How Brands Form Deep, Trusting Relationships With Communities

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Can brands form deep, trusting relationships with communities? The short answer is yes. The longer answer, of course, is that very few brands are currently doing this. And the answer to that is because the work is hard.

There are a few key concepts you must embrace if you’re a marketer who really wants to connect. Lucky for you, I’ve spent over twelve years studying these concepts, and will be sharing them with you today!

The Social Penetration Theory

First, let’s get the name out of the way. Obviously, it’s named by social psychologists and not marketers. It may be a terrible name but it’s a brilliant concept!

Second, I did my undergraduate thesis on this theory. The Social Penetration Theory (SPT) looks at how we form deep, trusting relationships. Social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor created the SPT as a way to describe how relationships are formed through different degrees of self-disclosure.

“As relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more intimate ones.”

Lastly, my goal was understanding if the SPT, which was formulated in the 1970s, still applied today and in a much different medium. Specifically, can brands use the Social Penetration Theory to build relationships through social media? 

The short answer is yes. But as with all things marketing and social sciences, how to get there warrants a much larger conversation. So, here we go …

Forming Deep, Trusting Relationships Through Self-Disclosures

Brand loyalty is rapidly declining. Therefore, marketers and brands are desperate to build trusting relationships with their audiences, communities, and customers. But they aren’t doing much to get there. Because vulnerability is required. And vulnerability requires self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure is the process of deliberately revealing information about oneself that is significant and would not normally be known by others. They are what lead to trusting relationships. Think about your branded content, and specifically, every social media post your brand shares. Is it revealing? Is it significant? Does it consist of content that’s not normally known by others? Doubtful.

Most social media content is riddled with clichés or is dry, and fact-based.

On the other hand, the SPT claims that if we gradually reveal emotions and experiences, and listen to their reciprocal sharing, we gain a greater understanding of each other and display trust. 

Finally, self-disclosure has two aspects: breadth and depth.


social penetration theory trusting relationships b squared media[Source: Wiki]

Altman and Taylor’s hypothesis stated that the way we form relationships is by disclosing information to one another. Ultimately, those disclosures lead to trust, which deepens relationships. As we progress through levels of disclosure, each stage becomes more revealing than the one before.

But brands are living in breadth. Very few are going into depth with their disclosures.

Levels Of Disclosures: Getting To Depth

According to the SPT, there are four types of information that we share when our goal is building trusting relationships.

  1. Clichés. These are regular, everyday responses we provide in social settings. They can be used to acknowledge someone’s presence, are usually considered casual, and do not qualify as self-disclosure. 
  2. Facts. Facts may or may not be qualified as disclosure, as they must fit the criteria of being intentional, significant, and not otherwise known. Disclosing important information suggests a level of trust and commitment to the other person that signals a desire to move the relationship to a new level.
  3. Opinions. Even more revealing than facts are opinions. Opinions expose more information about oneself than facts do. 
  4. Feelings. This is the deepest level of disclosure as the communicator is revealing more about how they feel – which in turn creates a clearer picture of how your relationship might develop. Emotional, versus factual, disclosures are particularly important for boosting empathy and building trust.

So, the SPT not only applies to in-person relationships, but even when we build them online. Does it extend to relationships between brands and consumers online, specifically via social media? The answer was not only a resounding YES, it became the foundation of my career and ultimately my company.

Sadly, not much has changed for brands trying to use social media platforms to build trust and loyalty today. Marketing and content teams tend to use shallow tactics to form relationships and evoke trust, which don’t work. We’re too focused on the content and not the conversation; the platform and not the consumer.

Trusting Relationships & The Reward/Cost Ratio

You are giving your customers products and services. And with the right marketing strategy, you should absolutely be giving them support, affection, and comfort. 

It takes time and energy (effort) for your audiences to engage with you. But it’s not about the fanfare and is more about making these interactions easy and fun. It’s about ensuring that you – the brand – are giving out just as much, if not more, of what you are asking. 

All in all, the SPT follows a well-recognized pattern of the “greater the ratio of rewards to costs, the more rapid the penetration process.” Your audience segments are constantly trying to weigh the potential outcome of interacting with you on a reward/cost scale. This reward/cost ratio suggests that you can build relationships faster when there are positive self‐disclosure experiences that bring people through the stages and into deeper disclosures (on both sides). 

Ultimately, what I found with my thesis study is if brands want to attract and keep (acquisition and retention!) customers through social media, there’s nothing better than using content as a cornerstone for building an environment where would-be and current customers can have a conversation with your company — as well as with each other.

Additionally, the kinds of messages (content) that received the most supporter responses in my study were — you guessed it — the ones that sought out opinions and feelings. Furthermore, posts that used storytelling or “soliciting stories or narratives” as I called it in my thesis, produced the deepest-level disclosures, or opinions and feelings.

Vulnerability → Trust → Intimacy

My findings are that the SPT applies to brands and consumers today, even with social media as the medium. We haven’t changed the way we build relationships: vulnerability → trust → intimacy

Based on my thesis, and a lot of real-world experiences with clients, I’m convinced that this applies to brands. If you were to share more content about your brand’s values – including sharing and asking for opinions and feelings – what do you think would happen? My assumption is that your brand would gain more closely-aligned audience members, and lose those who are not as agreeable with your values.

This “de-penetration” or “dissolution” isn’t a bad thing. This is what the smartest of brands do; they want to shed the lurkers and followers who aren’t active and won’t turn into purchasers, all the while gaining more of an audience who will move from connection → conversation → conversion

Finally, if you’ve been charged with your brand’s goals of building, maintaining, and soliciting new relationships through social media, are you doing it on an emotional level like the SPT dictates?

Most brands simply regurgitate content that is crafted with clichés and facts. Instead, you need to create social media posts that demonstrate a certain level of authenticity. The magic lies in being real, not perfect. 

Conversations That Connect

In conclusion, if you want to solicit opinions and feelings and build trusting relationships with your communities and customers, you’ve got to do the same.

And, if you want to continue to go deeper into how to do this — the practical and tactical ways in which we’re using social media for connection → conversation → conversion — then I encourage you to read my upcoming book, Conversations That Connect!

Conversations that connect Excerpt Mockup b squared media

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Brooke B. Sellas is an award-winning Customer Marketing Strategist and the CEO & Founder of B Squared Media. Her book, Conversations That Connect has been recognized nationally and is required reading for a Customer Experience class at NSU. Brooke's influence in digital marketing is not just about her accomplishments but also about her unwavering commitment to elevating the industry standard of digital customer experience and customer marketing.
Conversations That Connect
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Category: Communications, Emotional Marketing,
Tags: authenticity, B Squared Media, Brooke B. Sellas, Brooke Sellas, building relationships, community building, content marketing, content marketing strategy, Conversations that Connect book, self-disclosure, The Onion Theory, The Social Penetration Theory, trusting relationships
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