconscious sharing, making it less valuable.

    Not sure how to address your health example. That is a pretty complex case, and I don’t now any examples where a business model actually solved this complex situation.

  3. Pingback: Bookmarks week 34 | Bijgespijkerd

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