It’s not surprising that consumer trust around the world is at an all-time low, and global communications marketing firm Edelman confirmed it after an extensive research project on the topic. During their research, Edelman looked across four major institutions — NGOs, business, government and media — and found that, overall, not only has consumer trust tanked, it’s been steadily declining over the past decade. Elements driving this decline and pushing trust to the forefront of the news cycle include a divisive political climate, rising concerns over “fake news,” the decline of traditional journalism, and an increasingly wary and digital-savvy public.
Indeed, the past year saw some significant movement in the report’s “trust index” across more than 25 countries, with, for example, the general population of the U.S. dropping a full nine places on the list between 2017 and 2018, going from a neutral to staunchly distrustful position. Among other effects, people’s shifting attitudes toward privacy have inspired new government regulations — such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — meant to put consumers back in control of their personal data.
So, what does this mean for the business community at large? In fact, this unstable climate may be a perfect opportunity for businesses to achieve big gains by rising above the noise and proactively building trust with their customers.
Beyond mitigating the risk of harsh and punitive government scrutiny, brands who can earn the trust of their customers today will gain a massive competitive advantage in the future. Trust, after all, equates to loyalty, and this loyalty leads to repeat business and brand advocacy. Consider that, while the big players in mass media are suffering diminishing returns and degraded reputations, the voice of the customer remains a trusted source of truth. Think of the popularity of crowd-sourced review sites and apps like Yelp, TripAdvisor and so on.
As we move further toward a digital-first economy, a single element often stands between success and stagnation or even failure for brands, and that element is consent. It’s proven that, as customers, we actually tend to prefer bespoke, individualized online experiences. When we favor a particular brand, we expect and want the relationship we have with it to evolve over time. The same goes for our smart, connected devices, which are specifically designed to come to “know” us as we use them, and cater to our individual preferences. At the same time, we also know that we don’t like being “stalked” by brands, or listened to or watched by our devices without our knowledge.
The difference between a great, personalized digital experience versus a creepy, dystopian one is when the consumer feels like he is in control of what’s happening. Given this, brands shouldn’t infer or guess a consumer’s preferences; rather, just ask. Also, brands must tell the consumer why they are asking for his information, what the brand will do with it, and give the consumer the option to opt-out or to change the terms of his acceptance. If the consumer feels confident that a brand is only using his personal information to provide him with the best possible experience, and that he, alone, truly dictates the nature of the relationship with the brand, the consumer will mostly likely trust the brand, come back again, and tell his friends and family why he prefers to buy the brand’s products or subscribe to its services. This isn’t a hard concept to grasp, yet it’s still one that many businesses struggle to master within their digital programs and initiatives.
The relationships that consumers form with businesses have a lot in common with those we form with each other: Essentially, trust comes as a relationship grows — as we learn more about each other. That’s why businesses should get to know their customers on their terms, and conduct business with them as transparently and ethically as possible. The rewards received from simply doing this might well be exponential.
Patrick Salyer is CEO of Gigya, which provides customer identity and access management technology. Gigue was acquired last year by German software company SAP SE.