Why brands need to become ‘Trusted Gatekeepers’
I remember a time when algorithms weren’t very reliable. In 2001, navigation software had about a 50% success rate of bringing you where you needed to be, while a human nailed it about 85% of the time. Back then, if I had to choose between the advice of software or my co-pilot, I always picked the latter. Today, the algorithms do the trick about 99.9% of the journeys, while humans still platform at 85%. I prefer to ignore any humans sitting in the car with me for the benefit of the arrows in the very experienced machine in front of me. And the reason is trust, pure and simple.
Trusting algorithms over humans
Trusting machines works exactly the same way as trusting a human: if Phil always pays my invoices on time, I will trust Phil. If he doesn’t, I won’t. Exactly like that, if booking.com keeps suggesting hotels that turn out to be exactly what I like, I will trust booking.com, quite blindly. If it doesn’t, I won’t.
Even companies tend to underestimate this simple law of trust, in the sense that most believe that people are still a lot more comfortable trusting a human than an algorithm. But a recent study showed quite the opposite: that people tend rely more on advice when they think it comes from an algorithm than a person. Trust is no longer an issue of digital versus human, but of delivering what you promise. It’s about continuity.
Part of the (algo)rhythm of daily life
Even those luddites who claim that they will not let themselves be manipulated by algorithms because they cling to their freedom of choice and thought, have reality rooting against them. I always ask them if they bother to click on Google’s second page if they do any research, and the answer is almost invariably “no”. For me, that closes the case: they do trust Google to customize the most relevant hits for their context on the first page.
Algorithms occupy such a big part of our lives, that they have become invisible to us. This has a tremendous effect on our buying behavior, and on the choices we make. I always like to give the example of Amazon Echo with its sidekick ‘brain’ Alexa. Let’s say that the average consumer buys about 200-300 ‘routine’ products per month: like toilet paper, tooth paste or coffee filters. If we’re honest, most of us do not care about the brands of these ‘unsexy’ products. And if we do, we tend to purchase the same ones. So, we are either in some sort of a routine buying pattern or we look for the most interesting price promotions. In the future, these 200-300 products will almost automatically find their way to our home. It will be like electricity. Those products will just be there and you won't ask any questions about them anymore. Only when those products don't show up, you will start asking questions. Of course, a company like Amazon plays a leading role in creating this form of 'automated commerce'. Amazon Echo users start to trust Alexa’s algorithms to do the groceries in their place, and as long as it keeps delivering what they like, they will keep on doing so. Trust is about patterns, positive ones. And if there is one thing that algorithms excel at, it’s patterns, right?
How brands will become trusted gatekeepers
If algorithms are driving our lives and if trust is their fuel, then brands have no other choice than becoming trusted gatekeepers. An example of a company that is suffering in becoming a trusted gatekeeper is Facebook. Over the years they have evolved into one of the dominant gatekeepers of information, deciding about what we see and what we don’t based on our past behavior. But they broke our trust during the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the many trust decreasing stories in 2018. The tragic part is that Facebook is very good at gatekeeping, at filtering the information that is relevant for us, but once trust is broken, it’s very hard to repair. And it has been greatly struggling with that these past months. Today, Facebook can stop 95% of all 'bad' content on their platform. 95% is not bad, but the remaining 5% can cause a lot of damage. ONly when they reach 99,99%, they will again be seen as a trusted gatekeeper of information.
It’s clear that the mission of brands in this matter is twofold: one part advising and curating in an efficient manner and one part trust. You need both to grow. That’s why we are clearly seeing a shift among the Big tech players from focus on world dominance to trusted gatekeepers. Being a gatekeeper requires sector expertise. Creating test requires consistently doing what you promise. Over and over again. Trust in a world of AI may be difficult to achieve without full transparancy of the systems behind it. Today it is a black box. That’s why I believe that this evolution will trigger a wave of algorithmic transparency in the long run. Trust may be about consistency, but it grows a lot faster and sticks a lot harder when it is pushed by transparency.
Amazon is for instance doing a pretty great job at that: if you ask Alexa for tooth paste, it will buy the same one that you have always been using, and not the most expensive one, nor the most sponsored one. It knows that your ‘usual brand’ will make you happy and that this is essential for the continuity of your relationship. It has curated like a friend, not like a salesman, and proven itself to be trustworthy. Coolblue (a very popular Dutch e-commerce company), too, outshines a lot of similar players, with its ‘Coolblue’s choice’: it always offers the 3 most popular products to customers. This pattern of trust is monetized through the fact that the bigger part of its revenue comes from these filtered choices. The same goes for Netflix: its algorithms excel at gatekeeping, which is why they are so immensely popular.
If you think that this rule of “efficient gatekeeping + trust” only applies to the Big Tech players, think again. The latter have changed the buying behavior of all consumers, which mean that the traditional players too must ask themselves: what do I excel at, and how can I become a trusted gatekeeper in the matter? In a world that will evolve towards dominant AI platforms, the most convenient, most consistent and most trustworthy will gather the biggest market share. Make sure you are part of that game.