Creating Trust in a Digital World

When asked what advertising sources they trust most, 84 percent of consumers say “someone I know,” and 68 percent say “consumer opinions posted online,” according to a recent study by Nielsen.

When asked what advertising sources they trust most, 84 percent of consumers say “someone I know,” and 68 percent say “consumer opinions posted online,” according to a recent study by Nielsen.

While it’s understandable we turn first to trusted friends for advice and product recommendations, it is somewhat revealing that so many of us trust people we’ve never met, and likely never will. Just someone somewhere posting an opinion online.

Trust is an innate part of our psychological wiring, consciously and unconsciously.

Societies have always thrived when people trust each other in love and in business. This trust has often been based upon our unconscious ability to read another’s body language and our own intuitive ability to discern character when in the same physical setting, or so claims recent research done by Northeastern University.

But in a society that is increasingly becoming digitized, with fewer face-to-face interactions, what role does trust play in driving our behavior, purchases and loyalty? Especially when that trust is breached constantly by apps and brands that really sell us down the river when it comes to privacy, as our data is sold to hundreds of unknown third parties?

Social psychologist Mario Mikulincer, professor and dean of the New School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzlyia, has studied the elements of human trust and how different expectations of human interactions form our ability to trust. People who are raised in settings that foster belief in others to do the right thing tend to base trust on three primary components, per Mikiulincer’s research as posted on March 2014. These are:

  • The assumption that if you need help, you can turn to someone you trust.
  • The assumption that if you need support, your trusted friends will be there for you and happy to help.
  • The recognition that support from those close to you will give you comfort and relief.

To engage consumers’ psychological drivers that influence purchase behavior and loyalty, these basic premises of trust need to be present between brands and consumers. Like the people in our world, we expect brands to help us when we need them, support our relationship with them, and make things right when they go wrong. Even in our highly digitized world, consumers still believe they form better relationships with brands and business associates in the real vs. virtual world, per a 2012 study by Dimensional Research. However, with around 200 million consumers researching or shopping online, brands must find a way to build trust at every step of an online shopping experience, not just with friendly salespeople in a brick and mortar store.

Steven Woods, a name many might remember as a founding partner of Eloqua, a software system designed to help marketers understand consumers’ digital body language, has remained steadfast in his vision to bring trust and emotional connections to the digital world. Since selling Eloqua to Oracle, he and partner, Paul Teshima, have started a new business called Nudge, which is a platform designed to help people actually leverage their massive digital networks of connections and engage in trusting ways that have actual benefits. Their tool helps people nudge each other to create dialogue, stay current, make recommendations and professional introductions — all of which help produce meaningful outcomes.

“Without trust, even the best business proposals are set up to fail,” says Woods. “Trust, which is built up over time, allows a buyer to believe that a seller will deliver the change that is promised. Today, that trust is more important than marketing, selling or product capabilities, in most cases.”

Per Woods, without a foundation of trust, our social networks are futile and do little more than make us look popular. Nudge has developed a framework whereby users can build essential trust and have productive relationships with all their social networks, be it Linkedin, Facebook or Twitter. Steps toward digital trust include:

  • Connect
  • Assist
  • Remember
  • Engage
  • Socialize

These are the same steps that helped spark one of the biggest social movements of all time – the civil rights movement, started when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. The day she was arrested, civil rights activists got on the phone to connect with her immediate network of friends from church, her sewing club and more. They asked that first tier of friends to assist with a bus boycott by calling their friends and asking them to do the same. Most did, in hopes that the friend for whom they did the favor would remember them when they needed help or support. As a result, an entire network of friends and associates with like values were engaged in a meaningful cause that had significant social outcomes for all involved.

However, without the elements of trust present as outlined by Mikiulincer above, these processes that changed our world in Montgomery, Ala., might not have happened, or at least not so quickly.

As a brand manager, how can you create a framework of trust for your digital networks, and then what kind of marketing activities can you execute to nudge that network into action that drives sales, loyalty and trusted referrals.

1. Be Real: Connecting is much more than a digital link on a social site that lets you access personal information. It is about real time and real purpose. Use your customer connections to communicate meaningful information beyond your products to build trust as a partner that cares about greater outcomes for your customers than their sales value to you.

2. Assist With Life, Not Just Sales: Consumers connect with others to help friends and peers have a better life and trust that their actions will be reciprocated. Same with brands. When you can provide even small improvements to a customer’s life through added values or unexpected customer service, you build trust that can pay off big.

3. Remember: A friend of mine stayed at the same small, boutique ski lodge in Vail for 25 consecutive years. The lodge owner failed to recognize her loyalty and remember her in any way. At breakfast on their last trip, he refused to let my friend substitute a can of soda for her free breakfast coffee — while at the same time, giving away free food and drinks to his “friends” who he did bother to remember. I am now helping my friend find a new ski lodge for her annual trip, worth thousands every ski season.

Remembering is also a key part of Woods’ vision for Nudge. “Remembering what someone liked, disliked and talked about is key to building trust. Most people in our business lives come and go quickly, and often unnoticed. Feeling noticed and remembered creates a new level of trust of its own.”

As trite as articles, presentations and other content on consumer trust have become, it is mission-critical for any business. Without it, you simply can’t successfully trigger the psychological drivers that generate sales and loyalty. Our unconscious minds simply won’t let us engage fully with anything that doesn’t feel or seem right. We need to know we can trust brands as much as we can trust family members. When we unconsciously feel good about a brand because we have learned to consciously trust it, we are much more likely to engage in purchasing behavior and to give trusted recommendations to the 84 percent of our friends who listen to us first and who will, in turn, forward our recommendations to their friends, and so on and so on.

Author: Jeanette McMurtry

Jeanette McMurtry is a psychology-based marketing expert providing strategy, campaign development, and sales and marketing training to brands in all industries on how to achieve psychological relevance for all aspects of a customer's experience. She is the author of the recently released edition of “Marketing for Dummies” (Fifth Edition, Wiley) and “Big Business Marketing for Small Business Budgets” (McGraw Hill). She is a popular and engaging keynote speaker and workshop instructor on marketing psychology worldwide. Her blog will share insights and tactics for engaging B2B and B2C purchasers' unconscious minds which drive 90 percent of our thoughts, attitudes and behavior, and provide actionable and affordable tips for upping sales and ROI through emotional selling propositions. Her blog will share insights and tactics for engaging consumers' unconscious minds, which drive 90 percent of our thoughts and purchasing attitudes and behavior. She'll explore how color, images and social influences like scarcity, peer pressure and even religion affect consumers' interest in engaging with your brand, your message and buying from you. Reach her at

3 thoughts on “Creating Trust in a Digital World”

    1. Thank you Wayne! Even in this high tech fast changing world, we are all still so very human after all. Thanks…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *