Many tech companies work relentlessly to build a reputation as a rogue outsider committed to improving life. Facebook was created to “give people the power to share.” Google wanted to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” And Steve Jobs wanted to make “tools … that advance humankind.”
Despite such altruistic goals, there’s a growing trust gap between elite tech and everyday people.
In a 2020 study of 1,200 U.S. consumers, my agency spotted a cloud of suspicion hovering over big tech:
• Three in four of those surveyed believe that big tech spies on them.
• Eighty percent say they can’t trust content from big tech because they believe it’s really just trying to sell to them.
Many Americans are souring on the brand platitudes from big tech. They’re growing suspicious that the utopian society some tech companies promise is morphing into a Black Mirror episode. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that only 50% of Americans feel that technology companies have a positive impact. For tech companies, that’s a death sentence.
Whether it’s public outcry over Amazon’s Alexa recording private conversations or Facebook struggling to manage misinformation, it’s easy to see how big tech is often no longer perceived as being committed to building the next great society, but instead as a profit machine willing to steamroll anything that gets in its way.
The lesson? As someone who has centered his career around understanding tech buyers, I’m convinced that trust is the most important sales driver for tech brands. After all, no one will buy from you until they first buy into you.
Your marketing has to offer more than just a sales pitch. It has to offer data, insights and solutions no one else has. Offering insights builds crucial trust with your buyers. Low trust is like a tax on your businesses. It costs you money, slows down your deals, increases friction for your employees and forces you to spend more on advertising.
I advise my tech clients to focus more on giving than selling. Give advice. Give ideas. Give data. Give insights. Giving thought leadership to your customers will earn you more than any advertising campaign ever can.
That brings us to Zoom.
What A Crisis Can Teach Tech Companies About Restoring Trust
As the COVID-19 pandemic has led to millions of new customers working and learning at home, Zoom has built digital trust by offering free advice and simply giving its product away. The company gave K-12 schools around the world free access to its platform. It dropped time limits for people using its free service in critically affected countries like China. It developed training sessions and webinars to help users maximize platform capabilities as people began using it for dance classes, blind dates and birthday parties in addition to business and academic purposes.
By providing thought leadership and social connectivity for free, Zoom gained more positive exposure than it ever could pay for. The business grew too. According to Apptopia, Zoom’s daily active user (DAU) count as of March 22 had increased by 340% since December. Its app became the top free download in Apple’s App Store, and the company’s shares are up 74%.
But this success also put a spotlight on Zoom’s problems, and the company faced its first major digital trust test: A Vice article alleged that Zoom did not appropriately disclose the transfer of app user data to Facebook.
A few days later, the FBI warned users about “Zoom-bombing,” where uninvited guests exploit platform vulnerabilities to spam meetings with offensive content.
The day after that, Zoom admitted that its advertised end-to-end encryption is not really end-to-end encryption.
Rather than hiding from the crisis, Zoom demonstrated that focusing on key drivers of trust — reliability, responsiveness, transparency and fairness — can improve a company’s reputation and mitigate the fallout from bad press.
• Reliability: As a result of experiencing much more than normal traffic, Zoom employees worked to bring new servers and data centers online to prevent service interruptions.
• Responsiveness: On April 1, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan posted an apology on the company’s blog and shared details about privacy updates. The speed with which Zoom’s top leadership accepted responsibility without spin showed consumers that the company values them.
• Transparency: Yuan’s quick apology is standard crisis management. But in another blog post, Yuan thanked the reporter who broke the story about Zoom’s transfer of app data to Facebook and linked to a follow-up article about the company’s operating system update. This authentic, collaborative accountability has likely made users more likely to trust Zoom in the future.
• Fairness: Zoom could have profited from offering schools discounted fees to use the platform. Instead, Yuan appears to have decided that it’s unfair to profit off a global disaster, which increased the company’s credibility as a socially responsible entity.
Digital trust issues aren’t Zoom-specific — every tech company faces them. In the developing technology landscape, lasting success isn’t likely to be found by simply selling a reliable product. I believe that to succeed, companies’ products must be backed by responsive leaders who execute transparent and fair policies.
Like Zoom, you can grow your brand by offering value and help build trust by being transparent about your thought process. Share free research on industry trends so compelling that your customers would be willing to pay for it. Publish content that is meant to inform your customers more than sell to them. Make your subject matter experts available for Q&A’s and webinars. Publish infographics and ebooks that offer clarity on tough industry problems.
Transparency, value, advice and thought leadership — this is how your tech brand earns that buy-in that’s required before a customer buys.
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Author: Justin Ethington, Forbes Councils Member