Brainstorming the promise of the “trust economy”

Looking for a show of hands here: How many have read the privacy policies of your credit cards top to bottom?

How many know what information your bank shares with other parties?

How many have read all of Facebook’s 4,000-word policy on how it will use the information you give them?

If you have, you’re way ahead of me and, I’ll venture, way ahead of 99 percent of the American public. We share personal information every day with businesses that may or may not share it or do their best to protect it from hackers. We just don’t know and most businesses haven’t gone out of their way to tell us in clear, simple language how they will protect our privacy.

That’s contributed to a culture of distrust, but it also presents a business opportunity — an opportunity that was the subject of daylong brainstorm recently at Cintrifuse, Cincinnati’s startup hub. “Hacking Trust” was part conference, part hackathon led by Cintrifuse CEO Pete Blackshaw with guests from the worlds of advertising, media, and entrepreneurship.

It was a day of sharing ideas on how Cincinnati’s entrepreneurial ecosystem might seize on the opportunity to improve trust in the world of commerce and stake an ownership claim to this fledgling business idea.

After sharing some telling survey data on consumer trust, Blackshaw challenges the audience for ideas. “What can we do Cincinnati?” he asks.

Seventy-three percent of consumers are “very” or “extremely” concerned about data security, and 74 percent take steps to avoid companies they don’t trust, according to a survey done for Cintrifuse by consumer insight firm Toluna.

Only 39 percent of those surveyed said consumer brands provide simple communications around privacy and trust.

“Loyalty to brands is based on trust,” Blackshaw says.

The question Blackshaw and Cintrifuse want to answer is: Can Cincinnati own a budding “trust economy;” can this region’s startup community develop products and services to become an engine of the trust economy, a hub that companies can use to figure out how to re-engage with their customers?

It’s happening in other Midwestern cities. Detroit’s business community has coalesced around safety, addressing mobility challenges in getting to its downtown, and use of electric vehicles. Memphis is building a brand around health care and Pittsburgh is declaring itself a force in the world of artificial intelligence and robotics. Could Cincinnati plant its flag on restoring trust in business?

That’s one of five potential focus areas Cintrifuse and its partners are exploring, with the others being connected health, sustainability, the future of retail branding, and financial technology. Blackshaw says Cincinnati may have an edge on claiming the trust economy because of its reputation for conservativeness and solid Midwestern values.

In any case, it’s an area that appears ripe with opportunity.

Adam Symson, E.W. Scripps CEO, spoke at the conference
E.W. Scripps CEO Adam Symson sums up the prevailing attitude among consumers today. “We’ve moved beyond skepticism to distrust,” he tells the group. “We approach everything with a level of distrust that is unhealthy.”

And businesses aren’t exactly making progress in building trust with their audiences, with the sale and exchange of personal information, disclosure policies that are lengthy and unreadable, and all-too-regular incidents of massive data hacks.

The marketing, advertising, and branding world should work harder to build trust with consumers, says Wally Snyder, executive director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics.

“We’ve got to do a better job with full transparency,” he continues.

Consumers don’t always know how their information will be used and it’s not easy to opt out of information sharing.

One Cintrifuse-based startup that is already working in the trust economy is Roamina Inc. It’s the brainchild of Jim Hewitt and three others who all have experience in the payment processing, data management, and big-company financial worlds

“We’re building a platform that will bring analytics and data driven application to the masses,” Hewitt says. “Think of it as Dropbox meets the App Store.”

The startup has been working on the idea for about a year, prototyping different applications, and is about six months from a beta product, Hewitt says.

They are developing a personal data vault that will help individuals capture, organize, and secure their data.

“Then they can connect with businesses based on some type of offer that the business is making and extract value from that data,” Hewitt says. “You’re controlling it, you’re monitoring it. Businesses get what they need and you get what you need.”

That may be some sort of payment, a special offer incentive, or some kind of personal experience with the business.

“We feel your data rights are being violated,” he says. “Everybody else is making money off our data but us; we’re not getting any value out of it.”

Hewitt and his team are creating their product partly in anticipation of new regulations on privacy and disclosure that they expect are on the way.

“There’s a lot of regulation that’s about to hit,” he says. “It’s going to require everyone to think radically differently.”

That’s something others at the Hacking Trust event agreed on. ”Regulation is coming,” says Nancy Hill, former president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “It’s becoming clear this has to be regulated at a federal level.”

The morning ended with a think tank session to propose solutions to the data and privacy problems. Among them was a sort of “smart label” on privacy modeled after those being used in the food industry that contain scads of easy-to-understand information; a privacy-protected web browser that can enforce privacy; a system that rates levels of privacy like movie ratings; and a precision dashboard of an individual’s privacy preferences that permit the user to declare what they are willing to disclose.

The day was more a beginning than an end, with ideas sparked, gathered, collected, and expanded on. “This is the start of what we hope is an ongoing conversation,” Blackshaw says.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist, Cincinnati native and father of three. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.
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