Trust is Not Reputation

Four words can have a big impact: Trust is not reputation.

But what does that mean? This year especially it seems the two words have been thrown around interchangeably for some time.

I took a look back at the last time I addressed the difference of the two words and how their definitions got confused along the way.

I trust my dog with my life – but not with my ham sandwich.

That is but one of dozens of humorous ways to indicate the multiple meanings we attach to the word “trust.” It’s remarkable how good we are at understanding the word in context, given its definitional complexity.

One interesting aspect of trust is its relationship to the concept of reputation. This issue is coming to the fore in the so-called “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption” movement.

Who can you trust on the Internet to deliver the goods they said they would deliver (think eBay), to leave your apartment in good shape if you lease it on Airbnb, to not be a creep if you call an Uber?

It’s tempting to look at the concept of reputation as the scalable, digital badge of trust that we might append to all kinds of transactions between strangers, rendering them all as trustworthy as your cousin. (Well, most cousins.)

Tempting, but not exactly right.  Because trust, it turns out, is not reputation.

Greenspan’s Folly

William K. Black has written about the dire consequences of Alan Greenspan confusing trust and reputation, saying:

Alan Greenspan touted ‘reputation’ as the characteristic that made possible trust and free markets. He was dead wrong.

Greenspan believed that Wall Streeters’ regard for their own reputation meant that markets were the best guarantor of trust – because they would perceive their own self-interest as aligned with being perceived as trustworthy.

Unfortunately, Greenspan’s belief was probably based more in ideology than in history or psychology, as the passion for reputation was overwhelmed by the passion for filthy lucre, immortalized in the acronym IBGYBG (“I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone – let’s do the deal”).

Early Social Reputation Metrics

Think back, way back, to November, 2006.  A company called RapLeaf was on to something.Here’s how they described their goal:

Rapleaf is a portable ratings system for commerce. Buyers, sellers and swappers can rate one another—thereby encouraging more trust and honesty. We hope Rapleaf can make it more profitable to be ethical.

You can immediately see the appeal of a reputation-based trust rating system. And with a nano-second more of thought, you can see how such a system could be easily abused. (“Hey, Joey – let’s get on this thing, you stuff the ballot box for me, I stuff it for you, bada-boom.”)

Then there’s Edelman PR’s pioneering product, TweetLevel. It does one smart thing, which is to avoid a single definition of whatever-you-wanna-call it. Instead, it breaks your single TweetLevel score into four components: influence, popularity, engagement, and trust.

Edelman says:

having a high trust score is considered by many to be more important than any other category.  Trust can be measured by the number of times someone is happy to associate what you have said through them – in other words how often you are re-tweeted.

According to TweetLevel (back in 2012), here were my scores:

  •             Influence        73.4
  •             Popularity      70.1
  •             Engagement   56.4
  •             Trust               46.9

So much for my trustworthiness.

Guess who owned the number one trust score on TweetLevel that year? Justin Bieber. Now you know who to call for – well, for something.

The KLOUT Effect

It’s easy to poke fun at metrics like TweetLevel that purport to measure trust; but in fairness, because trust is such a complex phenomenon, there really can be no one definition. What TweetLevel measures is indeed something – it’s not a random collection of data – and they have as much right to call it ‘trust’ as anyone else does. Indeed, I respect their decision to stay vague about what to call the composite metric.

KLOUT raised a more specific question: it directly claimed to measure Influence, and is clear about its definition, at least at a high level:

The Klout Score measures influence [on a scale of 1 to 100] based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others. The Klout Score uses data from social networks in order to measure:

  • True Reach: How many people you influence
  • Amplification: How much you influence them
  • Network Impact: The influence of your network

I find that to be a coherent definition. If I’m a consumer marketer, I want to know who has high KLOUT scores in certain areas, because if they drive action, I want them driving my action.

Note that Klout doesn’t mention reputation at all – just influence. Where does trust come in?  Klout says, “Your customers don’t trust advertising, they trust their peers and influencers.”

Well, I wouldn’t go there. On TweetLevel, the top three influencers were Justin Bieber, Wyclef Jean, and Bella Thorne. Influencers – definitely. People to be trusted? What does that even mean?

Trust Metrics

One problem with linking trust to reputation is that it can be gamed. One problem with linking trust to influence is that notoriety and fame are cross-implicated. Bonny and Clyde were notorious, so was Bernie Madoff and the Notorious B.I.G. – that doesn’t make them trusted.

Take Kim Kardashian. Is she influential? You betcha: her Klout score was a whopping 92 (Back then! Juts think about today). Does she have a reputation? I bet her name recognition is higher than the President’s.

But – do you trust Kim Kardashian? Well, to do what? (By the way, TweetLevel gives her a 70.1 trust score – way higher than mine. Now you know who to ask when you need a trustworthy answer; I’m referring all queries to her).

So here are a few headlines on trust metrics.

  1. They’re contextual. You can’t say you trust someone without saying what you trust themfor. I trust an eBay seller to sell me books, but I’m not going to trust him with my daughter’s phone number.
  2. They’re multi-layered. Both Klout and TweetLevel correctly recognize that social metrics can’t be monotonic – a single headline number is useful, but it had better have nuances and deconstructive capability.
  3. Behavior trumps reputation. You can get lots of people to stuff the ballot boxes for you; it’s a lot harder to fake your own  behavioral history. Trust metrics based more on what you did, rather than just on what people say about you, are more solid.
  4. Good definitions are key. When people say ‘trust’ and don’t distinguish between trusting and being trusted, they’re not being clear. There’s social trust, transactional trust – it goes on and on. Good metrics start by being very clear.

So what’s the link between reputation, influence, and trust? There is no final arbiter of that question. Language is an evolving anthropological thing, and as Humpty Dumpty said, words mean what we choose to say they mean. So job one is to be clear about our intended meanings.


Full disclosure: I have a small interest in a sharing economy company, TrustCloud. I have written more about the sharing economy and collaborative consumption in a White Paper: Trust and the Sharing Economy, a New Business Model.

(This post was originally published on TrustMatters)
5 replies
  1. David Heath
    David Heath says:

    Thanks Charles.

    Perhaps I can paraphrase with a number of related observations…

    “numbers lie”

    “lies, damned lies and statistics”

    “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”

  2. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:


    No argument with your first two paraphrases: but as to the third, you hit one of my hot buttons.

    The idea that you must have measurements in order to manage something I find not only wrong, but dangerously misleading.

    There are dozens of ways to manage without measuring: consider role-modeling, fear and intimidation, praise, and extortion, to name a few. Worse, people often logically confuse the “you can’t manage if you can’t measure” with a logically unrelated claim, that “if you measure, you can manage.” The business world is chock a block full of misguided measurements, which at their best serve no purpose at all, and at their worst are dysfunctional.

    When it comes to trust, I have come in my old age to believe that metrics are vastly, vastly, vastly overrated. What makes much more difference is a culture of dialogue, and values like personal courage and a cultivated social ability to confront others in a constructive manner.

  3. Greg Woodley
    Greg Woodley says:

    Thanks Charles,
    During my B2B sales days I was constantly referred to new prospects by existing customers. I was referred because of my reputation and I had assumed that made me trustworthy ?
    After reading your post, maybe this was not the case. Maybe the recommendation made the contact but the way I acted earned me trust.
    It’s an interesting question as sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp earn companies a lot of sales through implied trust and as you say those results can be gamed.

  4. Bill Corbin
    Bill Corbin says:

    Moving from a this post’s highly informative overview of trust and its nuances, I’d like to comment on Greg’s question about the meaning of his earned referrals. If viewed through the eyes (plus mind and heart) of the referring client, there is an enormous statement of trust in Greg. A referral is a gamble. It says, “I will risk a piece of one of my valued relationships (almost always family, friend or close acquaintance) based on my confidence that Greg will provide a satisfying overall experience.” So that referral means confidence–based on first-hand experience–in person-to-person professionalism, integrity, value and usability of product/service, and after the sale service. Viewed in the context of Greg’s business objectives, that’s a sensational piece of trust building.

    • Charlie
      Charlie says:

      Interesting. I agree that a sound referral like that conveys a significant risk-taking on the part of the one doing the referring; and is therefore quite meaningful.

      But I also agree with Greg’s takeaway that the referral is mainly good for the connection, and that having gotten the connection, the job of trust-building is mainly one for the refer-ee.

      A simple way to put this is that trust per se isn’t highly transitive. We can see this on LinkedIn – trust degrades significantly with the degrees of separation.

      And in a one-degree introduction, I go to the comparison of a job interview. Your resume (a standin for the referral) is what gets you the interview. But once you’re in the interview, the onus is on you to perform. Neither the resume nor the referral can create new trust, trust in the refer-ee.

      A strong referral is a powerful entree; it also makes the receiving party very thoughtful and receptive and slow to reject the refer-ee. But still – once referred, it’s up to the party him- or her-self to replicate the trust he or she has created with the referer.


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