The Science of Building Trust With Social Media

The Science of Building Trust With Social Media

The Internet-era has made establishing trust an increasingly complicated issue. Our finely tuned ability to read facial expressions does not apply to e-mail, and emoticons are, at best, an imperfect substitute for sarcastic inflection (raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten into trouble for typing something that was meant to be a joke). So, how can we establish trust when our online identities are often little more than an avatar and few lines of text?

Fortunately, some in the scientific community have taken it upon themselves to help us through the confusion. Through both laboratory studies and field observation of people conversing over the Internet, scientists can survey when participants are likely to trust word-of-mouth or stab an absent colleague in the back. I sat down with a leading figure in this field, Professor Judy Olson, to talk about the essentials of building trust with digital communication.

The Psychology of Trust

Olson’s findings are based on a pillar of psychological research: People are willing to pass judgment, with or without good information. Where examples of one’s competence or reputation are lacking, people will construct whole profiles of another’s personality from what little information is available.

For instance, psychologists have found that when judging our own mistakes, we tend to blame the situation (traffic, a problem at work, an overbearing partner, etc.). When others make a mistake, we tend to blame their personality (they’re selfish, incompetent, uncaring, etc). Why? For ourselves, we have a full plate of information to link any series of situations to the cause of our misbehavior. For others, we see only the mistake itself; constructing a personality in explanation of that mistake is the shortest path from confusion to simplicity.

This fact leads Olson to one of her most important findings.

Responsiveness Is Key for Digital Communication

In e-mail, Linkedin and Facebook messages, much of the traditional markers of trust, such as voice intonation and body language, are hidden. Olson finds that when only text is available, participants judge trustworthiness based on how quickly others respond. So, for instance, it is better to respond to a long Facebook message “acknowledging” that you received the message, rather than to wait until there’s time to send a more thorough first message. Wait too long and you are likely to be labeled “unhelpful,” along with a host of other expletive-filled attributions the mind will happily construct.

Psychologically speaking, responsiveness makes it easier for others to attribute our misdeeds to the situation, rather than our personality. If you find keeping up with multiple inboxes difficult, you might consider having sites such as Linkedin and Facebook send e-mail alerts. Then, only archive the e-mail once the message has been responded to.

The same advice holds true for a medium such as Twitter, where one’s identity is represented by little more than a small square avatar and 140 characters of text. Earlier this month, when Southwest and director Kevin Smith went head to head, Southwest’s social media team jumped into the fray immediately with this tweet:

While reactions to Southwest’s decision to eject Smith from his flight have been mixed, its immediate response on a Saturday night allowed the company to be perceived as committed to a controversial policy, rather than a much worse alternative: ambivalent to customer concerns.

There are also other great examples of responsiveness, for those of us not in charge of a major airline’s public relations. The Veggie Grill, an up-and-coming vegetarian restaurant in Southern California, responded to a customer’s request for a particular dish via Twitter:

Veggie Grill’s responsiveness seems to have paid off: @quarrygirl devoted an entire blog post to reviewing her meal. She sealed the experience with a statement that must have made Veggie Grill quite happy, “Please take my advice and get out to the veggie grill el segundo location NOW. and if you can’t go now, be sure to go ASAP.”

The Hierarchy of Trusted Communication

Not all forms of communication are created equal. For establishing trust, video is better than audio (with no video), and audio is better than a chat window. The logic of this hierarchy seems intuitive: People communicate as much, if not more, with how an idea is conveyed, than with what it said. Shifty eyes and raised shoulders can reveal anxiety; intonation can convey passion. The more non-substantive information the medium can convey, the more data a listener has to decide how trustworthy the speaker is.

For instance, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to thank his Twitter followers for sending useful ideas on how to reduce government waste, he went straight to video:

It’s all too common for politicians to send out a “thank you” statement to constituents. Schwarzenegger, with rolled-up sleeves and clearly unscripted message, took a giant leap forward on the scale on authenticity.

Schwarzenegger is not alone in the video-making department. In 2009, Domino’s Pizza president, Patrick Doyle, twice went in front of a camera to express his frustration, once to apologize for a nauseating employee YouTube prank, and again to pledge to make a tastier pizza. Below is a video of Doyle’s apology overlaid with a graph of user reaction. Notice how the confidence meter spikes and dips along with his inflection.

Curiously enough, the use of video has been absent from many of social media’s biggest crises. Facebook’s privacy blunder and Southwest’s aforementioned tiff with Kevin Smith both sought to redeem shattered trust with a disembodied message. When so much of our trust is based on body language and inflection, why not use video? What do you think, should Facebook and Southwest have used video to respond to critics?


Few, if any, educational institutes teach the art of proper digital communication. Most of us have simply made up an impromptu strategy and crossed our fingers in the hopes that disaster doesn’t strike. With a bit of help from our friends in the fields of psychology and information technology, we can apply the age-old intuitions of face-to-face conversation to whatever advances in technology come our way.

More social media resources from Mashable:

Images courtesy of iStockphoto, CHRISsadowski, pavlen