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The Evolution of Online Trust

Listening to problems, owning up to mistakes when necessary, responding at lightning speed, and diligently protecting user privacy are the cornerstones of trust-building customer service.
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Trust is the mechanism that inspires people to expect good things from other people and products. Expecting good things isn't just what keeps us coming back to brands we love, it's what leads us to try new products and services in the first place. As an entrepreneur, it seems clear that this simple reality should fuel every decision about how to build a product, grow a community, and structure a business model. It's foundational. We shouldn't be asking ourselves if trust matters or how much, those things are self-evident. The only question we should have about trust should be: "How can my business inspire more of it?"

This used to be a lot easier. Get three out of five dentists to recommend your product and you were good to go. But as more and more people stepped onto the Internet, trust got a little more complicated. The first, gargantuan hurdle is behind us -- people are no longer as wary about making online transactions as they were ten years ago. Strange, isn't it? Not long ago, there was so little trust in the online space that consumers didn't want to provide credit card information or mailing addresses -- now experts are predicting we'll spend upwards of $226 billion online this year. Those of us operating online and mobile companies today are doing so during a time in which most of our customers aren't just buying online, they're also living their lives in the fishbowls of social media. That bodes well for building trust, but it brings with it new challenges.

For starters, it sets up a precedent for transparency and authenticity. I think this is awesome. To be sure we cultivate great expectations and exceed them at TaskRabbit, we prioritize above-and-beyond communication as part of our member services strategy. Listening to problems, owning up to mistakes when necessary, responding at lightning speed, and diligently protecting user privacy are the cornerstones of trust-building customer service. In this same vein, we treat our social media identities as portals into our business. If the windows are murky, fans and followers (i.e. our current and future, hopefully never past, customers) will notice, and trust will suffer. By inviting our community to participate in our business via social networks, transparency and authenticity are inherent.

Another challenge unique to this side of the social media revolution is the fact that more people use the Internet now -- almost 80 percent of Americans are online. A majority have become accustomed to trusting online sources for once-sensitive things like banking, news, and shopping. When considering this in the context of in-person, peer-to-peer transactions, the importance of trust becomes even more pronounced. If you let a stranger rent out your car through RelayRides or your home through Airbnb, the cost of failure is relatively high -- it's very different from buying a pair of shoes online. Businesses like this, ones built around person-to-person transactions in a digital world, must continually raise the level of trust. At TaskRabbit, we do this in a few different ways. First, we vet our community on both sides. Next, we've built out a robust social reputation engine that encourages reviewings, ratings, and flaggings. Finally, we've reached out to other companies in the sharing space to figure out how to advance trust across the economic space, not just for our own company.

It's this last part that really excites me, because it reveals what the next stage in the evolution of online trust might look like. I've often wondered what would happen if a person's social reputation could follow them from one online community to another. What if my great ratings on TaskRabbit could follow me to Airbnb? It's a cool question, and I don't know the answer yet. There wasn't anyone to ask, or even to collaborate with on these kinds of trust issues until recently. That's why I'm thrilled to see a new crop of trust-focused social reputation startups popping up. Companies like Scaffold and Legit are organizations dedicated to building tools to facilitate safe interactions within peer-to-peer marketplaces. The missions of these social reputation and trust systems remind me of an anthropological concept called "punctuated equilibrium," the idea that evolution occurs in quick bursts, not at a steady uniform pace. When considering how trust has evolved online, I can't help but think that we're on the verge of experiencing one of these quick bursts.

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