Trust Is The New Black (Box)

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Craig Newmark, who founded the world’s largest online sex bulletin board, recently said that “trust is the new black.” He was referring to news organizations, but his comment is spot on for a range of industries. There’s no shortage of articles commenting on how firm after firm, in industry after industry, has lost the trust of consumers.

And no shortage of folks ready to weigh in on what those firms need to do to rebuild that trust.

Wikipedia defines the term black box as a “a device, system or object when it is viewed in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge required of its internal workings.” The italics are mine.

This is what we’ve got these days when it comes to the concept of trust: The hot topic to opine on (the new black), by people who have no clue about the internal workings of the concept (the black box).

Here’s an example. In an article title Trust is a Beautiful Thing, its author states:

People trust brands. This is nothing new. What is new is how people are gaining trust in brands and how brands continue to earn that trust. I see two sources of gaining this trust. The first is the source that tells you about the brand. If I hear about something from a friend, the first step in trust is already met.”

There are a couple of assertions in there that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

First, why is hearing about something from a friend a new source of trust? You’d think that getting a referral from a friend, family member, or even a stranger is something that was invented with the advent of social media.

The second assertion that doesn’t hold water is that the “first step in trust is met” with the referral. Why would this be so? It begs the question: If this is the first step, then how many steps are there, and how do we know that? The author of the article does go on to say that there is a second source of trust, that brands must earn trust by” recognizing what the consumer expects and not letting them down. “

Predictably, the article is all about how social media will deliver on these two sources of trust.

I don’t dispute that social media holds the potential to help firms build stronger relationships with its customers — and even contribute to the trust that consumers have with the firms (brands) they do business with.  But many people are overstating the contribution to trust that social media will make, because they have no understanding of what goes in to building trust, and if there are two steps, twenty steps, or no steps.

Do I have an opinion on this? Of course.

The research that I’ve published on trust (in financial services) this year has found that trust is impacted by many factors, which can be grouped in a number of dimensions (with geeky labels like cognitive factors, institutional factors, symbolic factors, and relationship factors).

The trust factors that social media is going to have the greatest impact on falls into the relationship category. What my research has found, however, is that — according to consumers themselves — relationship factors aren’t as important to driving trust as cognitive and institutional factors.

Even if I’m wrong about the relative importance of the dimensions, the bottom line is that trust is a complex concept. Reducing it to a black box — or to something with two simple steps to accomplishing — is not helpful to firms looking to rebuild trust with their customers.

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