Trust diminishes when people confront inconsistency. But let’s remember: recognizing the problem isn’t the problem; the problem is the problem. When brands launch new messaging that represents a dramatic change from well-known truths about an organization or their culture, that’s a problem. Their customers take note. When politicians flip flop and the media reports what they say, but not how it deviates from their previous statements, that’s a problem. Voters notice.

Creeping inconsistency is a sneaky thing.

These issues may not shift how we shop or how we vote in the short term. But over time, creeping inconsistency is a sneaky thing. It undermines our ability to learn and fit new information to our existing mental models. Inconsistency doesn’t just make brands look unprofessional; it adds to our cognitive load. It undermines our critical thinking skills, and our ability to evaluate information and trust expertise.

Cynicism is the enemy of trust.

That issue coincides with how social media has shifted our attention and values. Where we once sought out the perspective of experts and arbiters of reality, we turned instead to the perspective of friends, or people that seemed to have the same values. Whether you’re planning a vacation, picking a restaurant, or deciding what news item warrants attention in your newsfeed, ‘friends’ drive those choices. But since the 2016 election cycle, we’ve grown more aware and skeptical of our filter bubbles. Maybe that’s a good thing — but on the downside, it drives cynicism, and cynicism is the enemy of trust.

Regaining trust through content and design

When your users carry the baggage of cynicism, they counter even the most polished design and new marketing spin with doubt. Doubt slows sales cycles, turns people away from product information, and undercuts customer loyalty and mindshare. Moreover, we waste budget and time until we regain their trust.

We can regain trust by empowering our users through our choices in content and design. Empowered decision-making, where they feel like they get complete information in a familiar tone and with empathy, builds their confidence and enthusiasm to engage in continuous education.

Use a consistent voice

Organizations can rebuild trust by following a framework focused on three main areas: voice, volume, and vulnerability. Voice refers to the consistent and accessible verbal and visual language that an organization uses to express itself. When a brand changes over time, to roll out new offerings or update messaging, it runs the risk of alienating its customer base. But brand evolution doesn’t have to turn away customers. By using a consistent voice to educate customers about the roadmap, organizations can help maintain consumer confidence — not just in the brand, but in consumers’ knowledge of where it’s going.

We can look to examples from Mailchimp to see this idea in action: as the email marketing company evolved to offer ecommerce services, they maintained a consistent, familiar, conversational voice to bring customers into the process. They also found a balance between jargon and plain language. Jargon and technical terminology is sometimes necessary to convey their savvy of issues in running a store but plain language keeps customer-facing content engaging and accessible.

Mailchimp's e-commerce landing page uses an accessible brand voice that is consistent with its communications for email marketing services.
Mailchimp uses a consistent and accessible voice in all its communication.

Decide on the volume of information to share

As organizations like Mailchimp determine how to speak, they also have to determine how much to say — and the volume of information that reassures customers without intimidating them. The secret here? Offer enough content so that your audience gains a complete perspective to be successful with the information you provide. In some cases, that means offering long pages of copy, comparison tools, and illustrations; America’s Test Kitchen and Crutchfield, the electronics retailer, are famous for that kind of commitment to detail. In both examples, their respective audiences learn, grow, and gain confidence to act on their knowledge. Whether they sell cookbooks or camera lenses, their users are buying success — and a sense of empowerment.

In contrast, we can look to other examples where paring down content keeps users focused on their immediate goals. More transactional experiences are well suited to pithy copy, few off-page links, and visual confirmation that the content is comprehensive. Again, “enough” isn’t a character count, but a question of success.

 Electronics retailer Crutchfield establishes trust by using a variety of diagrams, copy, and content types to provide as much detail for customers as possible.
Electronics retailer Crutchfield uses a variety of diagrams, copy, and content types to provide as much detail for customers as possible.

Show your brand’s vulnerability

Finally, let’s dig into vulnerability — or how brands reveal they’re in progress, learning, fallible, and empathetic to their users because they share similar trials and tribulations. In earlier eras, brands worked hard to seem big, established, invincible — oftentimes, more than they actually were. Today, that’s not always the case. Kickstarter has helped introduce many brands to their audiences, along with open dialogue about the challenges of getting products to market. Brands there communicate updates, discoveries, and delays that mark the process of launching a new product in a frank and transparent tone. That shift in tone comes through for brands that thrive beyond the platform as well — and it accompanies an operational change in R&D and marketing too.

In another vote for vulnerability, more and more organizations embrace the opportunity to “prototype in public.” They share concepts, discuss the stumbling points, and ask for feedback, not just to vet final decisions but to more openly co-design with users. By collecting real-time feedback on new products, roadmap priorities, and even changes to the core website, they benefit in numerous ways. BuzzFeed, Mailchimp, Peak Design, and others who embrace this approach have fostered success, community, and customer loyalty. By bringing customers into the design process, those companies also help break barriers between customers and company; those customers often shift into the mindset of fervent product evangelists.

Peak Design's Travel Tripod became the most successful photography project in Kickstarter history by engaging backer's throughout the design process.
The Peak Design Travel Tripod became the most successful project in the history of Kickstarter in the photography section.

Organizations that operationalize vulnerability don’t just work for customers — they work with them. In order to make this approach successful, everyone on the team has to respect their users. Another example of respecting our users plays out when companies help their users to do the research, compare options — and possibly choose a competitor’s product. When Crutchfield, REI, or even Volkswagen offer deep product knowledge and put comparison tools front and center, they invest in education. Someone using Volkswagen’s vehicle comparison tool may realize a Subaru better fits their needs; the team at Volkswagen respects that choice. When a brand brings in competitors’ products or opposing viewpoints, it’s an act of humility and vulnerability that doesn’t always translate into immediate sales. But by respecting the customer and empowering them with knowledge, brands can ‘host the debate’ and drive longer-term customer loyalty.

By focusing on the triad of voice, volume, and vulnerability, we can engage our audiences from a point of mutual respect. Do you trust your users to bring their own knowledge to the table? Do you trust and expect them to continue learning? Do you empower their smart decisions by openly sharing the path and pitfalls in your own? Or do you greet those opportunities with doubt? If we can confront our own cynicism, we can design a way forward from our users’ cynicism. And that path leads to customer loyalty, social progress, and something greater: hope.