By Donald Dunnington
It takes a long time to build public trust and being trusted—online and offline—is the foundation of every organization’s brand value. But how do you assure your brand’s trust in today’s environment?
We’re in a trust depression, and it’s a depressing state indeed. There were so many new things we thought we could count on, believe in. Even the Internet platforms we’ve worked so hard to build our businesses and our lives on are looking shaky when it comes to trust.
Trust is the Long Game
As a business, your best response to the online media trust depression is to commit to the long game of creating memorable and trustworthy content. Think strategically and creatively about developing and protecting your online reputation with authentic, useful, original content. The Internet and especially social media seem to favor a tactical playbook of fast reaction: ride the moment’s fashion, chase what’s trending, what’s liked, what goes viral. Reactive media, social or personal relations, however, have never been a good strategy. In fact, it’s no strategy at all.
Before you can craft a strategy to address a challenge, you need to understand its history. What has happened to trust in your industry? How and why do people trust? This isn’t just a technology problem. It’s a human relations problem that requires human understanding and a human response.
What Happened to Online Trust
In 2017, Rachel Botsman launched her career as a trust expert with her book “Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart.” In her book, Botsman says, “The real disruption is not technology itself, but the massive trust shift it creates.”
She describes trust as a risk reduction strategy, a “confident relationship with the unknown.” Trust started as something that remained local for most of human existence, within the family, the tribe. As societies and cultures grew and nations developed, trust became “institutional,” with anointed gatekeepers telling us who and what could be trusted.
Now, Botsman says, the Internet has made trust “distributed,” with consumers, influencers, anonymous or un-credentialed reviewers, bots and algorithms that have undermined the authorities who once set the standards for trust. The result has not been all to the good. She sees what is now known as META (Facebook and Instagram) as a place for “almost a third of the world’s population to gossip and gripe, share and like, even if the content is false, and without proper checks and balances or any real redress.”
Technology and Human Nature
While many of our trust troubles today are in some way linked to the Internet, the technology is not the creator of the problems. People have a long history of finding ways to turn new technologies toward unintentional or purposefully harmful ends.
We shouldn’t have been surprised that something called social media could also harbor anti-social behavior. Especially in a wide-open environment where it’s easy to remain anonymous or spoof someone else, for bots and trolls to sow mistrust and create chaos. We saw hints of trouble brewing from the beginning. Long before we had Twitter fake news, or Facebook and Instagram shaming, we saw email flaming, spamming and viruses.
Social media didn’t invent disinformation or propaganda. It just does the job faster and spreads it wider than print, film, radio or even TV. Email didn’t invent junk mail. It just does the work cheaper, and—like other Internet channels—it knows no borders. Internet-powered manufacturing, transportation and logistics didn’t invent global trade and cause the trouble that followed. It just made globalization easier, more all-encompassing. With it came a pandemic, a logistics nightmare, and trade partners who aren’t as trustworthy as hoped.
Disruption Comes to the Disrupters
Nor should it be a surprise that when seemingly idealistic garage or basement or college-dorm startups become giant, global Internet companies, they use their dominance to their own advantage, often disadvantaging the public that trusts them.
Some platforms may have gotten too big to fix themselves. Consider the warning signs in “The Facebook Files,” a lengthy and still growing expose from The Wall Street Journal. You need a subscription to read the full file, but you can listen to “The Facebook Files Podcast” starting here with the first installment.
For more insight see Rich Karlgaard’s interview, “Why Technology Prophet George Gilder Predicts Big Tech’s Disruption” posted February 9, 2018 at Forbes.com.
The Trouble with Free
“Information wants to be free,” was the mantra at the dawn of the Internet Era. Like social media, Google and so many others that now dominate commercial life via the Internet, “free” is their weapon that gutted big and local media alike.
“So what’s wrong with free?” George Guilder asks in his book, “Life After Google” (2018). “It is always a lie,” he says, “because on this earth nothing, in the end, is free.”
More than anything else, “free” was the undoing of many legacy businesses—local, national, and global—that had once been trusted. It takes resources and resourcefulness for a business to earn trust. Software may be “free” but its support isn’t, it’s updates often aren’t free, and trusting free downloads from the Internet has become an exceedingly dangerous game to play. Just ask developers what they think of free WordPress plug-ins.
Better than Free: Think Creative and Be Strategic
Google and Google search advertising aren’t likely to go away any time soon, but the trend has started. More searchers concerned about their privacy are turning to Philadelphia’s DuckDuckGo search engine. Apple and others have forced Google to search for an alternative for the now-infamous cookies that track us across the Internet.
Social media may one day become less “Wild West” and more responsible. But despite their short comings today, they continue to play an important role in connecting with your target markets. Just make sure you follow your strategy as a trusted resource.
A Future Based on Trust
As the public loses trust in big tech, and we all become more aware of the cost and risks of free, these three trends are likely to accelerate:
- Trust becomes more local
- Small earns trust more easily than big
- Trust, like attention and time, becomes a highly valued asset
If your business is local, think creatively and plan strategically about building local trust through the true stories you tell. If your business spreads over the region, the nation, or the globe, think strategically about looking and acting more local and telling that story.
If your business is small, think creatively and strategically about positioning small size to your advantage. If your business is large, think about how your employees and partners can help you interact with your public at a more human scale. Whatever your size, don’t underestimate the high value and rewards when your organization feels more personal and approachable.
No matter what your location(s) or size, do the research, and think about the actions you need to take. If you want to be trusted, you have to be consistently trustworthy. Tell stories that demonstrate you can be trusted and understand that empty words without appropriate action never build trust—they diminish it.