The Trust Barometer’s (Poorly) Hidden Argument for Community

A headshot of Chad Neufeld

by Chad Neufeld

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In a world full of fake news, spin doctors, hackers and scandals, who do you trust? According to the newly-released 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer: nobody.

Every year for the last twenty, Edelman – the esteemed communications and marketing consultancy firm – has undertaken a robust exploration of trust and credibility. What began in 2001 as a survey of 1,300 people in five countries has grown into a truly global measurement of trust, engaging 34,000 respondents in 28 markets around the world.

Hopefully, you can still count on your mom or a trusty canine companion, otherwise the current state of affairs is pretty bleak. This year’s report reveals that in spite of a strong global economy and high employment, NONE of the four societal institutions that the study measures—government, business, NGOs and media—is trusted. 

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The Trust Barometer shows how people today grant trust based on two distinct attributes: competence (ability to deliver on promises) and ethical behaviour (doing the right thing and working to improve society). In 2020, none of the four institutions is seen as both competent and ethical, meaning they are not trusted.  

Of the four, business ranks highest in competence, holding a massive 54-point edge over government as an institution that is good at what it does. NGOs lead on ethical behaviour over both government and business. Meanwhile, government and media are perceived as both incompetent and unethical. In a word: yikes.

For those of us operating on the up and up with integrity and purpose, it’s more important than ever to find ways to communicate that to your customers and stakeholders.

Additional findings point to an overall cynicism regarding the state of the world and a growing disenchantment with capitalism as a system that serves people well. A troubling fact for any capitalist (read: business person) absorbing this information. People are worried about job security and their family’s economic prospects, afraid of the pace and implications of technological change and distrustful of the media in general and “fake news’ in particular.

This paints a pretty grey outlook, but where the business community is concerned there is a silver lining. After tracking 40 global companies over the past year, Edelman has learned that ethical drivers such as integrity, dependability and purpose drive 76 percent of the trust capital of business, while competence accounts for only 24 percent. Edelman suggests that these findings are a wake-up call for our institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behaviour.

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It all seems to point towards a clear call to action for businesses – who are already seen as competent - to focus their efforts on the “ethical” (i.e. trust-based) side of the equation.

As a business, if you’re not doing things right on an ethical, legal and/or moral front, then you already have your work cut out for you. You should stop reading this and go fix those problems immediately. But, for those of us operating on the up and up with integrity and purpose, it’s more important than ever to find ways to communicate that to your customers and stakeholders.

Online communities can be an excellent tool for connecting and building trust among customers, employees, partners and other stakeholders for a variety of reasons. Let’s dig in to just a few of them.

Getting it together.

The primary function of any community – online or IRL – is in providing a centralized space to come together and build relationships. When we have nowhere to go, it’s unsurprising that feelings of isolation, fear and doubt creep in. Community in all its forms helps fill that void, displacing negativity with feelings of security, belonging and acceptance. If we are ever going to come to trust each other, then we must step outside of ourselves and find ways to meet in the middle. Online communities can serve as the virtual gathering places that allow this to unfold, even across geographic and socioeconomic barriers.

Tooting your own horn.

As a platform that your company can own and control, an online community provides a dedicated place to communicate directly with the audiences you wish to reach. If people are as skeptical of media as the Trust Barometer indicates, an online community allows you to cut out the “middlemen”, including traditional and social media, to bring your message to the masses and your purpose to the public. Stakeholders don’t have to take anybody’s word for it - they can go straight to the source.

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As such, your community can become THE place where you share all the things you are doing to make people’s lives better. This is not a time for modesty; it’s time to proudly share your socially- and environmentally-minded initiatives and let the world know exactly what you are doing to put people and the planet first.

Hearing them out.

Of course, an online community is just as much a place for businesses to listen as it is for them to talk. If you’re curious and approachable, your community members will open up and tell you, and each other, what matters to them and what they want from you. Your community is a place where you can glean valuable, authentic market insight that can help you find new ways to innovate, improve and market your products. It’s also a great place to float new ideas or test new products before they go to mass production, quite possibly avoiding a huge waste of energy and resources spent on things that the market doesn’t want or like.

Breeding familiarity.

We’re going to argue firmly against the dusty old adage that familiarity breeds contempt and say that the exact opposite is true. Familiarity actually breeds fondness. It’s difficult to trust that which is foreign to us. And we’re not talking about some disturbing Trumpian brand of “we don’t trust them foreigners” ugliness – although that kind of distrust is certainly a root of xenophobia – we’re talking about the natural human inclination to be skeptical of unfamiliar things. The self-preservation instinct that made our ancestors wary to eat that forest mushroom they’d never seen before still makes us think twice before spending our hard-earned money in a strange place. There are risks involved in buying from unknown businesses, and people may have been burned by poor quality products and services in the past. An online community helps you establish credibility in a tangible, “seeing is believing” kind of way. People trust their peers more than a faceless corporate entity and an online community allows them to see a brand’s human side and learn how real people are using and enjoying its products or services. Genuine social proof and peer endorsement is increasingly important to developing trust in today’s skeptical consumer climate.

Building accountability.

87% of Trust Barometer respondents indicated that stakeholders – not shareholders – are most important to a company’s long-term success. Putting this insight into action means putting customers and employees at the centre of your attention. An online community can become a place where your senior leaders and employees can share progress, provide commentary on hot-button topics, take a stance on important issues and answer tough questions. You can also supercharge your customer service and support experience by being able to respond swiftly and candidly to complaints and concerns as they arise. Responsiveness and transparency are a potent cocktail for building trust in your brand and its leaders.

Trust rules it all.  

No relationship on the planet can thrive without a foundation of mutual trust. Trust is often a reciprocal thing: show me that you trust me, and I’m more inclined to trust you back. An online community is one of the rare mechanisms that allows trust-building interactions to flow back and forth so that members come to believe in the community as the community gains faith in its members. The catch is – as in all relationships – that somebody has to make the first move.

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As Edelman points out, Business must take the lead on solving the trust crisis because it has the greatest freedom to act. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. As with the government, NGOs and the media, a lot is being asked of business to regain public trust. An overwhelming number of respondents believe that it is the duty of business to pay decent wages (83 percent) and provide retraining for workers whose jobs are threatened by automation (79 percent). Yet less than a third of people trust that business will do these.

An online community can’t help you pay fair wages or retrain your workforce, but it can be used to embrace an all-stakeholders model that improves your reputation on the ethical side of the trust equation as much as possible. Businesses should undertake to prove that they can make money and make our world a better place at the same time. For good business in the absence of good faith is nearly impossible. Trust us.

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