Ep 24: Building trust in innovations and the future of social with Neville Hobson

In this episode of Serious Social, Katy Howell is joined by Neville Hobson, award-winning blogger and podcaster, to discuss the challenge of building trust in innovations and the future of social.

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Welcome to the Serious Social podcast, created by the straight-talking social media experts at immediate future.

In this episode, we’re exploring the challenge of building trust in innovations and the future of social.

Welcome to Serious Social and we’ve got a real treat today. I’m joined by Neville Hobson, award-winning blogger and podcaster with extensive experience and influence in social. He’s currently director of digital at the Internet Society. And he was previously at IBM, but Neville is best known as “King of Pods”, known as the co-host of Hobson and Holtz, a monthly podcast talking about changing technologies, behaviours, and organisations from USA to Europe. That’s been running since 2005. Also, co-founder and co-presenter of the SDF podcast with Thomas Stoeckle and Sam Knowles, focusing on making big data less intimidating for marketing and communications professionals. He’s also, author, the list goes on, author of 5,000 plus articles. So, Neville knows everything there is to know about digital and social coms.

And we’re going to explore today, the challenge of building trust in innovations and the future of social.

I first met Neville, when web 2.0 was the way we described what we know as social today. So, a long, long time ago.

Welcome Neville. How have you been through the last few months?

– It’s a pleasure to be here at Katy. Thank you very much, indeed for inviting me. How have I been in last few months? So, covering the period of the lockdown. It’s certainly been an interesting year, 2020, one that we’ll write off so let’s forget 2020, broadly speaking. I think there’s some things we can gain from all these seemingly awful experiences, but I guess if I answered your question directly, it would be, what have I enjoyed most about this is not having to travel anywhere. That’s been great.

– Yeah, no, I agree. It’s been the London commute particular I haven’t missed at all.

So, let’s get cracking.

So, trust is front of mind right now with everyone given fake news or misinformation and the general bad behaviour on social, how can brands and organisations build trust through social?

– I think that’s a question that has been around for decades. Has it not, generally speaking? And social is a set of tools through which you can do many things and to engage with people. So, my short answer to that question is something I’d say to, anyone really is, know your audience. It’s the first thing you do. And this will be to many listeners or viewers of this, like, you know, communication 101, this is a basic, yet it amazes me how often people get some of this stuff wrong or don’t even have it in their planning.

So, knowing your audience is the absolute essential first step before you do anything other than in your mind, you know what you want to achieve, but you ask yourself, who am I communicating with? So, you need to know who your audience is and what they’re looking for. Are you going to deliver what your audience is looking for? So that’s your first step to building trust.

The second; be authentic. And these are not new things, okay? These have been around for years, but be yourself, be accessible in ways that resonate with your audience. So, authenticity is a huge one. Don’t you know, marketing speak we all joke about these phrases often, but too much is seen of inauthentic communication. So, you need to be authentic, be true to your values. Don’t try and twist things for want of a cute message or video or whatever it might be. But if you’ve established your values as an organisation and what you’re trying to try and mention your vision, all those things, and you have a value proposition for yourself, be true to that, because that will shine through in your communication. And these three, in my opinion, are the true key aspects of building trust.

– Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Because I think there’s a lot of comments about authentic and people say authentic, transparent, all that kind of stuff. But the real challenge is that often in organisations, what tends to happen with good social marketing is it gets sort of washed and rinsed through, to the echelons of stakeholders that want to get involved and what you get out of the other end, it may be not quite as genuine, but or it’s so bland as to be pointless in my view.

– Yeah.

– No, totally agree. I mean, you see it play out on, in some TV ads when it comes to my mind, if you watch lunchtime TV, I don’t, but yesterday I did, I was actually skimming through some channels and I came across one of the channels that comes out of the Freeview that I can’t remember which one it was, but it’s full of things for like, you know, life insurance for the over 50s, washing powders and stuff like that. And I just looked at three ads and they all resonated for me in the most awful way; of stilted inauthentic, utterly untrue to brand values of any type whatsoever that I could see. You know, real people don’t behave like this. And yet I see this every time I look at TV, which is one reason I tend not to, are ads unlike this. So, when you see a good one, it really does resonate, and you remember it for all the right reasons. And unfortunately, in my eyes certainly, there’s not enough of that.

– So, how do you mitigate the risk of cancel culture? I mean, one of the things that not only is this sort of accelerated through lockdown, but Brandwatch has just done a bit of research and 80% of consumers say it’s important that businesses operate according to its values and principles and consumers prioritise those brands that care for their staff, sustainability and helping the vulnerable. And the reaction now is quite severe, isn’t it? If you don’t behave in the way consumers want you to. So how, how should brands take that?

– Yeah, absolutely. Take it very, very seriously when you see reports like this. There are a couple of reports out this week from the likes of eMarketer and in the U.S, Sprout Social did an interesting one that talk exactly to this point. They don’t wrap it up with cancelled culture. Yet it is all to do with a retaining, if you will, the loyalty and interest of your audiences at a time when competition is absolutely ferocious for all the reasons that are not good at all. Layoffs, shutdowns, going out of business, all of that going on in so many different countries that now more than ever, you need to present yourself, to your market as it were, as a trusted partner, if you will, that your brand, your product, your service will meet their needs in ways that are absolutely in line with what they’re expecting from you.

So, it’s not just the brand, it’s those other things you mentioned. Your behaviour, and from a social responsibility point of view, so again, it comes down to understanding your audience. If the issues are important to your audience, then you need to emulate that in your engagement with those audiences. So, mitigating the risk. That’s an interesting question. I think to me, these are the things that will help you do that, but I tend to look at it as well of what you need to do to increase your engagement in the face of competition where, people are looking at brands, if you will, for direction and leadership, not just in, we sell a cool product or service, that gives you an opportunity to do that exceptionally well. Some are, some of the big brands in particular, and those are the ones you tend to notice because they’re all over the media and the social space as well. There are smaller ones too, but from a big brand point of view, there are some standouts I think, which are, which play to their strengths and their skills and their understanding and empathy. And indeed humility, all these nice words, we can check off the boxes on, they demonstrate that in their behaviours. So, there’s you know, there’s no time to not do this. Now is definitely the time to do this.

– And it’s funny, isn’t it? Because back in the day when we sat on a few round tables, we used to talk about the inside out organisation, do you remember that?

– Yeah (chuckles).

– And the inside needs to be outside, but actually it’s never truer, it’s never truer, you cannot fake it either when it comes to social coms yet, you know, you can’t pretend to be what you’re not. And those, for instance, that boycotted Facebook in recent weeks, who, when people began to dig around as to who they’re using to manufacture or what products they’re actually selling got kind of a little bit caught out, and it’s not about throwing stones or putting people with sticks. But the reality is you really cannot people over the cracks when it comes to social.

– No, you can’t. And indeed, some of those big brands in particular, who were very vocal in the rationale for boycotting Facebook, have skeletons in their closets when it comes to things like that, ethical business practises, manufacturing procedures in countries where regulation is very lax. And that doesn’t sit well with consumers here. And in fact, it never really has, but I think people recognise, many people recognise they have a far more power to influence which brands are going to succeed or not by not buying their products or buying them or whatever it might be. So, these are, definitely, moments for recognising that new reality out there now, and paying very close attention to what’s happening.

– So that kind of brings us sweetly on to talking about influences versus advocates on why employees matter a great deal right now.

– Well, that’s the inside-out, right? That’s absolutely a way of expressing it to where your employees, assuming you are the type of organisation that fosters the relationship with employees and provides a really good workplace experience for everyone, commit all the stuff that’s HR related let’s say. That makes your employees feel they really do want to talk about you with pride and they know that they can, outside the organisation. So, there’s two things at play here, I believe.

There’s one which is where you specifically want employees to do certain things that supports something for instance. And then there’s the day-to-day natural human relationship behaviour, where people will encounter others on social networks, particularly, and the topic will come up either reactively, where they can talk about, well, I work for so and so, and we do X or proactively, where they will seek out opportunities to say, you know, I worked for this fantastic company. We make these great products or whatever, and they need to feel they’re trusted to do that. And that comes back again to this word trust in the workplace. That’s a challenging time for everyone because loyalty is diminished hugely through things like, for example, layoffs, redundancies, as we call it in the UK; restructuring, whatever that means people lose their jobs, or there’s a climate of fear and so forth in organisations that’s not new at all. So, loyalty diminishes when employers behave that way. And so, employees look for jobs every moment to be more secure. Think of some industries where this is particularly acute. I think the one that comes to my mind first off is the airline industry, where we’ve seen some huge numbers of people being made redundant and restructuring and organisations going on makes people very insecure and not likely to trust you. So, employees, I think are your absolute best ever advocates. I’m not using the word influence because that’s a different thing altogether, but it would pay benefits to any organisation to foster those relationships. So, your employees are your advocates externally.

– I couldn’t, I just could not agree with you more. And the hesitancy over building profiles of employees in case they leave, of course, there’s always a bit of a challenge for leadership teams within brands, but they kind of have to get over themselves in my view (laughing),

– Yeah.

– They just, you know, the reality is staff will come and go, but you treat your employees well and you promote them and support them and actually they will go on as, you know, they will go on even when they’ve left

– Yeah.

– Being positive about your organisation.

– Exactly right. So, if someone does leave and you said its reality, people are going to change careers through natural cycles. And there’s research galore that talk about this. And it’s not something that’s like, oh my God, we had no idea. Of course, we do. But the best situation is someone leaves goes away and works for a different organisation, and then five, 10 years down the line, they’re still talking about you. They’re still talking about this great company they worked for that hopefully has gone from strength to strength and done these things. And it’s clear their contribution to that. What comes across of course is the absolute joy at having been there and the relationship they still have with that organisation.

So those are things that, are soft things people tend not to really pay too much attention to it, but that is a nurturing case. That’s a long life really, but it speaks volumes about the organisation that you are in or used to work for that fosters that kind of linkage between people within the organisation. So, when they’re there, they talk about you glowingly,

when they’re gone, they talk about your glowingly. So, and that’s great. And, the companies often talk about people who used to be there that they were great. So, there’s, you know, rosy benefit everywhere in this, but in a climate of such mistrust, it’s risky, that is looking fragile let’s say, in which case, again, more than ever is a time to pay attention to nurturing those relationships, whether they’re customers or employees or shareholders, all that knitting together of connectivity between those different groups. But I think everyone calls stakeholders still in your success and their success. It just makes total sense and I truly get bemused when I see STEM examples of this just not happening.

– Yeah, yeah me too, me too. It’s a journey as they say

– Yeah. bit of a long one, but yes, it’s a journey.

So, let’s move on to topic that I know you and I are both, we love innovation. We love the new and shiny.

– Yeah.

– And so, given the need for better networks, what would a better network, what might it look like?

– Yeah, it’s a great question. And my answer isn’t about the greatest tech or offering the nicest experiences in the chat room none of that. They’re quite simple. So, what would a better social network look like. It has been a topic that’s, I’ve seen a number of people talking about in recent months, in light of the increasing reality you see around you in some of the established networks and the ugly behaviours that you encounter all the time with anger, the sheer anger of people, the trolls, no matter who you are or what you say, someone’s going to pile in and tear it to pieces. And you have no idea who they are or what their agenda is. They clearly do have an agenda of some kind and all of this is so ugly, and no one seems to be able to stop it.

So, I hear more people talking about bad experiences on social networks, because of things like this, then great experiences they’re having, unless as I do spend time in private groups and have closed wall discussions with people that have been vetted in some form or another, you might not necessarily know them all. And over time that shows the behaviours of people are pleasant, not ugly. So, to me, a better social network, the first thing (chuckles) to me is, it has to be one that doesn’t treat its members as fodder for enrichment at the expense of those members and no names mentioned. We probably know who we’re mostly talking about in terms of perception. So, you know, your data’s stolen or someone’s hived it off. And they obviously wouldn’t tell you about this or the terms and conditions are so impenetrable that they point out to, well, you know what, on page 97, that clause six, you didn’t see that, did you? It said we can do what the hell we like we data when you agreed to sign up. So, all of that is happening that you’ve got to stop that. You’ve got to look after and protect your information, safeguard it as if it is theirs, although, maybe they don’t care about their own, but they need to care about yours. And show genuine honesty and humility that helps build trust. And those are the, to my mind, three basic conditions to be in place. And I don’t see that anywhere right now.

– No, I think you’re absolutely right where you do see it will be private networks, whether that’s a locked account or something. I belong to Guild where there are a number of

brilliant groups, but it’s almost like the individuals that are in it are more accountable and they are managed as well, they’re managed communities. So, you know.

– Is this like deja vu full circle back to pre-social media days when forums were around with the moderation, all that kind of thing? Possibly, I mean that hasn’t really gone away in totality. You still got that to a certain extent, but we’re seeing something I suspect trend might be the word to apply to it. Where we’re seeing people withdrawing from public discourse even on networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn into private. So, Facebook people are sticking up the private padlock sign and you can’t read their tweets or engage with them even unless you’re invited in ditto on groups on LinkedIn and Facebook that are private as opposed to open. So, I belong to quite a few on Facebook and a handful on LinkedIn that are just like that. And thinking about it the other day, overall, the experiences are pleasant. And I enjoy being there, because there are no trolls, there’s disagreement sure, there’s a discussion discourse. So that’s the whole point of it, but there’s no ugliness that I observe. So, when there is, and of course, some people might try it, they get booted out and that requires, it’s, you know, how can you describe it, right?

There’s no one answer to everything because you got to add into the equation here, Katy. I mean, this is the reality of human behaviour because we’re people and we see what’s happening in the real world all around us, the good and the bad and the ugly, and that is replicated on social networks. So, will there ever be a place that is this rosy, lovely walled garden? Probably not. And indeed, something like that actually doesn’t have much of appeal because you got to have disagreement for conversation and engagement, different points of view. Yet we are a society that we like to believe that we’re civilised and so forth, but again, taking into account real world behaviours, we can only, well, do our best to mitigate the evil effects of that.

– So, I just couldn’t (laughing), I couldn’t say more about that because that’s fantastic. But authenticity, I think is very big for brands, particularly if they’re going to be part of that kind of more closed network. But I wonder if you think tech like VR and AR will help kind of bring that real life and virtual together to deliver more genuine content, maybe?

– Yeah. It’s an interesting one. Augmented reality, virtual reality, add into the picture mixed reality. So, AR, VR and MR. Where mixed is a mixture of all of the above, let’s say together with other communication methods that live up to an experience, I suppose. So, are we talking about experiential communication? It reminds me of the hopes and expectations of virtual worlds, like second life for now over a decade ago when that first came out. Arguably it’s ahead of its time, because the, the technical infrastructure, in terms of screen resolutions of monitors, speeds of the hardware, graphics capability, wasn’t to the level required to really maximise on that. Second life still around. I mean, I joined in 2006, I still am there. I go in and visit about once a quarter. And there’s my little avatar where I last left it, you know, but the screen and the whole software experience that gives you what you’re looking at visually, wow, is it different to what it was then. So, I have friends and business acquaintances who are big on virtual reality headsets. That you wrap yourself up in one of these things. I’m not so keen on those because I prefer the kind of peripheral thing. But we’re not yet at a stage where, that’s a hologram basically. You don’t need to be fixed on a two dimensional screen. You get a 3D experience. We’re not quite there mainstream with that yet. Now that definitely would be something, I think that is a mountain mover if it’s mainstream, but it’s not. So, would these things help, you know, deliver more genuine content? Yes, but I don’t see them doing that more so than any other tool or channel if it’s deployed in the right way. Because this is all about engagement. You could argue that well, it’s not, it’s about giving people the experience at the moment. Yeah, but that’s part of engagement because you do that two or three times and you’re engaging with people that you’ve probably hooked them into a relationship with you. Look at gaming, look at the gaming industry, look at what’s happening with gaming, where you have people who, I mean this is now, is it mainstream probably is where you’ve got these contests that go on for days literally. A big money at stake with this and the skill and talent of those individuals who play these games and, you know, engaged with others doing this, it’s really quite something. We can learn from that in the organisational context. And indeed, the word gamification was buzzed wording around about two or three years ago. This to my mind gaming per se is actually makes that a real possibility. And that embraces AR, VR and MR I would say. So, you’ve got the potential there.

I guess the thing is it, can it be mainstream as opposed to niche just a handful of organisations doing this kind of thing? It isn’t there yet, so it’s got a way to go, but it could be truly something. If all the planets aligned in these regards and that you’ve got a story to tell, are these the best tools to tell them, that help others tell your story? That’s how I tend to see it.

– Yes. And I have to, I can’t wait. I mean, there are rumours of new glasses and all sorts are going to come along. I have to say I can’t wait. I’ll be really honest with you because I like you spent, I remember spending a very, very rainy Saturday, creating my second life avatar, and couldn’t make the hair set on its head.

– Yeah (laughing)

– And I don’t know why I ended up being bald for the first six months, but yes, apparently there’s a resurgence in second life in the last few months.

– Yeah. The company behind it, Linden Lab, have got a successor in the works they’ve had for quite a while now, which is now in public availability. I find it a lot more complicated than second life, but the graphics are utterly astounding truly, and the tools to build your virtual self are way simpler than they were. So, things have moved along.

– Yeah.

– There’s a number of other companies with these environments in the works as well so, are we about to see this emerging? Well, time will tell.

– Fingers crossed. Fingers crossed it sooner rather than later.

– Yeah.

– So, I think very, very quickly we have to get onto a very brief view. What’s your opinion, TikTok or Reels?

– Well, I’ve not used Reels. I do use TikTok and a very discreet user, more a viewer than the creator. I find TikTok exceptionally compelling without any question, it’s ease of use, the sheer scope and scale of people’s imagination of what they can do with a tool like that are truly mind blowing. Not impressed with brand behaviour, from what I’ve seen on TikTok, the words authentic and so forth don’t really feature from what I’ve seen. I may have been missing the good ones, but what I seen, I’m not too impressed. Reels, I think Facebook are seeking opportunity here possibly in light of political changes that are influencing a lot of what’s happening in this space right now in America particularly. But they don’t seem to have it according to every review I’ve read so far, it’s hugely complicated to compare it to TikTok. And the kind of learning curve is steep. And none of the tech journals I read are impressed with it. And so, I’m not rushing to try it, so I guess, but it’s hard to give a real thing without the experience of diving into it. And I’ve not, but people I pay attention to who write in some of the tech journals don’t rate it too highly. Even mainstream media, New York times in America has a scathing review of it. So, have Facebook missed the point? I don’t think so because they’re in for a long game with things like this. But I do believe that with the political situation in America, with the U.S. and China, from the politics behind all of that and all this stuff about banning TikTok, you know, who knows what’s going to happen within the next two to three months? So, it’s a space to watch without any doubt. And certainly, I’m waiting for someone particularly at a big brand to go public with saying, this is what we do with Reels and wow, it’s amazing. I’m waiting for that moment.

– Yeah, I think, yeah, I think its still very early days, isn’t it? And it’s a wee bit forced at the moment, Reels feels a bit contrived, but we’ll see.

Thank you so much, Neville, I think we’ve covered

– Welcome

– some really interesting topics so, know your audience if you want to be trusted.

– Exactly.

– Think about your employees as your advocates and start, you know, trusting them. And when it comes to new networks, maybe that’s the way of the private network. Maybe things are going to get more locked down and closed down. And best of all, the best point was about experiential and VR, AR and MR. My word we love an acronym but thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure having you.

– Likewise, Katy.

– Thank you.

– My pleasure too, thank you.

– Fabulous, next week, we’ll have another Serious Social from Immediate Future giving you more tips and ideas and thoughts on the latest. Thank you very much for watching.

If you’re after more know-how to break the social boring, subscribe now and check out the show notes for links to our website and social profiles.

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