Building Trust Requires Innovation

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Trust has been chasing me like a hungry mosquito. It seems that everyone has suddenly decided that creating trust is the key to success, whether it’s in the context of data sharing, artificial intelligence, or customer retention. Of course, I reached that conclusion quite some time ago (see this blog from late 2015) so I’m pleased to have the company.   But I’m also trying to figure out where we all need to go next.

I picked up a book on trust the other day (haven’t gotten past the introduction, so can’t say yet whether I’d recommend it) that seems to argue the problem of trust is different today because trust was traditionally based on central authority but authority itself has largely collapsed. The author sees a new, distributed trust model built on transparent, peer-based reputation (think Uber and Airbnb)* that lets people confidently interact with strangers. The chapter headings suggest she ends up proposing blockchain as the ultimate solution. This seems like more weight than any technology can bear and may just be evidence of silver bullet syndrome.   But it does hint at why blockchain has such great appeal: it’s precisely in tune with the anti-authority tenor of our times.

From a marketer’s perspective, what’s important here is not that blockchain might provide trust but that conventional authority certainly cannot. This means that most trust-building methods marketers naturally rely on, which are based in traditional authority, probably won’t work. Things like celebrity endorsements, solemn personal promises from the CEO, and references to company size or history carry little weight in a hyper-skeptical environment. Even consumer reviews and peer recommendations are suspect in a world where people don’t trust that they’re genuine. What’s needed are methods that let people see things for themselves: a sort of radical transparency that doesn’t require relying on anyone else’s word, including (or perhaps especially) the word of “people just like me”.

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One familiar example is comparison shopping engines that don’t recommend a particular product but  make it easy for users to compare alternatives and pick the option they like best. A less obvious instance would be a navigation app that shows traffic conditions and estimated times for alternate routes: it might present what it considers the best choice but also makes it easy for the user to see what’s happening and, implicitly, why the system’s recommendation makes sense. Other examples include package tracking apps that remove uncertainty (and thus reduce anxiety) by showing the movement of a shipment towards the customer, customer service apps that track the location of a repair person as he approaches for a service call, or phone queue systems that estimate waiting time and state how many customers are ahead of the caller.  A determined skeptic could argue that such solutions can’t be trusted because the systems themselves could be dishonest.  But any falsehoods would quickly become apparent when a package or repair person didn’t arrive as expected, so they are ultimately self-validating.

Of course, many activities are not so easily verified. Claims related to data sharing are high on that list: it’s pretty much impossible for a customer to know how their data has been used or whether it has been shared without their permission. This is the European Union’s approach to privacy in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) makes so much sense: the rules include a requirement to track each use of personal data, documentation of authority for that use, and a right of individuals to see the history of use. That’s very different attitude from the U.S. approach, which has much looser consent requirements and no individual rights to review companies’ actual behaviors.  In other words, the EU approach creates a forced transparency that builds trust, especially false information would be a legally-punishable offense.

There’s a slender chance that the GDPR approach will be adopted in the U.S. in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, although the odds are greatly against it. More likely, companies that are not Facebook will unite to oppose any legislation, even if Facebook itself sits on the sidelines. (That’s exactly what’s happening right now in California.)  The more intriguing possibility is that Facebook alone will adopt GDPR policies in the U.S. – as it has not very convincingly promised – and that this will pressure other companies to do the same.  Color me skeptical on that scenario: Facebook will probably renege once public attention turns elsewhere and few consumers will stop using services they enjoy due to privacy considerations.  In fact, if you look closely at studies of consumer attitudes, what you ultimately see is that consumers don’t really put a very high value on their personal data or privacy in general. 

What does scare them is identity theft, so it’s just possible that regulations addressing that issue might provide privacy protections as a bonus. That’s especially true if consumers decide they don’t trust the government to enforce data protection standards but, following the distributed authority model, instead demand transparency so they can verify compliance to “self-enforce” the rules for themselves.  Yet this too is a long shot: few current political leaders or privacy activists are likely to adopt so subtle a strategy.

In short, the government won’t solve the trust problem for marketers, so they’ll need to find their own solutions.  This means they have to devices trust building measures, convince their companies to adopt them, and then educate customers about how they work.  This is an especially hard challenge because the traditional, authority-based methods of gaining trust are no longer effective. Finding effective new methods is an opportunity for innovation and competitive advantage, which are fun, and for long hours and failed experiments, which are less fun but part of the package. Either way, you really have no choice: as that mosquito keeps telling me, trust is essential for success in today’s environment.

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* both firms with corporate trust issues of their own, ironically.

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