Trust Matters

Like my wife and I and a lot of other people, our friends Lindsay and Ryan have a dog. Their dog is an ancient Japanese Chin named Mikoto. Mikoto weighs maybe five pounds, yet lumbers when he moves, is completely deaf, and lives a monk-silent life. Because Mikoto is for so many reasons portable, he gets to go places.

A couple of weekends ago, Lindsay and Ryan went to a spa/hotel place tucked away somewhere deep in the recesses of Appalachia. The place was known to be pet-friendly and their website confirmed as much, so Lindsay and Ryan took Mikoto. Upon check in, the hotel staff informed Lindsay and Ryan that they were indeed pro-pet, but that guests were, under no circumstances, allowed to leave an animal companion in the room unattended, ever. It’s a reasonable policy for such an upscale destination, but springing it on guests at check in is somewhat problematic.

“We came here for the spa, for a vacation. How are we supposed to get massages? How are we supposed to go to dinner?” I’m paraphrasing in those quotes, because I wasn’t there, but you get the gist. Mikoto is the chillest dog in the tri-state area (pick any three abutting states) and to leave him in the hotel room – or any room, for that matter – was a no-risk proposition. He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t chew, he’s way past housebroken: nobody would even have known he was there.

The policy, Lindsay and Ryan were told as they stood checking in, still dog at their feet, furthermore stated that any pet found left unattended in a room would be confiscated and impounded until such time as the offending guest could be summoned to retrieve their pet after paying a hefty fine and being expelled from the hotel. Responding to Lindsay’s protest, the staff-member checking them in offered them a list of partners cum pet-sitters, any of which Lindsay and Ryan were, they were told, welcome to hire to come to their room and sit with Mikoto while Lindsay and Ryan went to dinner. The sitters, they were told, cost $20/hour. To sit in your room. Alternatively, the staff-member informed them, you can always order room service. The message was clear:

“We are neither pet-friendly nor pet-owner-friendly. Our stated policies are incorrect, and our actual policies are unstated.You cannot trust our word.”

Feeling helpless yet determined to enjoy their vacation, Lindsay and Ryan hired pet-sitters from that list for the entire weekend. I guess they could have left in protest. They had made their plans in accordance with all information the hotel had made publicly available, and the check in revelation of heretofore secret policies was a plain bait-and-switch. But they stayed, and upon checking out, they complained to the hotel’s general manager. And the general manager, recognizing and taking responsibility for the obvious, apologized and reimbursed them for their pet-sitter costs. Hardly the right way for things to have gone, but enough of a redemptive gesture to make clear the manager’s desire to do right by his guests, even if only reactively.

If Lindsay and Ryan hadn’t planned the weekend so far in advance and traveled hours to get there, they would have walked away from the check in desk rather than stick it out for the unexpectedly inconvenient and expensive few days that followed. So would a lot of you, I bet.

Now imagine that you’re the owner of the hotel. But instead of a hotel, your own a website. Shortly after arriving, Lindsay and Ryan realize your stated policies are misleading, don’t match reality. Unlike if they were standing at the check in desk in the middle of Appalachia, it took them no time at all to get to your website. No advance planning. No investment. Consequently, there’s no handwringing at the check in desk, no agonizing over where the next best option might be and whether they might still have reservations available and how fast you’d have to drive to get there in time to salvage your weekend. No real barrier to exit. Quite to the contrary, your fiercest competitors are just a click of the back button or a new Google search away.

The point, of course, is that integrity matters online – every bit as much as in meatspace. It should be obvious. You’d think it would be obvious. Right? Yet, so many organizations are still treating their online presence like just fragrant bait on a rustily barbed hook. Disingenuous keyword-loaded landing pages, descriptions of offerings that range from nondescript to wildly exaggerated, misrepresentative stock photography, gamed ratings sites stuffed with glowing-but-paid reviews, videos featuring actors reading so-called testimonials from a script, link-spamming social media accounts – an endless parade of hype over substance in an era and medium both of which pave the road for users (visitors, prospects, customers, etc) to abandon any website in favor of a constantly growing number of options in less time, and with less effort than Mikoto goes down for a nap.

Lindsay and Ryan’s story is only one of a growing number of reasons I’ve been thinking more and more about this in recent weeks. The web was supposed to improve life by creating a flat meritocracy in which transparency ruled and authenticity thrived. And in so many ways, it has. But like everything humankind creates, it mirrors human nature – and not just the good. It’s up to us – web professionals, web steering committees, digital marketing companies, users – up to all of us who make the web, to make the web we want. It’s hard sometimes. I get that. Cynicism is the henchman of cool, and the digital age is just so exhaustingly, impossibly cool. But if we give up the principled fight, if we give in to cynicism and corner-cutting and slop, what web are we making? Indeed, what world are we making?

It’s not every day that I bring this deep and abiding love of the world with me to my work, but most days I do. To my amazement and gratitude, so do my colleagues at Elliance. We may make a relatively small number of websites in a year, but every last one of them is imbued with our shared devotion to integrity. Our brand work – really, seriously, I mean it – elevates truth. Our SEO services are honest and forthright – a rarity in this business. Our mobile strategy is based on the importance of transparency and content parity. Because of these, our work gets enviable results over very long periods of time. And because of that, people trust us.

Trust matters. Twitter isn’t getting back its disenfranchised developers. Chi-Chi’s isn’t opening new restaurants. Enron isn’t rising from the ashes. And Lindsay and Ryan ain’t returning to that hotel in the mountains.

Trust matters.