Why It's Time to Hit the Reset Button on Trust

We Need to Figure Out How to Nurture Credibility in Our Marketing Conversations, Platforms and Models

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Trust is a tough nut to crack these days.

One on hand, it's the easiest topic to elevate with chest-thumping righteousness, but it's harder to execute, much less enforce. Moreover, in the topsy-turvy digital and "social" age, it's painfully difficult to define.

Wikipedia suggests a trusted party is "presumed to seek to fulfill policies, ethical codes, law and their previous promises." Yes, of course, but there's lots of detail and meaning to pour into the gaps. I'm convinced the time is now for a fresh, new -- perhaps even difficult -- conversation on trust. And like any good conversation, we need to start with many more questions than answers.

Marketers in particular need to ask really hard questions. Trust is the currency of effective advertising, and yet it's so curiously evasive and increasingly murky.

In the 10th-anniversary edition of the classic "all markets are conversations" "Cluetrain Manifesto," co-author Doc Searls warns of a coming "advertising bubble" and a push-media "attention economy" crash. Eventually, he suggests, an "intention economy" will "come along in which demand drives supply at least as well as supply drives demand." If he's right, one presumes new rules of trust will come along for the ride.

Even in the coveted, ostensibly trust-proof word-of-mouth-powered era, trust appears to have a limited, if not fragile, shelf-life. Indeed, I'm a bit haunted by a recent Edelman Trust Barometer study suggesting peer-to-peer trust is down significantly. A front-page article in last month's Washington Post says that what "appears at first to be a spin-free, grassroots marketplace of opinions and recommendations is rapidly turning into a hotly contested battleground." Have we screwed up the conversation so quickly? Have we over-spammed the consumer voice or put "engaging" before "listening?" Are we too late for WOMMA ethics codes?

The new trust authorities
Today, even the notion of "trust authorities" is undergoing a makeover. In the early 1970s, Walter Cronkite was the most-trusted figure on Planet Earth. The media were less fragmented and free of the hyper-critical bloggers who sent Cronkite's replacement packing for alleged investigative reporting. These days, figures like Jon Stewart, who skewers politicians and anyone else in his tracks with hilarious abandon, seem to emerge as beacons of trust. Indeed, in laughter and Jib Jab-type parody we trust.

Lately "authenticity" is all the rage because consumers trust voices that seem more genuine and sincere. Ostensibly, brands that engage in authentic conversations boost their trust factor. But if the end game of marketing is selling a product, doesn't true authenticity have limits? After all, trust agents aren't necessarily marketers or salespeople, notes Chris Brogan in his provocative book "Trust Agents."

On Google, we trust link-love-validated search results. On Wikipedia, we trust the inherent efficiency of "always-on, always-correcting" editing. On brand and retailer sites, power in numbers increases our trust in ratings and reviews (provided they include negative reviews, of course).

On social networks, trust is a riddle wrapped in digital bipolar disorder. We seem to trust content from those who are first, often forwarding, sharing or re-tweeting snippets with minimal fact checks. Even hashtags are suspect. On Facebook and MySpace, we trust even the most peripheral acquaintances as friends, opening up perpetually updated multimedia window into our personal lives. (Guilty as charged.)

On Twitter, trust is reflected or implied in both followers and who we elect to dignify with pass-along. Online, a single blurb in Mashable might earn 10 times as many "retweets" as a New York Times article. Is that about trust, good timing, popularity or shrewd gaming of our insatiable appetite for pass-along?

Now we're about to see an explosion of sponsored tweets in a Twitter ad model that's akin to Google Ad Words, albeit in the first person. The model is anchored to a metric known as "resonance." Twitter clearly needs a compelling business model, but the next time we see a brand Twitter account with a high followers count, how will we interpret that? When we see a million followers on @Zappos, it's hard not to hear the stuffy voice of John Houseman in the background insisting, "They earned it." Will we soon need "organic" labels on brand or business Twitter accounts?

Debate over privacy
Then there's privacy. At the heart of the privacy debate is apprehension that marketers will abuse personally identifiable data or the targeting opportunities of behavioral advertising. Fair issues, and yet we volunteer specifics on our personal lives via social networks we would have never dreamed of years ago, almost like we're begging to be discovered. Are we abandoning trust, or just ditching an outdated definition?

On this point, my own views have shifted conservative. As a father of three kids under age 5, my trust paranoia is on the uptick. Both my wife and I are seasoned marketers, but we're milliseconds from extreme activism if conditions permit friend-or-follow-happy creeps to enter our childrens' world. We trust no one. (Then again, we still post our kids' photos on Facebook.)

This week, in my capacity as board chair, I'll be participating in the Council of Better Business Bureaus' International Torch Awards in Washington. One of our awards will go to Consumers Union, a group I've admired since I bought my first stereo as a kid, and with whom I worked on advertising policy while a legislative aide.

We generally trust Consumer Reports because they are objective and can't be bought. They are the "uber" reviewers. Yes, we squirm a bit over the Consumerist.com (Consumer Reports' recent acquisition), but we'd be lying if we didn't admit the site often syncs with our own bouts of consumer rage. If you carefully listen to the conversation, you learn that what makes Consumer Reports and Consumerist so trustworthy is the sense that they are always looking at the world first through the lens of the consumer. That also happens to be good business, a point Procter & Gamble chiseled in my brain.

But back to the big idea. We need a new conversation on "trust." Radical new models are unfolding before our eyes -- from social commerce to one-click mobile ratings and reviews to trust-incubating "Service 2.0." The pace of change and disruptions begs a new dialogue and a new wave of thinking about how we nurture trust and the credibility of our conversations, platforms and models.

In the meantime, here are a few principles to keep us extra attentive in the short term.

If you abuse it, you lose it
In the digital age, it's really hard to earn back trust if you lose it. Search engines, Wikipedia, review databases, trust seals and the hyper-attentive digital trail of consumer-generated media never forget.

Oversell, expect hell
If we oversell or stretch ad claims or product promises, transparency dynamics combined with the realities of friction-free feedback will create misery for brands and businesses alike. Trust me, I've read my share of Better Business Bureau scorecards and consumer feedback.

Want self-regulation? Think over-compensation
The smart policy is a proactive policy, especially with the specter of greater regulation coming around the bend. Draw your line closer to common sense, or what your "inner consumer" would advise. We need to over-compensate.

Here's the good news. The potential of what a more trustworthy landscape can create for consumers and business alike is tremendous -- win-win across the board. But we don't get it for free. We need to "earn" it.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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