It’s an exciting time to work in the digital universe. We face more possibilities for creating content than ever, from video to infographics. We also have more places to put digital content than ever.

Today, our online galaxy is more than our website. It’s also our presence on a collection of social sites, on a collection of mobile sites and applications, and perhaps even in digital signage and kiosks. What’s more, people want content from us constantly. Almost daily, you can find a new statistic showing that people in the U.S. and around the world spend more time with web content now than ever. This constant hunger for content creates a powerful demand, a force that we are, indeed, reckoning with.

While replete with potential, this complex digital galaxy introduces new challenges. One challenge has become particularly tricky: content credibility. My company, Content Science, recently surveyed 800 Americans, and found that even though 79% are using web content a lot more now than five years ago, 65% of them think web content is “hit or miss” or “unreliable.” (Figure 1) Of respondents, 63% reported that their trust in web content is the same or less than it was five years ago. (Results were similar for the same survey with 800 British participants, as well.)

Fig. 1 — Americans report their trust in web content (n=800).

People turn more often to digital content but don’t necessarily trust it. Why? One reason is that people judge the credibility of content by the credibility of its source. Let’s take a closer look at the role of source in perceived credibility.

Anyone can be a content source

The situation has become much more complicated.

Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Not long ago (though it feels far, far away), our sources of content were limited. Before the web, the main source was the media. The distinctions between news, features, opinion, entertainment, and advertising were clear, too. You wouldn’t mistake a news report for an opinion / editorial piece. How things have changed.

Online, any person or organization can be a source of content. Any individual can launch a blog or a YouTube account and start posting content. Any company or organization can have a website (or five or ten), blog (or three or four), social account, or other means of publishing content online. The media are no longer the only sources of content.

Those complications are only the beginning. We live in an age of APIs. Techniques such as aggregation, curation, and mashing up bring together multiple sources of content into a new source. For example, Sharecare answers health questions by curating content from media personalities, academic institutions, doctors and clinicians, and nonprofit organizations.

Fig. 2 — People interested in finance are open to non-media sources as credible sources. (U.S. findings, n=493; view full image)

The good news? My survey suggests people are open to a brave new world of content sources. For example, my survey asked people to rank potential sources of content in the order they trust them. Non-media sources such as brands, nonprofits, and government agencies performed well. Niche media such as WebMD also performed better than big media. Figure 2 shows an example of how people in the U.S. ranked sources of finance content.

The challenge? When anyone and everyone can be a source, distinguishing which sources are credible becomes harder for users. That distinction also becomes more urgent. Let’s delve into why and what to do about it.

Not everyone is a credible content source

The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.

Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Online, there is no shortage of content. The quantity is there; often, the quality is not. Our users are well aware of this situation. How do they cope? By spending a lot of time considering, and reconsidering, specific content sources. In both my survey and observational testing with users, this need to verify content sources drives much user behavior, especially for content discovery. For example, source credibility affects which search results users view. Users will skip results that don’t seem credible. Skipping search results is only the beginning. My team at Content Science is finding that source credibility affects all kinds of content discovery behavior.[1]

What does this mean for you? Support your users’ behavior as they consider the source. Become a master of credibility. No matter what kind of source you are, you will better reach and influence users when they gain confidence in your credibility quickly. That takes more than applying a few journalistic rules to your content: most of us who work in digital content today are not journalists, and we’re not working for media sources. To see how to establish credibility, let’s walk through four key insights about content sources.

1. A credible source is easy to identify

Sounds simple, right? But a lot of content sources are getting this wrong. I asked survey participants to view and rate the credibility of content from a range of sources for health, travel, and finance. (I included samples from big media, niche media, government, and more.) Then, I asked participants why they gave the rating. Among samples rated not credible, the number two reason was confusion about the source. Figure 3 shows an example of results for travel web content.

Fig. 3 — Of travel content samples rated as not credible, the number two reason was confusion over the source. (U.S. findings; view full image)

Now, being easy to identify isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s more than saying who you are, splashing your logo, or having the right colors. To be quick for users to identify, you need a distinct tone across your digital touchpoints. Tone is your verbal imprint. When your content sounds like you, you reassure users that you are speaking. You immediately give users confidence that you are the source. The more distinct your tone is, the more credible you are. So, every organization needs a recognizable tone.

Today’s digital universe makes tone complicated. Take a curation situation, such as Sharecare mentioned earlier. Sharecare collects other people’s credible voices but it doesn’t have a distinct tone. Even subtle flourishes of perspective in introducing other voices could help Sharecare become easier to identify. For instance, imagine if Sharecare introduced the answers with a statement like We carefully selected these answers from trusted sources to share with you. Now, imagine peppering other screens with statements or labels that similarly tie in the Sharecare brand. A more distinct tone would imbue the Sharecare experience.

Another complication for tone is the many jobs your content has to do—across a myriad of platforms and formats. Trying to come up with an end-all, be-all tone doesn’t work. What does work is defining a core tone and then defining facets to support different jobs, such as marketing or customer support. Figure 4 shows an example model for defining a core tone (in this case for a digital product) and then slight variations for other functions.

Fig. 4 — A model for defining a core tone and then its facets to support different functions.

With this approach, you balance the need to have a distinct tone with the need to vary it slightly for a specific job. Make your content easy to identify by crafting a distinct tone across your touchpoints.

2. A credible source offers useful content.

Credibility requires substance. Past digital credibility studies have focused on the role of design and format, so I felt higher than an Ewok in the treetops when I discovered that content usefulness has an influence.[2] In my survey, I asked participants to explain why they rated content samples as credible. The number one reason across travel, finance, and health was knowing and trusting the source. The number two reason? The content seemed useful. Figure 5 shows the results for travel web content in the U.S.

Fig. 5 — The second most frequent reason American participants rated travel content as credible was usefulness (n=424; view full image).

It’s hard to fake being useful. You have to know what you’re doing, from your strategy all the way through your execution. But when useful content is so important to your credibility, it’s hard to justify anything less.

How do you make content useful? The short answer is that you make content useful when you craft it with users’ real needs, decisions, and questions in mind. Let me share an example from PubMedHealth. (Figure 6) This page brings together content explaining what a health condition is and what to do about it. Every bit of content here is relevant to the condition and common questions about it. The content on the right side, especially, guides the user into more pertinent content.

Fig. 6 — Survey participants said this sample was credible because the content is useful.

Now, if you’re a startup or simply new to being a content source, such as a retailer exploring branded content, take special note. This insight and the next one should give you hope. You can be a new source AND a credible source. You don’t have to go to the dark side and flout content quality or credibility.

3. A new source can become credible by being easy to verify and being recommended.

When users are unfamiliar with you as a content source, they look for mentions of you. They try to verify what you say. Let’s look at some proof. In my survey, I asked people about how they verify content. Of the options we gave, most participants said they search for other sources that corroborate the content. (Figure 7)

Fig. 7 — Most participants in the U.S. said they search for multiple sources to verify web content. (n=800; view full image)

If you’re offering useful content, people will be more likely to notice, cite, mention, or curate it. That means that when users go to verify you as a source, they will be able to do so quickly.

I know what you might be thinking. That’s what people say about their behavior. Is that what they really do? Our observational testing suggests yes. While trying to find the answer to a question about travel vaccinations, one test participant said, “I noticed that all roads point to CDC (The Center for Disease Control and Prevention)…most articles about this [topic] refer back to CDC. So, I’m just going straight to CDC now.”

The trick to being easy to verify is that you can’t completely control it, you can only influence it. How? By making your useful content easy to find and easy for other people to share or reference. As a simple example, CDC makes social sharing available on every content-rich page of its mobile site and website.

Many Americans might not realize the CDC covers travel vaccinations, but most of them know the CDC. The CDC was ranked the most trusted government agency in a 2009 Gallup poll. What if you’re not simply new as a source for a topic, but new as a source, period? Being recommended will go a long way with users. I asked survey participants to rank features of credibility. Recommendations ranked highly, as you can see in Figure 8.

Fig. 8 — Americans reported that recommendations from experts and someone familiar influenced their credibility judgments (n=800). Results were similar for the U.K. (View full image)

If you try to fake recommendations and mentions, you won’t make it as a credible source. Think for a moment about Luke Skywalker’s path to becoming a Jedi. Did he skip mastering the Force and learn lightsaber skills? No. He started with mastering the Force. In the same way, you can’t skip offering useful content and expect to earn meaningful recommendations or mentions.

Let’s take Cerner Corporation as an example. Cerner launched a blog on thought leadership for the health industry. As one instance, Cerner explained the meaning of changes in ICD-10 codes in a series of posts. (That might sound like Huttese to you, but to the public and private health industry, those codes are important.) The content of the post was so handy, that respected trade publications such as Investor’s Business Daily cited the post. So, like Cerner, you can’t control whether anyone mentions or recommends you. But, you can influence that behavior by offering useful content.

These insights will take you far in mastering credibility. When you try to establish credibility with a diverse group of users, you will appreciate this last insight.

4. A credible source means different things to different people—so test.

Obi-Wan Kenobi once wisely said Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view. The same is true for credibility. Insights one-three run true for most everyone. But, other aspects of credibility are more relative. In my survey, we found some notable differences between the U.K. and U.S. results. For example, in the U.S., companies and brands fared reasonably well as credible content sources. Personalities did not. The opposite was true in the U.K.

My team also wielded some masterful analysis on our survey data. They found statistically significant differences in some results by age. For example, take a look at Figure 7 again. In the U.S., people aged 55-64 were more likely than other age groups to rank endorsements highly. If you want to be a trusted source of content to people in that age range, you would want to secure and show endorsements.

So, if you’re trying to reach users in different regions or of different ages, don’t assume they judge credibility exactly the same way. How can you be sure your approach to being credible will work? By testing it. Testing with representative users doesn’t have to be laborious or outrageously expensive. When you think about the risks you take by not testing, the investment of time and resources seems small. What will be big is the influence you gain as a credible content source.

Be credible or be forgettable

Do or do not. There is no try.

Yoda, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Constant content demand makes our digital galaxy complicated. The possibilities are awe-inspiring, but they also cause costly credibility problems. The only way to make the force of content demand work for you, not against you, is to master credibility. I predict that if you apply these research-based insights, you will not simply survive amidst these complexities—you (and your users) will thrive.


  1. The full Content Science study of content and credibility is at Special thanks to Michael Driscoll, Lisa Clark, and our advisory partners for their contributions.
  2. For a detailed look at the role of design (not content) in web credibility, don’t miss the work of B.J. Fogg at Stanford Persuasive Technology Laboratory