Let’s be honest, the tech industry has trust issues. Digital consumers are bombarded with daily headlines about data breaches and privacy violations. They don’t know who they can trust to help with their shopping, image storing, social networking, and all the other online activities that have become part of their daily routine. And that’s a problem.
So far, there’s still no sign that a dreaded techlash will convince people to ditch their digital lives and stop posting photos on Facebook, shopping on eBay, or searching on Google. If anything, the world is only getting more connected.
But there’s no doubt that the issue of online trust is real, and it’s only going to get bigger with every revelation about someone’s data getting stolen or personal information being mishandled. As of last year, only 28% of Americans trusted tech companies to do the right thing most or all of the time, according to a Pew study. And even fewer of them believed we were doing enough to protect personal data.
So if people can’t live without their tech, what can they do about it? Some might just shrug and accept that a level of risk to their privacy and security is simply the cost of going about their business. But I doubt many others will just sit back and take it. And you can see that attitude reflected in a survey done for IBM last year, when three-quarters of respondents said they wouldn’t buy from a company they didn’t trust to protect their data—no matter how great the product.
Instead of just accepting the status quo, I think people will keep looking for places they can trust with their personal information, money, photos, and other things they treasure. And that presents an opportunity for companies to earn their trust.
But how do you gain trust in a digital world, where relationships are virtual, and consumers can just click a button to switch allegiance to another company? I actually think it’s pretty simple. The foundation of any relationship, online or otherwise, is communication. Companies that clearly communicate—that are transparent about privacy, security, and other core policies—will position themselves to fill the leadership gap on trust.
At Photobucket, we understand the challenge of rebuilding trust as much as anyone. Our struggles began a couple of years ago when we almost “broke the internet” trying to convince our members to pay a hefty annual subscription fee to host their images. The company gambled with customer loyalty and quickly learned it was a losing bet. Members were vocal and started taking their photos elsewhere. Media also showed their displeasure.
When I took over at the helm shortly after, the task at hand was clear. We had to earn back our members’ trust. We began by overcommunicating with them and giving members a choice between more reasonably priced monthly plans. We did a lot of listening to find out what they liked—and didn’t like—about Photobucket. And we tried something that would have once been considered radical: transparency.
To make it clear to our members that we understood their concerns about cost, privacy, security, and other issues, we encoded our policies in a Bill of Rights. The pledge addresses many of the things our members care about most. We vow to never delete their images, to never change their privacy settings without consent, and to use the latest security technology to keep their precious memories safe, among other things.
Our embrace of radical transparency has already started paying off, based on feedback from members and the recent growth in paid subscriptions. And while some of these rights are geared more toward our particular business, I believe the overall approach can be successful for other tech companies.
Just take a look at Facebook, the current poster child in the debate over online privacy and trust. The recent $5 billion fine that regulators levied against the company for privacy violations might have felt like a slap on the wrist to the social giant, but Mark Zuckerberg does seem to be taking a more transparent approach with the new privacy platform. I think that’s a step in the right direction.
The good news for consumers is that a growing number of tech leaders see stronger privacy policies as a way to gain a competitive advantage. A recent Conference Board survey found that more than half of the executives view impending regulations as an opportunity to take an innovative approach on privacy to differentiate themselves.
But regardless of whether regulation plays a role or not, I think more tech leaders will take up the mantle of transparency. It’s the clearest path to gaining the trust of skeptical consumers, who want and deserve more information on how their digital selves are being protected. They have a right to know what we’re doing to keep them safe.
Ted Leonard is the CEO of Photobucket.