Not so long ago consumers  – in fact, almost everyone – were suspicious of the internet. It was seen as a wild-west environment where nothing could be taken at face value and it was absolutely not somewhere you would trust with your bank account details. It took a good few years before that trust deficit was overcome.

Times change. Today we have reached a point where it is impossible to imagine the world’s economic markets – never mind individual traders – operating without an online component. There are, indeed, entire industries that have built up on the basis of electronic transactions. Amazon and ebay, are perhaps the most familiar brands out there making the most of that shift in trust. But, for example, the multi-billion dollar online gaming/gambling industry represents an entirely virtual product that leverages an absolute level of fiscal trust. To put that in context, the online gaming market runs to the tune of $41 billion in the US market alone.  That’s a lot of trust.

Apple keyboard (PD)

For the gaming industry the trust equation extends beyond a simple faith in the security of the medium. Customers of online casinos need to feel comfortable about the good faith, reliability and transparency of the people they are trusting with their hard earned cash. It’s an ideal environment to explore the question, where does this trust derive from? How do you generate $41 billion worth of trust?

The familiar and entirely conventional calls to action that we see splashed across such sites – e.g. click here to play online bingo at 32Red.com, bet on Paddy Power now, play on 888 Casino now etc. – evidently take that commitment entirely for granted. So this isn’t a story of super salesmanship in any overt sense.

The generation of trust online is a cumulative process, building up from a baseline faith in the technology. Consistency and relevance of content were identified by academic researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands as being the key factors in customer trust in the gaming industry as long ago as 2002. A secondary factor was identified as a high level of usability.

A 2008 study of online poker players in Sweden (including professional players) produced very similar results.  The clarity of a site’s design and its technical reliability were again prominent on the list of trust-generating factors. Others included the accessibility and effectiveness of the customer service and responsible gaming messages.

These remain interesting findings. Evidently trust is a volatile commodity. It may take a while to generate but it can be easily surrendered. And the evidence from the gaming industry appears to show that what online providers (not just the gaming providers) need to focus on is providing a familiar, smooth and reassuring passage through the pages of their website.

Common to both surveys (and others) is that trust is generated by aesthetic as much as functional attributes. If a site looks good and is slick and glitch-free it is well on the way to scoring high marks for trust. A streamlined proposition and a consistent rhetoric of concern are additional planks in that delivery.

It is also widely acknowledged that webpages are more informal and more likely to address the reader directly in the second person (‘you’) than used to be the case. A 2011 project at the University of Leeds showed how the BBC generates its peculiar status as a trusted news source by using direct and informal language in concert with a well-massaged user experience. Just like the online casino industry, the BBC offerings rest entirely on the generation of a relationship with their audience/consumers based on trust.\

But just like a salesman with a good handshake, strong eye contact and a nice line in patter we should be aware that these are all techniques.  We are interacting with screen based technologies rather than a flesh and blood human being, but it is worth remembering that the bottom line remains the same.  Winning our trust is the first step towards closing a deal.

Trust is not the same as blind faith. It’s a distinction that is worth bearing in mind – especially for those of us who grew up suspicious of the internet!

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