Online trust is a multi-faceted thing


Trust, or the lack thereof it, makes and breaks more deals and relationships than anything else. If it could be bottled up and sold, it would instantly become more desirable than diamonds, Facebook Likes, and every iPhone ever to come put together.

This is because, rather than being a concrete attribute you can develop like say a technical skill or social ability, trust is a belief. And whereas you can create the conditions in which it may flourish, it all depends on the other person as to whether or not they believe in it or not.

That means, although things like bunches of flowers or a fast, mobile-responsive website may help slightly in persuading them, if you really want to gain someone’s trust, there’s no other way than cultivating it through a display of honesty, integrity, and reliability.

The problem is, how do you communicate honesty, integrity, and reliability when you’re doing business through a screen with complete strangers who’re on guard and sceptical due to years of their trust being abused by high-pressure sales tactics?

Communication beyond words

Effective communication is the cornerstone of a trustworthy relationship. However, as a famous study on communication found, not much of a message is conveyed through words — as little as seven percent. The exact figure varies from situation to situation, but the point is that nonverbal behaviour is a much larger part of communication than verbal.

This means, if we want to communicate effectively and build trust online, alongside language, we also need the support of nonverbal behaviour. In the offline world, this consists of certain vocal elements — tone, pauses, pitch — and nonverbal elements — facial expressions, eye contact, posture, gestures.

As you can see, though, you can’t track where I’m looking as I say this or gather anything about my attitude and demeanour. So, to make up the other ninety or so percent of communication, users tend to look to other aspects such as how you say something, why you say it, where you say it, what you’ve done, and how you’ve done it to support their decisions and inform their trust radar. These things, like a warm smile or a firm but relaxed tone, say infinitely more than words ever could. This is because they give an insight into your morals and ethics.

Your brand’s morals and ethics can be both summed up with the phrase, “It’s not what you say that matters, but what you do.” They’re based in action and therefore show whether or not you follow through on its word, and as a result, whether or not you can be trusted.

Your morals are concerned with your subjective beliefs about what is right and wrong and what you do to put them into practice. To communicate them, you may go out of your way to personalise all correspondence and attend to every customer support ticket or inquiry within a few minutes. Many brands don’t go out of their way to do this, but it may be something you personally value as important.

Your ethics are concerned with what is objectively considered right and wrong and how you operate within these guidelines in relation to other people and wider society. To communicate your ethics, you may affiliate with certain organisations, be up to date with GDPR, and support particular charities. As you’ll probably notice, such actions are becoming increasingly expected as standard, and how far you go to be an ethical business can be the deciding factor for many customers today.

The combination of the two — along with a good level of written communication — communicate your level of honesty, integrity, and reliability. They essentially reveal what the person or brand behind the words is really like.

It’s important to point out that a lack in one of these areas may be easily brushed over online, but in person, it would be impossible to ignore. For instance, you may state on your website you value privacy and then bombard your customers with spammy emails as soon as they sign up to your newsletter. The equivalent of this sort of contradictory behaviour offline, though, would be crude and unacceptable — like telling someone how much you value privacy by shouting to them in a library.

To communicate effectively and successfully build trust, then, your brand needs to behave like a real and complete person — like you. Overcome the digital divide and you’ll never have to rely on words to convince customers why they should trust you ever again.