What Is a Trust Signal?

Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell
Published: May 21, 2020
Last Updated: May 26, 2021

Let’s say you are interested in the topic of a book by an author you aren’t familiar with. 

Before you buy this writer’s book, a question crosses your mind.

Can I trust this person?

Specifically, you want to know if you can trust that the writer has produced a work worth purchasing and spending your time on.

The author, in turn, tries to prove their trustworthiness in a number of ways:

  • An accomplished and relevant biography
  • Glowing praise from well-known people on the book jacket
  • Five-star reviews on Amazon
  • Acclaim on social media by people you follow
  • Coverage in news media outlets you know and respect

These are examples of "trust signals," the points of evidence that new authors -- and all of us -- use to win one another’s trust.

Trust Signals in the Online World

For businesses, I define "trust signals" broadly, as anything that inspires confidence in your brand in the mind of your customers, employees, investors and the general public.

Trust signals can be planned or unplanned, organic or paid, direct or subliminal. 

Traditionally, the term has had a more narrow definition -- tracing back to its use during the early days of internet commerce.

In an article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication titled, “The Role of Intermediaries in the Development of Trust on the WWW: the Use and Prominence of Trusted Third Parties and Privacy Statements,” authors Jonathan W. Palmer, Joseph P. Bailey and Samer Faraj make the case that for e-commerce to achieve its growth potential, “developing trust between suppliers and consumers is critical.”

The article goes on to describe the importance of displaying seals from organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and TRUSTe on ecommerce websites.

To this day, most articles on trust signals are still written by e-commerce marketers and SEO practitioners.

Search for "trust signals" on Google and the following results come up:

Google Image results show a collection of "trust badges" that companies put on their sites to make buyers more comfortable making a purchase.
Ecommerce trust signals
Indeed, these are are all examples of trust signals.
But I would argue that to view the trust signal as simply a collection of badges to make people feel comfortable buying a product from your website is too narrow a definition. 
Today, not just e-commerce but all commerce is largely conducted online. A great deal of our lives are, for that matter.

Broadening Our Understanding of Trust Signals

We don’t often think about it, but we spend our whole lives disseminating and processing trust signals.

What trust signals do you seek out in others, whether it’s to buy a product online, accept a job offer, or ask someone to marry you?

What signals do you send?

Becoming conscious of these signals is the first step to becoming good at building trust, in business and in life.

I define PR as the art of securing trust at scale.  Trust signals are the tools that should be in every modern PR practitioner's toolkit. These include all the major forms of third-party validation, such as:

  • Media coverage
  • Word of mouth
  • Online reviews
  • Customer testimonials
  • Influencer endorsement

Beyond the tools, I believe that understanding what inspires trust in specific audiences is PR's most important strategic responsibility. We have to go back to trying to understand what makes people tick, rather than focusing on the tactical approach offered by most PR agencies today.

More on this in future posts.

Leave a Comment

Blog posts

Related Articles

Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell

Chapter 3: The Eternal Power of Trust Signals

(Following is Chapter 3 of  Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)

Since the...

Read more
Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell

Trust Signals on YouTube

For those of you who prefer to learn about trust signals via video, I'd created a YouTube channel...

Read more