Making and breaking trust online

Sharon Tanton
Trust online - Joe's phone

Joe’s new iPhone, bought on trust

It’s not always easy to build trust online, but it’s very easy to break it.

Last week I had an email from a marketing automation company. I usually ignore cold approach emails like this, but this one was written very warmly, and I replied. Rick and I had a friendly email chat, and agreed to reconnect in a few months.

This week I got another email from Rick, asking if I’d overlooked the first one, as if we were strangers.

Boom. That was it. The fledging fragile trust we’d built together evaporated. I shrank back from feeling like a somebody, to feeling like just another lead in their system. And their system was obviously crap.

Online trust is exceptionally precarious, especially in the early stages of a relationship. Here’s another example that illustrates the point, plus a few tips for making your own marketing more trustworthy.

On Monday my 17 year old son broke his phone. Smashed both screens, internal and external. Completely kaput. He said he’d buy a new phone to replace it, with his own money. He’d seen one on Ebay, a second hand iPhone 5. £170. Bargain. He’d give me the cash, but he wanted to use my Paypal account to pay. Okay Mum?

Well, not exactly.

Me:  What if the phone doesn’t come? What if it comes and it doesn’t work? What if it’s been nicked? Why is it being sold in Ebay?  Far better to buy a cheaper phone from a shop, then at least you have somewhere to go if it doesn’t work, and a warranty.

Him:  If it doesn’t come, then EBay will help. Anyway it will come. Trust me.

Me: I just don’t want the hassle. And I do trust you, I just don’t trust the person selling the phone.


So my son had to prove why he trusted the EBay seller, and convince me to trust them too.

Him:  Look Mum, here’s a picture of the phone.

Me:  But that could be any phone. We don’t know that’s THE phone. (thinks –ooh, that table cloth is a bit like ours.)

Him:  Look, here’s a video of the phone starting up. (redirects to Youtube.)

Me:  That still could be a different phone, and it could start up and then stop working. It doesn’t prove anything. (thinks – yes, that tablecloth looks very familiar. That’s safe reliable fabric.)

Him:  Look, he’s got other videos up there too. Here he is doing a speech at a wedding anniversary party. He’s called Phil.

Me:  Hmmmmm. (thinks. Oh, he’s in his fifties. He’s not a teenage IPhone thief. He’s Phil. He looks okay.)

Him:  And here’s Phil on holiday with his family in Dubai. Good old family man Phil. You’ve gotta trust Phil. He’s a nice guy.

Me:  Maybe. (thinks – okay, Phil does look legit. The man who posts videos of wedding speeches and his holidays, and has a familiar looking tablecloth is probably, on balance, trustworthy.)

So we bought it. And two days later it arrived as promised. And it works. (That’s Joe holding it in the picture above.)

Lessons in online trust

What did I learn?

Apart from the fact that I am deeply suspicious and cynical when it comes to handing over money to people I don’t know, these things resonated with me.

  1. Soft furnishings count. Trust is built in tiny ephemeral details. The tablecloth really was a turning point.
  2. Sharing personal stuff helps. The fact that Phil was so easily traceable, and looked like a nice friendly family guy made me trust him.
  3. Video is powerful. Not necessarily the video on Ebay, but the stack of other videos helped convince me that it would be okay to trust Phil.
  4. Consistency matters. Telling the same story on different platforms helps build a picture people believe in.
  5. Marketing automation is really hard to get right. If marketing automation companies can’t even do it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The lessons for your business are the same. We’re all picking up visual and other non-verbal clues when we’re sussing someone out, so when working to establish trust online, don’t overlook the tiny little details. Pictures, videos, podcasts, content that feels authentic will help build trust. Show who you really are, have a story that stacks up, be consistent, and handle marketing automation systems with immense care.

So, who do you trust?

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  1. Avatar

    Sounds like you have trust issues with the feedback system in eBay.

    I always look at peoples feedback and assuming it is around 100% (because you always get someone who is OUTRAGED that it took an extra day to arrive) then they’re good to buy from – provided they have a decent amount of transactions in the first place.

    If anything goes wrong with an eBay purchase, they do sort it out. I’ve bought cars and even a tractor on eBay too ad never had a problem. In fact, I put more trust in an eBay seller than an ‘online company’ that I have no way of verifying other than their website.

    But either way it’s good that all of the other stuff put your mind as rest.

    So that isn’t the first phone he’s broken is it, or did he lose one and then it turned up months later?

  2. Sharon Tanton

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your comment. It was the fact it was a phone I think that made me so wary. I’ve bought clothes and shoes on eBay, and didn’t worry about it at all. But phones always go wrong, and they contain all your personal info, so buying one you’re not completely sure about it felt unsafe.
    There’s an ironic post script to all this. I think Phil might have been an eBay novice too. He didn’t have lots of feedback. And he forgot to wipe the phone. So he sent access to everything, email, FB, bank accounts, pictures, his whole life basically, to a seventeen year old he’d never met!
    All sorted now.

  3. Avatar

    Wow. Did the ad say ‘On receipt, please wipe my personal data and DO NOT transfer all of my money from my bank account to yours’?

    I spent a long time explaining to our Chids that their digital footprint is out there and they have to be careful with it. When looking to employ people, they’re probably going to try looking at Facebook accounts etc to see what these people are really like. As you say, nowadays we build up a picture of trust based on a huge variety of sources.

    Even tablecloths. 🙂

  4. Avatar

    I’ve just been checking out online training platforms to house all the courses we want to create. There are some really interesting ones out there but it’s very hard to choose.

    I like the look of this one for example – – but it’s a big decision and the site’s just a bit too minimalist. There’s not enough information to make me 100% sure I trust they are the right platform for us.

    For example, I want to know more about the founders. What’s their motivation? Are they in it for a quick buck or do they really, really care about what they’re creating here? Will they be around for the long haul or will this be just a flash in the pan? Do they know their stuff when it comes to online training? What do real customers say? How does this platform fit in the bigger landscape? How do they stack up against others in the market? (I want a map of the online training platform landscape – now that would be useful content.) Who are they really selling to? People like me?

    Trusting who to buy from is hard. I couldn’t find the equivalent of Phil’s tablecloth easily, and I wanted that. I wish people would make it easier.


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