Building trust online has always been of critical importance to brands. If people don’t trust you why would they do business with your brand? But exactly what is meant by “brand trust” has been complicated by the social media, where target audiences are often little more than avatars and a few lines of text.
Until a few years ago, building trust online was largely about getting Google to give your brand a high ranking. With a little keyword-heavy content and a few inbound links acting as positive votes from other websites, Google would put your brand high up on its search results – and potential customers would come cascading through your link in droves. Back then, being high on a Google’s search results page was enough of an endorsement of a brand’s trustworthiness, it seemed, but it’s not so easy now.
For one thing Google has changed its game, and its search results ranking algorithm, especially after the Panda update, puts greater weightage on the importance of content quality as one of the hallmarks of brand trustworthiness. Again, due to the proliferation of social media sites, there are so many more online touch points now between brands and their consumers where trust can be gained or lost. And finally, brands are not even able to get to grips with the true personalities of their target audiences, much less build their trust, when most consumers are often represented on the social media with fake identities, avatars or opinions of less than 140 characters.
Targeted advertising and building trust, amidst the growing concerns over data privacy online, has become a “minefield requiring careful navigation”, according to The Marketer magazine. Most brands, however, simply go with an impromptu strategy and crossed fingers when it comes to online trust-building, at a time when they should be a bit cautious and deliberate.
Fortunately, through both laboratory studies and field observations of people in conversation over the social net, a few scientific studies are available now to help brands get a better grip on the question of how to build trust online. Based on the most recent evidence I have come across, I have tried to put together four points below that seem to matter most when brands plan on their approach to building online trust.
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These four points I’ve elaborated on are not about wearing trust badges, providing online transactional security or offering product guarantees. Those I believe should be a given for any brand. The points I am going to make here are about small things that a brand can do online that can make a big difference to trust. So here goes …
The psychology of trust on the social media is an important thing for brands to know. A number of recent research studies seem to indicate that many people on the social media are willing to pass judgment on brands, with or without good information. Sometimes, when their own credibility or reputation is weak, some people seem to adopt fake profiles with alacrity, and via these profiles spew opinions with an air of authority they don’t really possess. How far other people would trust the word of a person online, and that too someone with an obviously fake personality, is anyone’s guess. Not all word-of-mouth online is treated by the masses as credible and hence it would be good for a brand to carefully monitor who are the real advocates of the brand and who are those others whom nobody believes.
If a brand is able to get the right trust-endorsement from “real people” online who wield considerable influence on the masses, that would be invaluable. Quality of followers, and not quantity, is vital if a brand is looking to cultivate trust-influencers online. In fact, the wrong kinds of people talking about the trustworthiness of a brand, when their own credibility is in question, can only do the brand harm than good. It pays to cultivate the right and real people who can be counted on by others to speak with authority and credibility.
People online tend to trust a brand that is communicative. The responsiveness of a brand is gauged as an indicator of its trustworthiness. A short but quick response to a consumer query, comment or opinion is better than a long but delayed reply. Topics of discussion online wait for no one. People move swiftly on from topic to topic, so unless a brand’s response is “to-the-point” and “to-the moment”, it is a wasted response. Research shows that waiting too long to reply online is considered as being “unhelpful”.
There is however a good reason why so many brands fail to respond fast online. The articulation of a communication policy and implementation of that policy by the brand communicators may be in need of streamlining. Brands may have appointed too many different communicators to speak to their audiences and there may be too many different voices conveying too many disparate messages. Quite often brand communicators have been known to swamp themselves with too many different email boxes to receive inward messages from Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and so on. The simple trick to ensuring that all responses are prompt is to see that all your social networks are linked to a single email box that acts as a receptacle for any messages from any social network. It also pays to get a social networking dashboard like Hootsuite. A few well trained communicators working to a coherent messaging policy should then handle all inward messages.
One other thing: communicators should ideally be seen to respond empathetically and individually to messages on the same networks they were on, rather than to post “a common response to everyone who wrote to us” via just one social network. It is so common, and so faulty, that many brands seem to think a spate of Twitter updates should answer all of the messages that came on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.
There is a hierarchy of trusted brand messages and most brands do not realize this. For establishing trust, video is considered better than audio (with no video). Audio in turn is better than an online chat window. And a chat is still better than just written updates. Why is this so? The logic appears intuitive. People listen to what is said, but they tend to place greater trust on their judgment of how it is said. On video, a brand spokesman’s body language is as critical as his words when getting audiences to respond with trust. Shifty eyes or stiff shoulders can reveal tension. Intonation can convey credibility. The more video the user gets to see, the more subliminal data the user gets about the “trustworthiness” of the message. In the absence of video, users look next to audio to get cues of credibility, sincerity, frankness, or a tone of friendliness. Again, an online informal chat that goes back and forth seems to suggest that a real person is at the other end replying and this adds to a sense of trustworthiness – whereas a wordy update says very little else about the writer than the words themselves convey.
Curiously, research again seems to show that the use of video has been absent from many of social media’s biggest brand failures. Many brands typically react to negative events or publicity online by drafting long textual press releases or publishing or posting elaborate “letters to the public to set the record straight”. Can you ever seek to redeem broken trust with a disembodied message? When so much of our trust is based on body language and inflection and intonation, why avoid video?
Let the brand’s trustworthiness come through via experience rather than words. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the brand’s job to tell its social media consumers what the company values are. It’s the brand’s job to let consumers “experience those values”. Consumers experience a brand online when they are encouraged to linger in the fold of the brand’s online community. Within the brand’s online communities, “conversations” are the embodied form of brand values. Conversations bind the community together, consolidate brand values, and provide the brand the insights to further impress its personality upon the community. That is why brands must seek to archive, organize and monitor conversations to glean insights from them.
Once a brand gets insights from listening to conversations in depth, it is not automatically mandatory to respond mechanically “according to policy”. Of course, brands still need to produce and share content that is valuable, spontaneous and interesting. It’s not necessary to make the company blog stilted or to stop sending original or spur-of-the-moment tweets. But even as brand communicators are spontaneous, it is important for them to recognize that the conversations within the community actually turn into a “brand knowledge base”. As Wendy Lea, writing in Mashable, puts it: “Ultimately, your community is a living FAQ”.
Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust
Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online