This post might be a little heavy going, but the topics are important in understanding how we can be (and are) manipulated, and how businesses can (and should) go about building trust in an on-line, social media driven world. Last week I attended the Wealth of Networks conference, looking at the challenges of Next Generation Internet. Ian Delaney’s post sums up some of the issues.

Today’s Internet is a curious mix of problems seeking answers and answers seeking problems. Later in the week, the EPSRC Research Cluster on Innovative Media for the Digital Economy held it’s Springboard Event. Both were thought provoking, and I will come back to them, especially the session with Charlie Leadbeater in another post. First though, some thoughts on the recurring challenge that came up in both events: The issue of trust in the on-line world.

What Does Trust Mean On-line?

Trust is a troublesome topic to study, partly because it occurs in so many different contexts, but also because it is so hard to nail down a definition. Rousseau and her colleagues offered up the following definition:

“Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). “Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust,” in Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.

Quite a mouthful. Let me simplify a little: Trust is being ready to do something (risky), in the hope that it will work out. It is something we do everyday, especially when we carry out a interactions on-line. However it is something we probably understand less well than we would like to think.

Personality theorists have argued that some people are more likely to trust than others, based on how their trust has been rewarded in the past. That doesn’t tell us much about the mechanisms of trust, at least not in a way that we can action personally, or use in running a business.

Most academic papers divide trust into two types. At the early stages of a relationship, trust is “calculus-based“. We carefully calculate how the other party is likely to behave, looking at the rewards and punishments for being trustworthy or untrustworthy. In other words, trust is driven by some form of accountability. We are more likely to trust if we know that when the other party does something ‘bad’, then something ‘bad’ will happen to them in response. In these days of blogs, on-line review sites and social networks you can see how that can work on-line – even if imperfectly.

As a relationship develops, shared values and goals start to emerge. This allows trust to move to a different level, towards what is sometimes called “identification-based trust“. At this point, both sides have grasped and digested the other’s desires and intentions. They understand what the other side cares about to the point where they can act in each others interest. This kind of trust forms an emotional bond between the parties, one that drives valuable things like loyalty and the desire for mutual satisfaction.

In one direction, trust, in the on-line world at least, points towards accountability, and from there to transparency, openness and confidence. Trust is traditionally based on social relations, but in the on-line world that anchor is often substituted for another one: Confidence – the belief that things will unfold as expected. There are distinctions between trust and confidence. Confidence is based on familiarity, and it is something that can be designed for. An important point when building websites.

In the other direction, trust points towards compliance. This is perhaps not as obvious, but think about it for a moment. If you carry out a transaction on-line, you have effectively complied with the desires of the other party. Be it purchasing something via a web site, registering for a whitepaper or just signing up to join the latest social networking site, you essentially did what that other party wanted you to do. That might sound a little oppressive, but it is never-the-less a fact, and a very useful one if you want to understand how that happened.

From Trust to Persuasion

The more friendly face of compliance is persuasion, and recently I reread an old Robert B. Cialdini book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“, although I’ve lost my copy somewhere between London and Austin. I hope I can replace it, as it’s a good read. Cialdini introduces six principles of ethical persuasion:

  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment/consistency
  • Scarcity
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Social proof

These concepts have become so popular that you are probably familiar with the terms. They are techniques used by sales and marketing professionals day in and day out around the world.

Reciprocity is an extremely powerful influence. That’s hardly surprising, since it is one of the underlying behaviours that enables us to have a society where we can have specialist roles and engage in trade. People generally feel obligated to return a favour. This tendency is often played on by offering a small gift to potential customers. Studies show that even if the gift is unwanted, it will influence the recipient to want to reciprocate, usually by buying something. A variation on this theme is to ask for a particularly big favour. When this request is turned down, a smaller favour is then asked. Having refused the first request, it becomes that much harder to refuse the second.

Ever been given a “free” taster and then ended up buying something you wouldn’t have otherwise? Or recommended or helped out as a result of a service that gave you a “free” account. You were probably motivated by reciprocity.

Commitment and consistency are important factors in trust, and also compliance. Our desire to appear consistent in our words, beliefs, attitudes and actions is very strong. Society values personal consistency exactly because it enables trust – if we are consistent, our future actions are predictable, and that leads to confidence and so to trust.

Being consistent in our decision making also provides a useful shortcut: By sticking with decisions that we have already made, we don’t have to go through the stress and effort involved in continually reprocessing all the information that enabled us to make the decision in the first place. Consistency gets us through the complexity of our modern existence. One merely needs to recall the earlier decision and respond in keeping with it. Given the choice between deciding we are wrong, and simply changing our opinion by rearranging the facts to support our existing opinion, we will generally re-arrange the facts. As an additional shortcut, we are completely unaware that we re-arranged the facts. Google ‘cognitive dissonance’ if you want to scare yourself.

Scarcity is a fairly self-evident motivator: Offer closes today. Last 5 places remaining. That exclusive event that has tickets that always sell out before you get a chance to buy them. We hate missing out, and that influences our decisions.

The last few factors (liking, authority and social proof) can also be interpreted in terms of social influence or social trust. People trust, and comply with, people they like and that they perceive are like them (i.e. have similar values). That is why broadcast media advertisers pay large sums of money to have celebrities feature in them. Similarly, sales people look for shared interests between themselves and you.

This is simply another way of reducing the complexity we are faced with daily, using the decisions other people have already made, to reduce the ones that we have to make. People affect other people and are affected by other people. Social media and social networking sites almost codify this practice. We conform and comply based on the perceived views of others. Social Impact Theory (Latane, 1980) suggests that the amount of influence depends on:

  1. The number of people who agree (although as the number of people increases, the number is less significant).
  2. Strength (the status, expertise and power of the influencers).
  3. Immediacy (the proximity of the influence).

Conformity from social proof is immensely powerful. If you are in any doubt, look into the origin of the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool – Aid” often kicked around in tech circles. It comes from the Jonestown tragedy, a mass suicide in 1978.

The most common form of social proof used in marketing is case studies – people like you purchased this product. Social proof is most influential at moments of uncertainty. If a situation is ambiguous, people are more likely to look to other’s behaviour and follow it. Further, people are more inclined to follow the lead of ‘similar’ people, see liking, above.

We also respond to perceived authority and expertise. The exact nature of our compliance varies by the situation, but generally we are most influenced by job titles, clothes, and even the cars that people drive. Again, these are techniques commonly used in advertising. Thumb through the adverts in any glossy mainstream magazine and count the examples.

There are two takeaways here. Firstly, as a company looking to build trust in an increasingly on-line world, there are a number of mechanisms open to you:

  • Be open and transparent.
  • Be predictable and consistent.
  • Be visibly accountable.

Summarising Trust for Businesses On-line

In short, be part of your customers’ community. Yes, in the short term, you could get away with just the ‘appearance’ of these activities, but if you want to get to the highest levels of trust with customers, you will actually need to carry them out fully.

As individuals, we need to pay careful attention to how social media influences us, and where we place our trust. Social media plays curious games with otherwise highly effective psychological mechanisms. Just because a number of people write a positive review about a product on-line doesn’t actually make it good, although it may feel that way. At the very least, you are looking at a self-selecting group: people who chose to buy the product, rather than ones who chose not to because they perceived it to be poor.

People writing reviews are prone to exactly the same mechanisms that you are: Consistency and commitment means that they are unlikely to write a bad review for a restaurant they have patronised, since they have already paid for a meal there. Sometimes trust is broken so much that other forces come in to play, hence the occasional ranting negative review.

In face to face communication, as an effective barrier against many of these compliance techniques is to congratulate the persuader on their skill in using them. That isn’t so easy when you are dealing with a website. Give yourself time and space when making decisions. A simple self-enforced cooling-off period can work quite well.

Our life experience has probably made us suitably cynical about advertising in broadcast media. The on-line world is evolving so rapidly that we haven’t yet settled on well-adapted behaviours to deal with it.

I’m not intending to be negative here, just keen that we build real trust and real communities via the on-line world. With that in mind, I am off to the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology’s Creating Flourishing Communities Conference this week (details here), more on that later.