Panel: Digital marketplaces shake-up consumer trust models but human relationships remain key

Panel of marketers at ADMA Global Forum debates the collaborative consumption economy and its impact on how organisations build trusted brands

From left: Optimizely's Dan Ross, eBay's Tim Mackinnon, Rachel Botsman, Uber's Steve Brennen and Peer Academy's Kylie Long
From left: Optimizely's Dan Ross, eBay's Tim Mackinnon, Rachel Botsman, Uber's Steve Brennen and Peer Academy's Kylie Long

Trust is playing by new rules in today’s world of digitally driven marketplaces. But human relationships remain pivotal to building successful brand-consumer interactions today and into the future.

That was the general consensus across a panel of marketing and industry commentators at ADMA Global Forum, who explored the nature of ‘collaborative consumption’ and how digital and technology are changing conceptions of trust.

While panellists agreed technology increasingly enables trust to occur across digital and physical interactions, it was equally clear it’s the sociological trends and human relationships underpinning them that create or crush success.

Author and digital trends commentator, Rachel Botsman, said digitally disruptive brands such as Airbnb are utilising technology in order for consumers to trust strangers on a scale never possible before.

Coming forward to today, Botsman saw a second shift happening due to the collapse of trust around institutions, and the move towards ‘distributed trust’, or direct trust between human beings or with intelligent machines.

“There’s this interesting question around whether technology can make us smarter about who we can trust, which changes how we fulfil our needs and wants,” she said.

There are three broad reasons why trust has eroded, Botsman said. One is the perceived lack of institutional accountability in situations such as the GFC, while the second is the inversion of influence.

“The way you influence people historically was very much top-down fashion – you had a celebrity spokesperson or an economist telling you the way it is. Now we have an inversion of influence driven through peers,” she said. “The third is tied to social media and echo chambers, where you don’t hear these dissenting views but they are amplifying people’s fears.”

Another problem is institutions weren’t designed for the digital age. “In contrast, digital marketplaces are in the business of trust. The way they design trust is so different from a traditional brand,” Botsman said.  “The question is, can technology make us smarter around who and what we trust?” 

EBay CMO, Tim MacKinnon, saw trust as fundamental to the online seller marketplace and said it’s being propelled through data. For example, the company has a comprehensive customer feedback system, but it also uses objective data to track interactions. More recently, eBay has tapped machine learning to detect if a transaction looks fake, to remove offensive images, and to translate communications between customers globally.

“Technology is critical to trust and breaking these barriers down – it’s enabling trust in ways we never before,” he said.    

“But the other side is retail basics. Even without technology, there are simple things you need to continue to do to build trust. For example, like retailers have lowest prices guarantee, we have a money back guarantee. We did an A/B test on creative on our homepage when we were running a sale, and we put the moneyback logo on the homepage, but kept it off in the control group. We saw a 22 per cent uplift in sales just from that.”

Another way eBay builds trust is by “borrowing” it from partners, Mackinnon said, adding 80 of the top 100 retailers in Australia are now selling on the platform.

Over at Uber, trust starts at a company level, its CMO, Steve Brennen, said. “When you press the button and tap the app, the trust is with Uber first,” he said.

Things in the back-end supporting that relationship are digital profile of drivers and transparency, automated payments, and 24-hour customer support.

What ultimately fosters that bond, however, is humans trusting other humans. “You have 3 million people in 65,000 cars travelling around every 90 days. That’s a lot of humans in a small metal box , and humans have to trust humans for that to happen,” Brennen said.

“Technology can do a lot to enable that, but the reality is a relationship involves trust. Like humans in a relationship, you have to have a level of credibility, reliability, self-interest relationships.

“Without trust, you won’t go anywhere – it’s the backbone of growing a business.”

Botsman was less certain about where the position of trust lies in the age of platforms.

“How much trust is in Facebook, versus Zuckerberg or Sandberg, the algorithm, versus the impact on the community of users? It’s hard to separate them,” she argued. “The traditional role of brand versus what happens between humans on the platform and how those work together is a really interesting tension.”

Peer Academy CEO, Kylie Long, works in the public sector space, where she claimed trust has been completely eroded.

“Before we can talk about trust, we need to create the conditions for that conversation to happen,” she told attendees. “A lot of our work is early stage, where we seek to establish a culture of ‘reciprocity’. Initially, we’re working with staff, executives and communities through face-to-face events that people hear about these through technology. It’s really only when we start to have an honest conversation about what we’re willing to give, and what we want to receive, that we can create the possibility for trust to exist.”

Long suggested public sector is in this situation because governments have been structured around the centralisation of power. “It’s been very inward looking, rather than outside-in,” she said.

Long was critical, however, of whether the promise of the sharing economy has been realised. “There seem to be so many disparate values,” she said.

“We often talk in detail around brand stories, but what are the values and intent behind those brands and how does it shape our relationship to each other through a trusting lens? And how might that be eroded in situations where what we experience isn’t supported by full transparency around ownership and other issues?”

Long pointed to extreme polarities around open source, commons based models, and the models monetising resources.

“Who is benefitting? There is a higher order conversation potential here,” she added.  

Botsman agreed some marketplace models have raised new kinds of network monopolies where one platform has a lot of control over what happens between customer and provider.

“The second thing is whether this is really a democratisation of wealth because we haven’t changed the funding structure,” she continued. “One of the things we thought would happen was more sharing in value and co-operatives.

“The sensitivity is it’s become super commercial and many ideas that were more open source and democratic haven’t taken off in the same way as the commercial models. You could argue that’s market forces, or the way technology inherently takes things.”

Mackinnon was convinced market places reflect marker forces, but saw a positive in the way marketplaces have enabled those without historical market power to innovate. He noted 3000 millionaires have been created off eBay that wouldn’t have had that opportunity without digital and technology at their disposal.

There’s also a balance that needs to be struck between processes to ensure customer experience, and totalitarian behaviour, Mackinnon said.

What marketplaces do have is a closer connection to what the market wants, Botsman said.

“It’s feedback on steroids, whereas older companies still often work on a linear, supply and demand pipeline. It’s not the way the world works anymore,” she said. “Organisations in this camp need to take the dynamics of a marketplace and behave more like one.”

What trust does give brands permission to do is play in a role in the consumer’s life, Botsman added.

“Trust has always been important. Where institutions struggle is in the way of building, managing and repairing trust – there are whole new set of rules around that,” she said.

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