Is ‘trust’ different in digital? The Teamspirit Breakfast debate

By James Sanderson on Monday, 23 November 2015

Last week, I chaired a debate about trust. Specifically, we considered how brands need to maintain and build trust in the way they engage audiences through digital.

Our two-hour breakfast debate brought together a panel representing media owners, regulators, journalists, retail bank and a marketing agency to explore the potential hazards of brands’ digital behaviour and identify the right way forward.

My own personal view is that there’s a fine line between exemplary ethical behaviour and being seen as a stalker, con artist or worse, a data thief in the digital world.

The Flip Side of ‘Digital’.

The business agenda is dominated by the positive way that ‘digitisation’ and more recently the ‘socialisation’ of communications has transformed and democratised the way we can engage with just about anyone or anything.

The flip side is the digital age can also be characterised as one of scams, fraud, hacking, cyber-attacks and phishing. And I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about how this might impact the relationship we’re trying to build with our customers.

Those consumers would be right to have a healthy dose of mistrust about the platforms and channels they use on a daily basis. And to greatest extent, the panel agreed that consumers generally are more aware of risk online, accepting it almost as a by-product of being digital.

This makes it vital that brands consider their responsibility to their consumers. All of our panellists argued that financial services businesses have a duty to maintain the highest standards of ethics and best practice.

Neil Gregory, Head of Digital Engagement from the Financial Conduct Authority, thinks that building and maintaining trust through digital channels is more complex. “This is as much to do with understanding emerging channels as it is the way people want to be engaged with in digital. The challenge for us, as the Regulator, is to manage those expectations”.

The question for business is should their behaviour online maintain the high ethical standards of a bygone age, or is it an unspoken truth that there’s more flexibility online because consumers expect a different experience.

When it comes to digital behaviour there are many areas where trust is at risk. One of these is native advertising with there a question as to whether brands who use it are conning their audience. Proclaiming ‘You’re about to be amazed by these celebrity facelift disasters’, only to find that it’s actually an ad for life insurance feels likes a cheap trick akin to online advertising pop-ups.

In response, Stefano Hatfield, Editor of High50, warned that brands online would face a ‘Day of Reckoning’ where digital audiences will demand greater accountability and a “removal of the wool over their eyes”. His point that while editorial integrity has always been under the spotlight in the digital age, the spotlight will become even brighter.

John Harrington, deputy editor of PR Week, agreed with Stefano and like him predicted there would be a “period of adjustment”. For John, one of the most pressing areas for improvement was the integrity of blogs in contrast to journalism. “Blogs are Content. Editorial isn’t”, he urged.

Data Lapses

Our panel debate coincided with the data breach at Talk Talk which prompted discussion around consumer understanding of how data is used. The process of automating sales calls or emails to people who have viewed a company website was seen as both a risk and opportunity.

For some it represents good marketing but for others a sinister intrusion. Just as with programmatic ads that follow you round the Internet and social media listening, which allows us get close and personal with individual people, there is a sense that the relationship between consumers and brands has fundamentally altered. The impact on trust is bought to life by last year’s Facebook data fiasco when the company conducted a psychology experiment on nearly 700,000 users without their knowledge. It makes clear how customers and their trust in the brand must be considered from the beginning of any marketing activity.

The obvious question at a time when consumer trust in financial services is arguably still at an all-time low, is how to best navigate through?

For Andy Smith at Santander, his view is that the issue of trust is under great scrutiny in almost every industry – VW, Savile, MP’s expenses – have all dominated the headlines in recent years. As a result, the starting point should be that people are becoming less trusting with it even more important as a result that organisations do the right thing, but also are seen to be doing it. “Be up front about how your organisation uses data and you’ll gain trust.”

Tone and Transparency

A good example of this is Channel 4 who created a video featuring Alan Carr explaining why the broadcaster collects data. Subsequently only 0.01% of consumers opted out and even better, 80% of them volunteered more data as a result.

The tone of voice used by an organisation with consumers is important. “The Regulator needs to speak with a certain tone to create trust” said Neil from the FCA.

An interesting view was that in the financial services sector, regulated businesses understood compliance risk and had placed compliance filters at the heart of the business. In contrast, ‘trust risk’ and the potential impact it has on a business is much less understood with the penalty for getting it wrong is more subtle than indirect.

Improving customer trust in our digital age is clearly not as simple as creating a ‘Chief Trust Officer’ but instead empowering everyone in the organisation to understand their role in securing trust through protecting the relationship with consumers. This is both an organisational and fundamentally a marketing challenge, with it our job as communicators to tell the story of a business’ ethical, honest and transparent behaviour, and not imposing reputational risk by the way we do it.

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