An illustration of the concept of how to measure trust during a pandemic.

In our brand-new pandemic-colored world, trust in all information sources is at record lows, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021. (We found some surprises in the general gloom of that report, read about them here.) That is hugely problematic for all communicators. No matter how good your offer, how clear your message, how sexy your graphics, or how powerful your influencer, no one is going to give money, time, attention, or support to anything they don’t trust.

The first step in succeeding in 2021 is to measure trust in your organization, and make sure it’s at least better than your competition. This article will help you do that, by teaching you how to define trust for your organization, and how to quantify your stakeholders’ trust in your organization.

The trust challenge

The challenge, of course, is that trust is earned and lost not by communications, but by the actions (or lack thereof) of your organization. We in communications would like to think that we own the category, or at least have some influence over it. But in reality these days, trust is built on the collective actions of all the people associated with your organization. Too often we can only try to manage it—or clean up a mess—as best we can.

So, let’s start with the very crooked path that leads to trust. The journey often begins with consistently favorable media, but can get derailed by a bad review, fake news, a random comment, an exchange with customer support, a doctored photograph, or your son-in-law’s conspiracy theories.

How to measure trust

Being stuck at home has led to a proliferation of disinformation and doubt. As a result, it’s vital to watch your organizational trust levels as closely as you do your own temperature and oxygen levels. Here’s how:

Step 1: Define trust as it applies to your organization

To measure trust in a bank is very different from measuring trust in a brand of sneakers, a health care organization, an airplane, or a government institution. So, to measure trust you must begin by looking at the 46 statements in the IPR’s Trust Measurement Guidelines and figure out which ones apply to your organization.

The statements are divided into six categories:

  1. Integrity/Competence/Credibility
  2. Satisfaction
  3. Commitment
  4. Control mutuality—the degree to which one party has influence over the other. In a trusting relationship each party perceives that the control is mutual.
  5. Communal relationships—each party succeeds by enabling the other party to succeed.
  6. Exchange relationships—it’s all about what you can get out of it.

Not all six will apply to every organization, some may not make any sense given your target audience and/or the industry you are in. So think about your target audiences, and then select the statements from the characteristics that are most important to your organization and for each group of your stakeholders.

Step 2: Make a list of every stakeholder group that can impact your trust score

To measure trust in your organization, you ask a statistically valid representative sample of each of your important stakeholder groups whether they agree or disagree with the statements in the Trust Measurement Guidelines. You will need to align the statements to the appropriate group(s) of stakeholders. How you do that depends very much on which group they are, and their relationship to your organization. Start with the stakeholder group that has the most impact on your desired goals and select as many appropriate statements as possible to test against that group.

The most important piece of this step is to make sure you are accounting for all the stakeholders who influence trust in your brand or organization. Typically, they should include:

  • Employees
  • Your neighbors and or local community
  • Customers, former customers who are likely to write reviews and potential customers who will read those reviews
  • Investors/donors
  • Influencers, e.g., reviewers, academics, etc.
  • Local regulatory or governmental officials
  • Board members

We understand you probably can’t measure your trust levels with all of them, so rank order them in terms of the impact of each audience group on your organizational priorities. Start by measuring the most important stakeholder group(s) first.

Step 3: Craft your questions so the data is useful

It’s not enough to just pick and choose statements to query your stakeholders about. You need other qualifying information so you know where your weakest link is, what you need to worry about, and what you can just leave alone for now.  So, you need to find out the following:

  • Longevity of their relationship with you:
    • How long have they been an employee or a customer?
    • How long ago did they become familiar with your organization?
    • How familiar are they with your organization?
    • What was their last interactions with you?
  • What aspects of your organization do they interact with?
  • What information sources do they use?
  • What information sources do they trust?
  • What is their gender, age, geographic location, etc. Ask all the basic demographic questions.
  • Ask why? If possible, insert a “Why do you feel that way?” question. Yes, it’s harder to analyze but it may give you the most insight into what problems need fixing.
  • Test, check, retest if necessary.

Step 4: Assemble your list

No one is doing in-person surveys these days, nor is anyone going to answer a phone call from an unknown number. So assume you will need a list of emails and/or text numbers to which to send your survey. Yes, you can still send them out in the mail, but few organizations have the time to wait for those results.

When we finally return to in-person gatherings, asking questions of people at events is a great way to get good data. But don’t hold your breath for a rapid return to this option.

There is nothing worse than getting your results and realizing they don’t really tell you what you need to know. This is why starting with a solid set of research objectives is essential. Check out this sample set of objectives.

Administer your survey to a small test group of recipients and see if the answers they give fulfill the objectives for the research. Make sure there is no misunderstanding of the questions, and that your scales and other criteria are clear.

Step 6: Hit send and pray, or pay

Before you hit send, we need to have an honest discussion about incentives. If you are surveying employees or board members you probably don’t need much of an incentive, but you will need to share the results with them.

For everyone else you need incentives. There are just too many surveys out there, thanks to pop-up NPS scores and free survey tools. You need to do make an effort to stand out from the crowd.

Given that you are measuring something as important as trust, it’s worth an investment in a good incentive. Do the math: If a statistically valid sample is 1000 people and you need to offer a $10 incentive, then that totals $10K. What do you think mistrust will cost you?

The actual value of that incentive will depend on your audience. A senior manager making $150K a year is unlikely to respond to a $5 Amazon gift card. They may, however, respond to a donation to a charity of their choice. For existing customers, it’s worth considering discount cards, tickets to events, or other offerings related to your business.

Step 7: Analyze results, find the weak links, and fix them

When your responses are in, make sure your data is in a spreadsheet with all the appropriate cross-tabs. Now answer the following questions.

Lowest Trust—Focus on your weakest links first, because they reveal the fastest way to improve your trust scores:

  • Where are we least trusted? Go back to your categories from Step 1 and compare responses by category. Is there one component in which you are the weakest?
  • Who trusts us the least?
    • Where do they get information?
    • What information sources do they trust?
    • What was their last interaction with you?
    • How long have they had a relationship with you?
    • How old are they?
    • Where do they live?

Highest Trust—Next, look at where you’re doing best.

  • Where are we strongest?
  • What element of trust do we do best on?
  • Who trusts us the most?
  • Where are we doing well? Can it be replicated?

Determine if you can replicate the actions of a particular group, or interactions within a particular audience. If you can, repeat with the next most crucial stakeholder group. ∞

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