I only trust my mom, my doctor, and strangers on the internet

Joshua Kaufman, Co-founder of location-based information app, Atly, looks at how tech can be used to replicate word-of-mouth authenticity.

Historically, the most reliable way to get recommendations was word-of-mouth advice from people you trust: an aunt with exquisite taste, a pop-culture loving friend, a cousin from Chicago with tips for every noteworthy coffee shop around town.

The internet changed that – for better and for worse.

Despite the ability to find endless amounts of information in mere seconds in today’s digitally-connected world, discovering new places online has become increasingly complicated. The flood of information, reviews, opinions, and advertisements is relentless, overwhelming users with search results and leaving them to sift through the endless pile. And, sometimes, finding the exact right spot can feel high stakes – say, the perfect place for a surprise proposal or a business meeting with a desirable potential client, or even just a restaurant worthy of a 30-minute drive.

There’s a reason people express skepticism about common review resources: Atly’s recent consumer survey found that a surprising 30 per cent of users, for example, lack trust in Google Maps for reliable recommendations, begging the question of why people are finding it harder to trust review sites and social media platforms. Indeed, social media posts feel like – and often are – paid advertisements, while review sites are inundated with testimonials from bots and faceless strangers who don’t necessarily share values and priorities with the searchers. And the information that is helpful or relevant is often hard to verify and difficult to find due to insufficient user experience or poor digital organization.

Nevertheless, our reliance on technology for advice and information is here to stay, which begs the question: can tech ever recreate the authenticity of personal suggestions and word-of-mouth magic?

Faith in familiarity
According to our survey, over 70 per cent of people place the highest level of trust in recommendations from their friends and family – a higher rate of trust than for social media influencers, online review sites, and Google Maps.

Simply put, familiarity breeds trust. People are not only hardwired to trust someone who is in the same social group as them, but human beings inherently trust people whom they can relate or feel similar to, be it through shared interests, shared style, shared family, or more.

How can such like-mindedness translate into the online realm? Just look at the success of online communities on Reddit, Facebook, or Whatsapp – these platforms often foster camaraderie among like-minded users who can depend on each other to provide content, opinions, and conversations around very specific topics. For example, if two strangers are obsessed with a niche Japanese reality TV show, they are inherently more likely to find trust and connection around other shared interests as well.

It is unsurprising, then, that 66 per cent of people reported that they engage in online communities in an effort to make connections with other people who have similar interests.

Go niche or go home
No one goes to the same source for every recommendation – the bookish friend isn’t the foodie, who isn’t the music-lover, who isn’t the style guru, and so on. Dedicated investment in a specific niche or expertise is a precursor to building trust.

Online recommendations should therefore be designed accordingly. While certain platforms will always be hubs for broad categories of recommendations, it is the unique groups within them – or platforms entirely dedicated to a specific niche – that allow for the expertise in any given topic to truly shine.

Think of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule about achieving mastery in a specific skill or field. The more time and space dedicated to any one specific topic – be it urban gardening or an affinity for the best BBQ joints in a particular city – the greater the ability to delve into the details needed to make information reliable and trustworthy.

Tell a story
Often, when individuals are looking for new places or things to discover online, the process of finding that information can feel impersonal and boring. Perhaps a top-rated breakfast spot in a town nearby catches the eye, and while it is easy to find pictures of the menu, restaurant, and specific dishes, the information that users receive is still impersonal and predictable from one place to the next. Without a way to properly differentiate between these individual listings, places and things blend together and can feel like just another option in a long list of largely interchangeable choices.

By creating a story and personal anecdote around a specific location that users can attach themselves to, locations become more personal, familiar, and unique, rather than random and generic. Influencers, and social media users in general, have already begun this trend: they post videos describing to their subscribers how they stumbled into a donut shop and found bear claws bigger than their face, or describing the trip they took to the Amalfi Coast and how they discovered the perfect cliffs to conquer their fears of diving into the ocean. By embedding their discoveries in a story, they imbue it with an extra dose of authenticity, making users feel a part of the experience and inspiring them to visit themselves.

Be authen-tech
The digital landscape has made it easier than ever to find reviews and recommendations on the internet. Finding authenticity and trustworthiness, however, remains a significant challenge.

By embracing what makes word-of-mouth recommendations so appealing – like-minded communities, topical specificity, and transparent authenticity – tech and social media platforms have the opportunity to create online spaces that foster trust.

The motivation to do so is simple – when users trust a platform’s recommendations, they keep coming back for more.