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It's Election Day! But in This Age of Media Distrust, How Can Businesses Win People Over? Show, don't tell, how you've got your customers' best interests at heart.

By Harold Li

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

natasaadzic | Getty Images

For decades, young brands have relied on the news media to establish their credibility among customers. Getting featured in a newspaper, magazine or TV program meant that some of the trust readers and viewers had in those outlets would rub off onto you and your brand, building customer trust in your fledgling business.

Related: You Can't Lead Effectively Without Trust

But in an era when people have stopped trusting the media venues they once counted on for reliable information, how do you establish your brand?

Americans are losing trust in the media -- our survey numbers.

In October 2018, my company conducted a Google Survey of 400 American adults ages 18 and up. When we asked which source they trusted more for accurate and unbiased information, in the run-up to today's 2018 Midterm Election:

  • 28 percent said they trusted news media (55 years and older were at 32 percent)
  • 6 percent named social media (here, women were the low, at 4 percent)
  • 6 percent said they trusted candidates (millennials were a surprising high, at 9 percent)
  • 60 percent said they didn't trust any of these sources

These findings, though nonscientific, still aligned with the lack of overall faith in the election overall. This was echoed by other findings in our study, such as one in which 63 percent of those surveyed expressed concern about the security of voting systems in today's vote.

In conducting this survey, we also wondered which of the "two largest, most popular" media sources those surveys trusted more as a source of accurate and unbiased information for the 2018 midterm elections. And here, 76 percent in our study said they trusted the New York Times more than Facebook; and only 24 percent said they trusted Facebook more than the Times. (There was less than a 2 percent variance across all gender and age groups.)

Trust, of course, is crucial to attracting and retaining customers. But when a majority of customers no longer trust traditional or newer media channels as sources of information, what can businesses do to establish themselves as trustworthy?

How to win customer trust in an age of distrust.

There are three pillars you need in order to build trust, according to Harvard Business School professor (and former Uber exec) Frances Frei, who, in a TED talk, said:

"There's three things about trust. If you sense that I am being authentic, you are much more likely to trust me. If you sense that I have real rigor in my logic, you are far more likely to trust me. And if you believe that my empathy is directed towards you, you are far more likely to trust me."

Based on Frei's tenets, here are three tips for entrepreneurs trying to succeed in an era when the public is growing increasingly suspicious of institutions and traditional forms of authority.

1. Be authentic and build your community around this authenticity.

First, be clear about what you as a brand value. Everything must stem from this. As Simon Sinek has famously said, "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it."

Identify what your team genuinely cares about and deliver meaningful, impactful content that reflects these values and benefits your customers. Our friends at Mozilla, for example, found in a study that among those customers familiar with the organization's work to support internet health -- including web literacy, policy and advocacy programs and technology innovations -- 69 percent were more likely to be engaged users and supporters of the Mozilla Firefox browser.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Can Navigate the Crisis of Trust

Given this insight, the company launched a branded podcast covering key internet health-related topics, such as net neutrality, personal data and surveillance. Hosted by longtime tech media personality Veronica Belmont, the podcast got over 1 million downloads in its first seven-episode season.

Not everyone can (or should) launch a podcast, but every brand can find ways to create value-driven content and work with trusted experts to boost the credibility of that content and, by extension, the brand itself.

Takeaway: Be sure to communicate consistently and regularly. How and how often we talk about certain topics implicitly indicates how much we value them. Nothing screams "We don't care as much as we claim to" louder than a neglected blog or social media account.

If you can't figure out what content your community finds useful, why not ask? Just as you seek to engage and understand your customers during product development. you should involve these people in your content and communications process. Listen to them and iterate based on their feedback. When your customers can see that you care about the same things that they do, you'll be able to build the community you want around your brand.

2. Show, don't tell, how you've got customers' best interests at heart.

Trust in institutions is rapidly eroding, in large part because people no longer see leaders and organizations acting in ways that align with their interests. This is particularly true if your business is novel and complex in ways that are not logically intuitive for customers.

Instead of simply trying to explain how you're acting in the service of your customers, offer evidence by being transparent. Take data privacy, for example. With massive data breaches regularly making headlines, it's no surprise that consumers are rapidly losing faith in the ability of companies to do the right thing.

Our survey found that more than 7 in 10 of those surveyed (71 percent) wanted to be able to vote on whether or not the government can regulate online personal data collection. Notably, this finding was consistent across gender and all age groups -- all within 2 percent.

Takeaway: It's not enough to say, "Your data is safe with us" or, "We're collecting this data to improve your experience." Customers know that they can no longer believe that. Customers need to see exactly what data you're collecting, what you're doing with it and how you're protecting it. This will go a long way to help your customers feel confident entrusting their business to you.

At ExpressVPN, we've published extensive details in our Trust Center about our approach to security and what measures are in place to protect customer data. We've also worked with the non-profit Center for Democracy & Technology to establish a list of questions that any trustworthy VPN should be able to answer about its privacy, security and data-use practices.

3. Listen to your community with empathy.

So, you've built your community around your brand and your customers can see that you've got their backs. Now what happens when someone from your community comes to you with feedback … and it's negative?

When most of us get criticism, sometimes our first instinct is to be defensive, to adopt an "us versus them" mentality, especially when our team members have poured their earts and souls into a project. Resist that instinct. Remember that your customers are offering feedback because they see themselves as part of your community; they want to be involved in shaping your brand. This is a good thing!

Takeaway: Try to see things from their point of view, validate their perspective and listen with an open mind. Ask them questions. And work with them to find a resolution that doesn't just satisfy them, but makes your product or service better.

One brand that learned the hard way that it needed to be better at listening was Uber. After a series of controversies hurt its business in early 2017, Uber took steps to make its relationship with drivers less combative and more trusting. The company talked with thousands of drivers -- one on one, in groups, at events, and through surveys -- and used the lessons learned to implement changes such as tipping, and payment for wait times in a "180 Days of Change" campaign.

Uber was able to bounce back quickly from its rocky start in 2017, growing business by 15 percent from March to September, according to credit card analytics company Second Measure.

If you and your community can work together, use criticism from customers, and transform your brand for the better, then you'll strengthen your credibility as a brand, attract even more customers and turn your existing customers into evangelists.

Related: Want to Build a High-Performance Team? Start with Trust.

In an age where people are growing more cynical and suspicious of traditional news outlets and social media, there are still ways you can establish trust with your customers.

Harold Li

Vice President, ExpressVPN

Harold Li is vice president at ExpressVPN and part of the company’s senior leadership team, working on product, customer experience, business development and marketing. As a privacy and security expert at the company, he also works closely with advocacy organizations such as the EFF, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Fight for the Future, OpenMedia and the Open Source Technology Improvement Fund. Li has previously worked at Uber and consulted for HP Enterprise, Qualcomm and Spotify.

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