Friday 09 December 2016

Maintaining Technology’s Trust Equity

A hypothesis for why Technology is the most trusted industry in Barometer history and how it can retain and grow its trust equity

Every year, technology has consistently been voted as the world’s most trusted industry in Edelman’s Trust Barometer survey.

Having worked in technology communications for over 10 years, I’m not surprised by this phenomenon.  But when I began articulating a hypothesis for ‘why’, I realised the bigger question was ‘how’ Technology can retain its top position.  Because, as we all know, when you’re #1, the only way is down!

An investigation into ‘why’

As with many things in life, there is no one clear reason.  But I’ve tried to distil it down to one overarching premise, which is:

Technology has had a radical and positive impact on our daily lives but hasn’t been around long enough to have the baggage of other industries

Let me break this down.

Technology as an industry is young, relative to others surveyed in Edelman’s Trust Barometer (e.g. food & beverage or financial services).  But despite its infancy, technology has had a radical impact on every aspect of our lives – both business and personal.

The most significant of which is that Technology enabled the birth of the Internet.  Since Edelman started measuring Trust back in 2001, the Internet has revolutionised technology itself – making it more mobile and consumerised.  Gone are the days when technology was the domain of the IT manager.  Innovative, high-quality tech products now enhance our lives and enable almost everything we aspire to do and be.

Technology has also had a halo effect on other industries – enabling them to innovate and grow faster than ever before.    Also due to the relative youth of the Technology industry, it doesn’t have the baggage of others, which invariably has impacted negatively on their trust equity. For example:

  • Banking & Finance: multiple crisis’ (1920’s, 1980’s and the current GFC)
  • Pharmaceuticals: negative side effects (thalidomide being an obvious example)
  • Energy – environmental disasters (Chernobyl, Fukushima)

But as I said earlier, when you’re on top, the only way is down.

This may be a little over dramatic but my point is that the trust equity Technology has built up over the last decade or two can easily evaporate as the industry matures.

All it will take is one poorly-managed catastrophic event and its ripples will be felt throughout our entire industry – turning the current positive halo effect of Technology into a negative one.

Already we can see where one of these events may come from:

  • Massive data privacy breech
  • Country-wide network crash resulting from big data or cyber attacks
  • Environmental disaster stemming from toxic componentry – e.g. batteries

God forbid someone proves there’s a link between mobile phones and cancer.

These are only hypothetical examples but it’s inevitable that the Technology industry will experience an event of this magnitude that will threaten its trust equity.  The difference being that the Technology industry can benefit from the learnings of others.

And this brings us to the bigger questions of ‘how’ Technology can maintain its trust equity.

Maintaining Technology’s trust equity

Edelman’s 2012 Trust Barometer tells us that trust can be maintained in the future by transitioning from a licence to operate to a licence to lead.  In layman’s terms, organisations must complement their operational performance with customer/employee engagement and a social conscious to drive incremental trust.

Our 2012 Trust Barometer data indicates that 47 percent of people will trust an organisation if they successfully deliver on attributes such as financial performance or product innovation.  To drive that number up to 70+ percent, organisations must engage customers and employees with authenticity and transparency.  This obviously has significant implications for use of social media – and arguably the Technology industry has significant room for improvement in this area.

Additionally, the results suggest corporate social responsibility/ethical business practices or ‘marrying profit with purpose’ will drive trust scores higher again.  However, this must be contextually relevant and not just a corporate box at the Chairman’s favourite sporting event.

These points are best highlighted through the below data:

Technology organisations can also accelerate this process by using their most credible spokespeople.  Our 2012 Trust Barometer data reveals that peers (‘a person like yourself’) and regular employees are now considered more credible than CEOs, who now rank amongst the least most credible sources of information about a company.

Technical experts within the company are also considered one of the most credible sources of information and should be used more often.  But the overall message is that they days of the CEO being the primary and often sole spokesperson are gone.

As always, it’s not as black and white as that. But transparency and customer/employee engagement is critical for retaining trust.  If Technology brands can marry these attributes with a strong social conscious, then they will continue to be the world’s most trusted industry regardless of what growing pains they will invariably experience in the decade to come.

Grant Thomas, Director, Technology