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John Gerzema: Trust And Transparency In The ‘Now Web’

Betaworks, an incubator for ideas that might work in the era of real-time, exemplifies the new trust model made possible by the immediate and...

John Gerzema
John Gerzema on January 20, 2011.

Betaworks is headquartered in the meatpacking district where it functions as a sort of incubator for ideas that might work in the era of real time information and response. One of its firms, Twitterfeed, is the largest publisher of posts on Twitter. Chartbeat, another Betaworks company, provides real-time Web analytics in the form of instant reports on visitors to Internet sites and their activities. And fifty million people each day now “crunch” their links down to size using Bit.ly.

Another Betaworks enterprise, called ChallengePost, has coined itself “A Marketplace for Challenges.” It lets users post problems or browse challenges posted by others to earn money or praise by finding solutions to problems. All Betaworks activities depend, in one way or another, on the active and continual participation of lots of people in trusting relationships. The online tools they offer are upgraded and improved according to patterns of use and feedback. When something goes wrong, someone in the community notices and company operators get a chance to fix it.

Tony Haile, general manager of Chartbeat and Twitterfeed, told us this problem-report-solution scenario recently played out when a client, GetSatisfaction.com changed the terms of the contract it offers for its services. Jason Fried of 37 Signals, noted the change, and Chartbeat noticed that lots of people were visiting Get Satisfaction’s customer service page and making their service a “trending topic” on Twitter. “Within minutes they clarified the change and initiated a discussion with Jason and the broader community. By responding immediately to the criticism Get Satisfaction realized they had the data to transform criticism into dialogue.

Tony says, “Authenticity is now about whether your customers can feel your struggles. When they see the process of how a new company tries to go about solving problems, they get a window into their thinking and begin to root for them to succeed.” That struggle is a very clear mark of the company’s commitment to the service and the community. Failures become talking points and new developments bubble up from the conversations.

Betaworks, CEO and founder John Borthwick told us that under the old rules of trust a firm could conduct itself honorably and reliably for many years and attain a certain status or authority. But then, with a single breach, all of that trust was gone and customers abandoned the relationship. The trouble in this model was that companies set themselves up as institutions, almost like parent figures to consumers who were correspondingly almost like children. But since institutions are as flawed as any individual person, they inevitably disappoint people in the same way that parents disappoint children. As a result modern companies are showing their human side, while sharing information and communicating constantly.

The new trust model made possible by the immediate and instantaneous flow of information—a type of technology Betaworks helps to develop and promote in what Borthwick calls “the now web”—is much more like a relationship of equals in which everyone knows what is going on all the time. This is what happens when people share news or events, developments, and even mistakes, as they occur. “In the social web, making mistakes is an opportunity, not a crisis,” Borthwick says. “Mistakes create an opening for building a relationship.

Betaworks is one of fifty companies interviewed for the Wall Street Journal best-seller: Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Live.

John Gerzema (@johngerzema/twitter) is president of Brandasset Consulting and Young & Rubicam’s Brandasset Valuator, the world’s largest database of consumer behavior, attitudes and values. Michael d’antonio is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author and reporter

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