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What’s the ROI of Trust? Results from the Edelman Trust Barometer 2015

Susan Etlinger
163199679

Each year, Edelman conducts research that culminates in the publication of its Trust Barometer (disclosure: I worked at Edelman when the first report was published). It's been long enough now--15 years and counting--that the study has seen meaningful shifts in patterns of trust: of governments, NGOs, business and business leaders. We've seen these shifts through the lens of many significant geopolitical events: the 1999 "Battle in Seattle," the war in Iraq, and the great recession of 2007-2008 are some examples.

But this year's results have troubling implications for the technology industry in particular. According to the report, "[F]or the first time since the end of the Great Recession, trust in business faltered." Technology, while still the most trusted of industries at 78 percent, experienced declines in many countries across multiple sectors. Trust in the consumer electronics sector fell across 74 percent of countries, trust in the telecommunication sector fell in 67 percent of countries, and, "in 70 percent of countries trust in technology in general sank."

But most troubling of all were the findings about trust in innovation. Granted, this was the first time that Edelman has asked this particular set of questions, but it likely won't be the last. And it sets a useful baseline against which to measure and better understand how the general population feels about the nature and pace of innovation over time.

The finding--that 51 percent of respondents feel the pace of innovation is "too fast"--is worth unpacking, especially as it varies substantially among industries. One of the findings I found most interesting: trust in a particular sector--healthcare or financial services, for example--does not guarantee that the innovations in that sector are also trusted. Consider financial services (trust at 54 percent overall) compared to electronic payments (62 percent, up 8 percent), or Food & Beverage, (a 67 percent overall level of trust, compared to 30 percent for GMO foods). Of course, these numbers change dramatically as one views them across regions, from developed to developing countries, for example.

Even with the high overall levels of  trust in the technology industry, we cannot sit comfortably and assume that there is a "trust dividend" that we can collect as we continue to work on topics from cloud computing to big data to artificial intelligence.

While we don't have data that specifically links levels of trust in technology and innovation to Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, or recent corporate data breaches, we do have evidence as to what kinds of behaviors affect perceptions of trust.

Unsurprisingly, integrity and engagement are the winners.

From there, you don't need a map to get to the value of integrating trust into everything we do as an industry, or, more accurately, a collection of many, interrelated industries. Here is how Edelman reported respondents' actions based on levels of trust:

Source: Edelman
Source: Edelman

And this is where we have to turn to the inevitable question: what are the ingredients in the ROI of trust? Based on the implicit and explicit findings above, I'd propose the following list of metrics, for starters:

  • Propensity to buy/revenue opportunity
  • Brand Reputation
  • Customer value (transaction to aggregate)
  • Shareholder value
  • Cost savings/improvement based loyalty
  • Cost savings/improvement based on advocacy

The next step, of course, is to take those twin behaviors--integrity and engagement--and drill down so that we really understand what moves the needle one way or another. That will be a continuing topic for upcoming research and blog posts.