Understanding Trust

In advertising, nothing is more important than trust. It really doesn’t matter how clever or creative your messaging is, how high your site is on search results, or how cute your packaging is. If consumers don’t trust you, you’ll never be successful. This simple fact’s importance continues to multiply online, where dirty secrets never seem to stay secret for long. The burgeoning word-of-mouth industry is built on the principle that people will uncover the truth about a product or company and share that with one another.

Companies must reconsider what trust means for them in a rapidly evolving world. Trust is changing, and soon how you trust will be more important than who you trust.

Understanding Trust

What precisely is trust? This is no mere philosophical question. Trust is a critical component to commerce and something businesspeople should be able to understand at a functional level. Certainly, we’ve had survey questions like, “Do you agree with the following statement: Company X has my interests at heart?” But we need to go deeper than that if we’re going to be prepared to deal with an evolving notion of trust in an online world.

Trust is a combination of two primary factors:

  • Benevolence: The degree to which people believe you’ll do the right thing.
  • Competence: The degree to which people believe you’re capable of performing the tasks you say you can.

These two factors should be measured distinctly and multiplied together. The framework approach for this measure should be the Net Promoter Score model, where consumers are asked the degree to which they would recommend a product to a friend. These two factors can be measured using separate questions, asking consumers for 1-10 ratings. Individual responses are then multiplied together and balanced with all others to see if the total population sees you as being trustworthy.

These factors should be measured separately because, in many ways, benevolence is more important to consumers than competence. Consider any corporate scandal where the company was able to regain trust and continue operating. When they apologized and claimed a lack of competence, consumers forgave them. A lack of benevolence is almost completely unforgivable. This is why companies apologize with “we screwed up” or (more often) the lukewarm “mistakes were made.”

If we have a sense of trust’s mechanics, we can be ready for the challenges as trust evolves.

Trust 2.0

Interactive media is changing trust. Consider three examples from 2006 that challenged our notions of trust:

  • Floyd Landis won the Tour de France and was almost immediately charged with taking drugs that raised his testosterone level. He maintained his innocence strongly and decided to release all the materials related to his case on the Internet so everyone can read through and make a decision on his own.
  • The Associated Press opened a bureau in Second Life, complete with an avatar-reporter to cover the beat. Second Life is a virtual world, where everything is made up by its inhabitants. So, AP — a news organization dedicated to delivering truth — is operating in a world of pure invention.
  • Lonelygirl15 posted videos of herself to YouTube, and everyone believed she was real. Only she wasn’t. Lonelygirl15 is a video blogger that uses YouTube to tell a serialized story. The creators of Lonelygirl15 used (potentially abused) the YouTube environment to add credibility to their fictional story.

Consumers’ ability to trust is challenged each day. In the past, advertisers were able to boost trust by placing a celebrity into their :30 spots. “Hey! Sammy Davis Jr. says Alka-Seltzer works. Good enough for me.” Clearly, those days are over.

Companies must now think about how consumers are trusting, not who. That means understanding the math equation consumers do to determine competence and benevolence. The most in-tune companies will track this closely and be in the best position to maintain and build trust in this wildly connected world.

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