Talk Business Interview: Building Trust Online

Thank you to Roby Brock of Talk Business for the invitation to talk about building trust in this information age on his program. Check out the Talk Business site and watch the interview here:Here are my full thoughts on the topic:

In the online space, we can find almost everything about almost anyone or anything. We are truly living in an information age. We are sharing information about ourselves, we are seeking information about others and from others. Everyone is doing it: consumers, businesses, and organizations. And they are doing it using social tools that allow for instant updates, instant sharing and easy searching. With all this information available, how do consumers know whom to trust? Do they trust the consumer reviews, or the expert analysis? Do they trust their individual friends or large organizations for information?

Whom to trust, as it turns out, is a bit of a moving target. Every year, Edelman conducts a trust survey.  In recent years, with the rise of social media and online reviewing systems, this trust survey has indicated that the public is more inclined to trust “people like me” over corporate entities. However, the economic recession has led consumers to become cynical (more so than they were already), leading to a swing in who and how they trust: (1) the public now wants to hear from credentialed experts and (2) corporate trust and transparency are now just as important as the quality of products and services from that company. Today’s consumers are more skeptical, savvy and sophisticated when it comes to online information.

Facing this modern consumer is daunting to businesses vying for the trust of their audiences: Though it's easier than ever to reach your customers, it's less likely that they'll listen. Today, the most valuable online currency isn't the dollar, but trust itself.” (Trust Agents, 2009) So, how does a business work to build that trust and become a favored brand? Here are some starting steps for establishing trustworthiness:

  • Be transparent. The online world is defined by the availability of information. To make that information available is to be transparent. Consumers rile at even thought that information they seek is unavailable to them for any reason. And, if a company or organization isn’t providing the information about themselves, someone else (a less trustworthy source) will do it for them and may communicate inaccurate information. Put it all out there.
  • Be responsive. When consumers pose a question or express a concern, do not sit on the response in an effort at contemplation or corporate review “up-the-ladder.” Delayed responses only create more frustration among consumers and speculation as to the extent of a problem with the organization. Respond quickly, even if only to acknowledge receipt of the question or concern and promise a timely answer upon further research, if necessary.
  • Ask for feedback. And share that feedback. And share the organization's responses to that feedback. This will give consumers the views of other consumers “like them” and further demonstrate the transparency and responsiveness of the organization.
  • Call on experts. Balance the information and perspectives provided directly from the organization and from consumer feedback with expert opinions and advice. These third-party insights will round out the perspectives consumers seek when information-gathering.
  • Give them some face time. Use video to communicate the message. People communicate as much, if not more, with how an idea is conveyed, than with what it said. Shifty eyes and raised shoulders can reveal anxiety; intonation can convey passion. The more non-substantive information the medium can convey, the more data a listener has to decide how trustworthy the speaker is.”

Executing all of these steps at once may not be feasible for a business just starting to engage with their online audience. It is okay to start out with one or two of these methods, then open up into full-on transparency as trust is established. As an example, one of our clients at Stone Ward recently decided to take the plunge into social media using a promotion as its diving board, but they weren’t quite ready for a full-time presence in the space. To introduce this new face to its audience, we created a microsite with a distinct URL separate from the home/traditional site. The idea was that this site would eventually become the community hub and live on past the promotion, but the promotion (sweepstakes) would help draw the initial audience to engage with the brand. Being new to the social media space, the client didn’t have the resources to manage a completely open site and respond as quickly or as completely as necessary to build trust. Given that issue, the site launched with a combination of pre-set content and consumer-contributed content, and allowed for question submissions to an expert. The pre-set content was a bank of “tips” that could be commented on by users, and encouraged user-submitted tips. New tips automatically generated a Twitter post and a Facebook post. The consumer-contributed content was a community forum where users could submit questions and get responses from other users. The “ask the expert” questions were posted with the expert responses for others to view. Additional engagement elements included a daily poll and music playlists that tied into the brand and promotion concept. Starting out with elements that didn’t require daily maintenance and monitoring allowed this brand to introduce themselves to the space, start building relationships and start establishing a basis for trust without risking alienation with an unavoidable misstep due to resource limitation. As a result, the site has lived on past the promotion end and the brand now has a manageable engagement tool that can be built upon when they are ready.

The bottom line: Provide honest and complete information to consumers and their trust will follow. Understand that making information available is necessary for social bonding and while it may feel like putting that information online makes an organization vulnerable to attack, there is a need to reveal that vulnerability to ultimately build trust and relationships. And, if you are not ready for the all the steps to building trust, start out small and build from there.