The Role of Identity in Building Online Trust

licenseThis past weekend I took my son back-to-school shopping. When it came time to pay, I handed my credit card to the cashier.  She then politely asked to see my driver’s license, and proceeded to compare the signature to that on my credit card.  Fortunately for me (and my son’s new wardrobe), they matched.

I’ve had this happen countless times, but this time it got me thinking about the role identity plays in building online trust.  In the real world, we have all sorts of ways of establishing trust.  For instance, we use physical items such as passports, drivers licenses, and credit cards to establish identity and rights. Recommendations from friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances work in our favor.  And the way we dress, hold ourselves, and treat others also helps to add or diminish the trust others place in us.

(yes, these all can be faked, and confidence men & women have taken advantage of our human frailties since the dawn of time, but I’m ignoring these unfortunate truths for the purpose of this post)

But online, establishing trust is more difficult, yet just as – if not more – important as it is offline.  As the Edelman Trust Barometer  establishes every single year, we all trust others “just like us.”  And that’s one of the really valuable outputs of social networks – we can easily benefit from the experiences of others – but only if we know and trust them.  Without identity, the recommendations, likes, follows, etc. are at best well intentioned, more often meaningless, and sometimes misleading or even dangerous.  Consider the recent Guardian report that highlighted how easy and inexpensive it is to get “likes” or follows.  Of course, having 1000’s of “likes” is worthless to you as an individual unless you have some personal knowledge (and trust) of at least a few of the people who have chosen to click.

I’m sure you can think of your own online experiences and how the above statement is true.  For me, one example came last summer as I was looking for a restaurant to celebrate my anniversary.  It was incredibly helpful to see the recommendations of people I know who share similar tastes in food on Yelp, Foursquare, Eater and other sites I visited looking for that one special place.  The entries from people I didn’t know held very little weight for me, because I lacked the context to know if we were similar or not – exactly what Edelman would predict.

Think for a moment about the value of LinkedIn, how the recommendations from people you trust of potential candidates to join your team affect your hiring decisions.  Now compare this to the random recruiter who calls or emails with a “can’t miss candidate.”  Which candidate has a better chance of landing an interview?

As I wrote in my last post, I believe the brands that will win going forward are those that focus on engaging the individual rather than broadcasting to the masses.  By hyper-knowing and hyper-serving these individual customers/consumers they will both gain insights into their target market, but also build advocacy among these people.  And the truly innovative and successful will then find ways to tap into the trust that every one of us has within our social circles to ultimately broaden their reach and achieve greater results.