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2021 Trusted Messengers Study

Americans no longer know who they should turn to for reliable information. In these highly political and often polarized times, who the message comes from is just as important—if not more—than what the specific content of the message is.

Intro Summary

When the COVID-19 vaccines were first becoming available, the Ad Council conducted months of interviews, surveys, and focus groups to understand why some Americans were hesitant to get the vaccine, and who could best reach them to persuade them otherwise. Ultimately, the COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative uncovered that the typical model of consumer brand allies and media partners couldn’t do it alone, especially when a decision is so personal. Trusted messengers—people deemed trustworthy, honest, and credible—were also crucial to deliver information directly to people at a local level.

The Trusted Messenger Study was designed to identify the trusted messengers Americans turn to for information on social and societal issues. It’s intended to better inform corporate leaders, causes, and civic groups working to educate and inspire the American public. Part of an ongoing, annual exploration, this inaugural study overwhelmingly found that, regardless of social issue, the majority of people trust close family and friends, followed by doctors and scientists, as well as academic and religious leaders. This finding held true across the six social and societal issues included in this report (COVID-19, mental health, voting/civic engagement, racial equity & justice, climate change, and addiction), and across demographics (generation, race, political affiliation, and urbanicity).

According to the research, personal experience or new information–when presented by a trusted messenger–was most likely to influence a respondent’s change in views and behavior around a social cause.

So where does the traditional influencer fit in—the celebrity, the content creator, the politician? By themselves, this study found that these messengers were viewed as less trustworthy, illustrating that reach does not necessarily correlate to trust. However, highly visible and/or highly followed messengers still have an important place in social issue campaigns as amplifiers and validators. They play a crucial role in generating awareness for social and societal causes.

In order to build knowledge, change attitudes, and inspire new behaviors through social issue efforts, marketers must look at the ecosystem in which individuals move from awareness, to understanding, to action, finding the right messenger (or messengers) for a particular issue. To design campaign efforts that are truly effective, today’s corporate and social impact leaders must look at campaigns across the Trusted Messengers Ecosystem. This ecosystem consists of three key layers of trusted messengers, all of which work together: Amplifiers offer their reach, Validators lend expertise and credibility, and Persuaders instill trust in the message directly to the audience.

Key Data Points


Annual Influencer and Trusted Messenger Benchmark Study

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Who Are the New Trusted Messengers for Social-Good Campaigns?

By Lisa Sherman
We all look to reach Americans with reliable information they need about important social issues. But in these highly political and polarized times, who the message comes from is just as important—if not more—than the content of the message itself. So who do Americans trust on social issues today, and how can we maximize the impact these trusted messengers have on social-good campaigns?
February 15, 2022