I grew up in the age of loud modem sounds, Myspace, and The Facebook; I vividly remember the glorious day I could finally stop three-way calling on silent to determine whether a girl liked me because we now had Instant Messenger. The internet was a precious gift.
Unfortunately, we’ve since taken it for granted.
Too many people have betrayed buyers’ trust by using misleading ads just to make a quick sale. People say things they don’t even believe just to get people to flock to their statements. And you can’t ignore the effect these actions have had on political discourse, which, for all the good they’ve done, still exacerbate the negatives and make trust more important than ever.
Like most things, however, it all comes down to ownership. Who takes ownership of trust on the internet? To restore and maintain a healthy environment of online education and engagement, everybody plays a part.
To help, here are six things to think about to get us all a little closer to a more trustworthy internet and a more productive online experience:
1. Set realistic expectations for the next generation—don’t exploit it to make a quick buck
I’m constantly bombarded by Facebook ads from entrepreneurs preaching about the hustle alongside photos of their Lamborghinis, and I actually read that a popular entrepreneur said the way to a great brand is to showcase all your nice cars, your sweet house, and the hot people you surround yourself with.
Unfortunately, many teenage and young adult entrepreneurs see these unrealistic expectations and bad advice, which prompts them to do more of the same — leading to no actual value being produced, just more empty facades with no real substance.
2. Don’t lend your voice to ideas and content that you know are untrue
A contact of mine recently shared a post that he knew was BS, and when I asked why he put his name on that share, he said he did it because he knew it would get views. I couldn’t believe it. You should share things that you believe to be true to the best of your ability — not just content you think people want to see or content that will make you look good.
Every time you click that little “Share” button or publish your own thought leadership content, you’re tying a piece of your credibility to whatever you’re sending out into the web. Don’t waste or abuse that power.
3. With great influence comes great responsibility.
About three years ago, someone approached me after a keynote I had delivered as a marketing speaker at an event. He said, “It’s great to meet you. I came here to meet you because your content has changed the way I do business.” That’s when this realization really hit me and became personal. I thought to myself, “Oh, man, I hope it works out for you. Hope I don’t let you down.”
Fortunately, it’s worked out just fine, but it was a wake-up call for me. People go to the internet to learn and make themselves better. Obviously, there’s still the need for a good meme every once in a while. But as we build platforms and influence, we have to remember that we impact not only our checkbooks, but other people’s lives, too. Like Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben says, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
4. Don’t trade the soul of your brand for short-term attention
My company works with some of the smartest leaders within companies in a variety of industries. To do our jobs well, we have to understand these brands and focus on how to differentiate them through content so their expertise and experience stand out against their competitors’ — and so their audiences find value in ways they can’t anywhere else.
Over the years, I’ve run into countless people who have done something crazy to gain short-term celebrity status (or contemplated it after seeing others do so). That’s just not sustainable. The brands that survive (and thrive) in the long term are those that focus on earning trust over time by providing real value. That’s done at scale with effective content marketing and branding, not short-term stunts that might help you in the immediate future but damage long-term trust.
5. There is no such thing as “alternative facts”
I recently met with an editor at a major media outlet who was unhappy that writers and contributors had been using bad or weak sources to back up their ideas. It’s unfortunately become common to link a point in a piece of content to article A, which links to article B, which links to an old study that — when you actually examine it — doesn’t even align with the point in the original article it was supposed to back up.
You might think that you don’t really have to dig deep — that no one else is going to check — but your sources matter. Like most contributors who write guest posts, I’ve found myself caught up in this, too; I get that it’s hard to be perfect when there’s not a piece of unbiased data for every single thought. But the least we can do is verify what we’re citing so we don’t spread misinformation.
6. Strive for authenticity, even (and especially) when you screw up
The reputation management industry has, ironically, gotten a reputation as a contributor to the decline of trust online. People game their own reviews and do whatever it takes to get rid of bad press and search results when they’ve had a terrible year in business.
Here’s the thing, though: People can be pretty forgiving. About six months after Chipotle’s E. coli crisis, I found myself enjoying delicious burrito bowls, and this year, its sales have started to bounce back.
Rather than game your crappy reviews, focus on developing or improving your product to earn good reviews and creating and distributing positive content that outperforms the negative. Jeff Jones, the former CMO of Target, did this expertly when he wrote about his company’s challenges honestly. Instead of trying to avoid or spin the negative press, he hit it dead-on and embraced it authentically — that’s how you rebuild trust.
The internet is a beautiful thing that connects us and educates us. These are just a couple of the things in my industry that I hope to see improve. Think about all the online behaviors you see or carry out, and consider what you can do to make the internet a more trusted resource. If we don’t take ownership, who will?