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July 26, 2009

This Year It's All About Trust

Trust composite

Trust Image

The monthly flyer from my neighborhood hardware store arrived in my mailbox. The headline: "This year, it's all about trust."  Trust is a word that seems to be turning up more and more, in often unexpected places - like this flyer.  But the discussion of trust is permeating the big issues. Trust in politics.  Trust in business.  Trust in product or medical information.  Trust in the "experts" and talking heads on the evening news. Trust in everything you read online.  Trust in the folks populating various social networks ... And sometimes, more appropriately, the lack of trust and that sinking feeling of things you just can't quite prove are wrong.

The need for trust is universal and arises from our human interdependence. We often rely on others (individuals, groups, brands or institutions) to help us obtain, or at least not to frustrate, the outcomes we value (and they depend back on us as well). Trust allows actions to occur that otherwise would not have been possible because of currently incomplete information or an unwillingness to give resources now for an unguaranteed result in the future.

There are a lot of angles I’d like to explore when it comes to trust, but the area of greatest interest to me currently has to do with Trust and Media, how trust is obtained, and the possibility for the migration of online trust and talent to other media platforms.

In this post, I’d like to explore these questions:

  1. Trust and Influence: How important is trust when it comes to being able to influence behavior and decisions?
  2. Earning and Maintaining Trust: How do brands (companies/collections) or people (individuals) become trusted? What do they do to maintain that trust, and once obtained is it theirs to loose?
  3. Trust in the Digital vs. Real World: Is building trust in digital media space different than building it in the real or broadcast worlds?
  4. Exporting Trust Across Media and Communities: Can a "trust metric" developed in one digital space be "exported" into other media areas, like TV? (or visa versa)  - thus making one a potential talent development source for the other.

(Before jumping into these questions, it’s good to have a baseline understanding of what is meant by “Trust” covered in the next section. However, if you want to jump head first into the meat of the discussion, you can skip that and go right to the section header “Trust and Influence.”)

What Is Trust? – The Etymological Foundations

It’s interesting that the etymological origins of the word “trust” share many commonalities with the word “truth” (“faithful, accuracy, correctness”), and go back, in part, to the 13 century Old Norse word “traust” meaning “help, confidence.” That makes sense given an understanding of trust as a measure of belief in the honesty, benevolence and competence of another party; and a predictor of the reliability of future action, based only on what one party currently knows about the other. Trust is a statement of faith about what is otherwise unknown because it is currently unverifiable or the results exist in the future. Because of that, it is a powerful attribute for an individual or a brand, and a prerequisite for real “credibility” and “the ability to influence.”

(1) Trust and Influence

Conventional wisdom would say that trust and influence are inextricably linked, but let’s look at some numbers so it’s not just my opinion.  From PR firm Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2009 Study the data affirm that trust affects/influences consumer actions/spending and overall reputation.

People act based on trust.

  • 91% of 25-to-64-year-olds around the world indicated they bought a product or service from a company they trusted
  • 77% refused to buy a product or service from a distrusted company

People listen to and believe those who have earned their trust over time.

  • 59% of 35-to- 64-year-olds saying an academic or expert on a company’s industry or issues would be extremely or very credible
  • 17% of 35-to-64-year-olds indicated they would trust information from a high profile CEO (a six-year low)

People need time and continuous conversation to build trust, not one-time edicts or proclamations.

  • 60% of 35-to- 64-year-olds say they need to hear information about a company three to five times before they believe it

(2) Earning and Maintaining Trust

How do brands (companies/collections) or people (individuals) become trusted? What do they do to maintain that trust, and once obtained is it theirs to loose?

Frameworks from the Studies
Where does trust come from? Some would frame trust as a hard wired brain chemistry calculation.

 “The moral is that trust is ultimately about the expectation of rewards. Trust may be an admirable social trait, but it's ultimately rooted in a greedy calculation, emanating from our primal dopamine reward circuitry…”
-  Jonah Lehrer in “Trust: The Frontal Cortex”  July 7 2009

This definition of trust as “biology plus calculus” is part of the answer; but the “heart” of the definition can be found in the literature of conflict resolution theory where “real world” trust in another is grounded in the evaluation of their ability and integrity (early in the relationship) and benevolence (over the longer term).

  • Ability: Defined by knowledge and competency. The more one has of these, the more likely a trust level is to grow.
  • Integrity: Defined by adherence to principles that are essential to the “trustor.” This is demonstrated by consistency over a period of time accompanied by the alignment of word and deed.
  • Benevolence: Defined by observation of the others concern of our welfare (or at least that they won’t work against it). Open communications and shared control are the key indicating behaviors.

Additionally, trust is not a final destination.  Trust is a continuum of stages and levels, and over time, behaviors and levels of resiliency change.

Early “congnitively” (ability + integrity) driven stages of trust are framed by a need for predictability and reliability.  Trust is built at this stage by demonstrating:

  • Competent performance
  • Predictable and consistent behavior
  • Accurate and open communication
  • Shared and delegated control
  • Mutual concern

At later stages along the trust continuum, when mutual identification has occurred, and benevolence is forming via the parties “internalizing” each other’s desires and intentions, trust is further solidified through:

  • Common identity (we vs. me)
  • Co-location (sharing the same space)
  • Joint goals and product creation (make and contribute to things that define commonality)
  • Shared values and emotions (recognizing contributions and demonstrating confidence)

Trust in the World of Media
Given these models of trust-building, how do we see trust built in the media world - for individuals as well as business entities?  Some thoughts and examples follow.


Walter Cronkite: During the heyday of CBS News in the 1970s and 1980s he was often cited in opinion polls as "the most trusted man in America.” But he did not come on the scene as “trusted.”  He had to earn it, obviously in a less fragmented media world than today.  Nonetheless, he built trust over decades of work beginning with reporting from WW II, constantly displaying ability and integrity (early stage trust builders).  One might say with the Kennedy assassination announcement and later with the moon landing, that he entered the more advanced stage of trust (benevolence) fueled by the common identity with the American people he displayed on camera and the clear sharing of values, emotions and experiences. Given the lack of media competition that existed during the prime of his career, and the longevity of his career, it is doubtful that this trust level could be duplicated again.

Oprah Winfrey:  Oprah Winfrey is often cited as one of the most trusted Lighthouse Brands that is also a Market Leader in Media.  Like Cronkite, she has built her trust quotient over time (The Oprah Winfrey Show has more than a 20 year history) by demonstrating ability and integrity (early phase trust), and also reaching the more advanced solidified trust levels (benevolence) with her audience though a mutual identification against a variety of:

  “…monsters she sees threatening her chosen community …  notably domestic violence, child abuse, and weight loss and self-esteem issues among women. Oprah is not a Goliath, both because she is smaller and visibly vulnerable to these larger monsters in the eyes of her community, and also because she uses all her strength and size to fight them on her community’s behalf.  And her community eternally loves her for it. ”
- (Eating the Big Fish p. 301)

Separated by generations, Oprah and Cronkite are alike in the depth of their advanced trust level with their particular audiences, in large part because of their ability to express vulnerability (shared emotion) while at the same time exuding competence and connection. Cronkite tearing up over Kennedy and expressing amazement and wonder at the lunar landing; Oprah sharing personal struggles over her weight, causes, and friendships.

Jon Stewart: An August 2008 New York Times story asked: "Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?” and a July 2009 Time Magazine Poll answered “Yes” with 44% choosing him as “America’s most trusted newscaster” in the post Cronkite era. His period of trust building is half that of Oprah’s (hosting The Daily Show on Comedy Central since 1999) and perhaps one quarter of Cronkite’s years (between the 1930s-1970s), but he has had the accelerant of the digital space.  And it’s tough to measure comparable size of  “trusted influence” for all three from various combos of TV  and Web audience numbers. It’s also interesting that in this particular time period, Stewart is the most trusted man who has built a persona of not trusting anyone. (And for that, we trust him even more.) Still, in his shows he consistently exhibits the trust building characteristics of ability, integrity and his own brand of benevolence (to his audience/community, not necessarily to his interviewees).

CNN: CNN has a slogan: “The Most Trusted Name in News."  They gave it to themselves; no one “conferred” it on them as in the case of Cronkite.   As an organization, I can’t say that they pass the trust sniff test.  There are a lot of things I personally like about CNN, but the sometimes constant droning repetition by some of their news personalities of their various catch phrases such as “the best political team on television” serves to dilute not only any truth metric earned by the enterprise, but that of deserving individual members.  You can’t claim trust, you have to earn it from others.

(3) Trust in Digital vs Real World

Is building trust in digital media space different than building it in the real or broadcast worlds?

Participation in digital world communities and platforms can accelerate the speed and reach of the trust metric, but the underlying human reasons for earning (and maintaining) trust are the same: ability, integrity and benevolence.  While the Web speeds breaking stories and content memes around the world, it can also provide equal acceleration to mistakes and humiliation. Self, as well as group, correction then have to follow with equal speed.

One of the mistakes that many make in terms of trust and digital space is that just because messages can be sent instantaneously, that trust can be developed and exploited just as fast.  Not true – this violates the human side of trust development and the nature of the trust continuum.  Just as in the physical world, in digital space, you need to create significant shared value before you ever ask for any of it back.

“Consider it (trust building) tending a farm of potential versus hunting for the short term ... in this wired world of digital communities and deep long-tailed niches, humanity over IP is the protocol…”
- Chris Brogan and Julien Smith in the eBook “Trust Economies.”

(4) Exporting Trust Across Media and Communities

Can a "trust metric" developed in one digital space be "exported" into other media areas, like TV? (or visa versa)  - thus making one a potential talent development source for the other.

I propose that trust is more defined by the relevant community/audience than the particular media platform.  If the community is engaged across multiple media platforms, trust and the person who has earned it has the potential to transfer across them (other economic and access barriers not withstanding).  There aren’t a lot of examples yet in terms of trust + personality transfer.  And it’s unclear to me yet if that’s a result of many online trust building tools and communities are still relatively “young” OR if the barriers of “old media” at this time neglect the trust quotient from other media, even if it would be to their own benefit.  More exploration on this later, but for now, two examples: Some examples of online to TV trust/personality migration: 

Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox): Started in the blogosphere at places such as Wonkette; became known for her interesting and personally very transparent fundraising activities while covering McCain in the 2008 election. Now Air America’s national correspondent and a frequent guest and fill-in host on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

Joan Walsh of Salon.com (@joanwalsh): Editor at Salon.com and now a frequent knowledgeable commentator on both Hardball and The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.  She cites as important in maintaining trust and credibility across: “A record of accuracy in what’s important, regardless of what you’re doing; correcting mistakes when you make them … and not speaking outside your area of expertise.”  Her view of online media: “It's built with attention to accuracy, with mechanisms for rapid self-correction as well as dialogue with audience.”  Seems to me that’s a pretty clear alignment with the ability, integrity  and benevolence (audience dialogue) measures of the trust equation.

Trust Lessons

Trust is not a luxury; nor is it something that can be immediately purchased.  Earned over time based on specific demonstrated behaviors that, at a basic level, are the same in the real world as in the digital world – ability, integrity and benevolence – it is the currency that enables influence and attention acquisition in a time starved world.   And that’s very valuable stuff in the world of media.  It will be interesting to see if the growing trust building and distribution platforms in digital space will find the cracks in the walls surrounding traditional media to enable more breakthroughs of talent and opinion.  Seems like fertile ground to me. Media companies and trust agents, what do you think?  Egv_tiny_blogicon


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Great post, Liz. It seemed particularly timely as I think trust will become an increasingly valuable differentiator as people, tribes, and communities become more powerful; arbiters of brands. For instance, do you trust Starbucks?


Tagging on Thom's comment, he inspired me to share a story about Starbucks that may shed some light on the relationship of trust to listening.

When Starbucks first started, my stepfather, who is truly a coffee connoisseur--if not fetishist (he roasts his own beans)--wrote Howard Schultz a letter. In it, he opined that despite the various exotic ports of call from which Starbucks coffee offerings came, the fact that the beans were all over-roasted, espresso style, only served, in fact, to obliterate the inherent character of each respective bean's inherent flavor. In his view, the labels may have been atmospheric, but the reality was that their potential value wasn't delivered.

While that perspective may have been lost on the average Joe drinking Joe who was well accustomed to watered-down American coffee, my father thought the sensation that one was drinking something more robust, if not daringly European was actually an illusion--to speak nothing of the fact that the beans were fragile beings, which once exposed to the air in the open bins, quickly lost their freshness--and appeal.

His missive posted and all but forgotten, he moved on to other pursuits not expecting a response in those pre-blog days when snailmail still reigned and when perfunctory customer service sufficed.

Some weeks later, he was surprised by a box left by the postman and adorned with the now all-too familiar green and white logo of the Brazilian goddess Yemanja. When he opened it, he was greeted by numerous, friendly bags of Starbucks coffee along with a typewritten note from Howard Schultz thanking him for his letter.

So, to answer Thom's question about trusting Starbucks with another question: how do we trust a brand that doesn't listen? Or better yet, the brand that pursues consumer trust must first listen for the question, but not only that--it must have the presence of mind, the brand consciousness if you will, to ask the question of itself before the consumer has to pose it in the first place. Trust is based on value received over time so that it is no longer a question, but an answer that makes the question disappear.

Thom and Kevin - Interesting that you both bring up Starbucks.

You might be interested in Fast Company's take on the Starbuck's "stealth" stores at http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/kit-eaton/technomix/how-do-you-disguise-starbucks-store.

Or also from PSFK's blog with more photos: http://www.psfk.com/2009/07/inside-starbucks-new-stealth-store-15th-avenue-e-coffee-and-tea.html

If Starbucks is trying out a new sub-brand that serves things different than a regular Starbucks, I don't see the harm. They do say "inspired by Starbucks" on the logo. Other companies have additional brands that aren't so apparently linked : For example: relationship between Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and West Elm --all are from Williams Sonoma Inc; and Pottery Barn and West Elm both sell furniture, albeit with a slightly different design aesthetic.

You just nailed all the points about Trust. We all need the courage and time to earn Trust from people.

Thanks for your comment. Means a lot given your background (via looking at your website). In fact, I just returned from Agility Training class this evening. Dogs are good teachers about trust.

Do you mind if I ask how you found the post? Twitter?

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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.