Trust In A Digital Reality

Anne Møberg Eriksen, Michala Bang Jespersen & Signe Lai Clausen

Student thesis: Master thesis


Trust is an enabler of engagement with one another, as trust reduces complexity in our everyday lives. Although we consider trust a prerequisite in both our personal and professional lives, trust in the digital space is still not unveiled in academic literature. The unlimited access to the internet through digital technologies drives a fast flow of information and can easily blur the lines of reality for users. This thesis is a study of the phenomenon of trust in a digital reality. It investigates how organizations create and manage trust in the digital space through communication. Trust is examined both as the goal and a means to companies' strategic actions in this context. Accordingly, this thesis will assist companies in the pursuit of communicating strategically to people born in the years 1990 to 1999 in Denmark to build a digital foundation of trust. This thesis builds on a theoretical framework that aids in analyzing trust in a digital reality. The framework takes a starting point in theory on trust, by e.g. Luhmann (1979) and van der Merwe and Puth (2014), trust management, by e.g. McKnight, Cummings and Chervany (1998), and communication, by e.g. Cornelissen (2017). As such, this research contributes to and combines existing literature, but it adds the dimension of the digital setting, by examining the different elements that the target group perceives as trustworthy in a digital context. The understanding of the digital setting is for this thesis gained through primary empirical data collection, conducted through an exploration of organizational communication, a survey, and research interviews with people from the target group. The research is divided into a two-part analysis consisting of an elaborate communications analysis followed by in-depth research on how the selected target group receives these communicative elements. The two-part structure of the analysis is based on Hall’s (1980) encoding-decoding framework. The communications analysis examines elements of digital communication through three selected case organizations. This analysis is based on secondary data, which is systematically processed, and consequently functions as primary data. These elements are examined through the owned-earned-paid framework, to obtain an understanding of how organizations communicate to the target group through different media. To conclude upon the communications analysis, the findings are evaluated through van der Merwe and Puth’s (2014) framework of establishing trustworthiness as antecedents of trust. The following part of the analysis focuses on the target group. In this analysis, the gathered data from the survey and in-depth interviews is used to deduce common interests and viewpoints on trust-building insights. This is done through examining statistical significance, which helps to quantify whether a result is due to chance or a statistical correlation. All findings from the second part of the analysis are summarized according to van der Merwe and Puth’s (2014) dimensions of trust. Following this, the two analyses will be discussed, covering which elements function as trustworthy communication. Given the existing academic literature on the phenomenon does not truly integrate the digital aspect, the discussion will also address such.
The findings of this thesis emphasize how building and maintaining trust through digital, functions as a critical opportunity for organizations. Accordingly, it highlights what kind of communication elements should be used for organizations to foster a positive attitude towards their brands. The target group responds well to elements it can recognize and identify from other physical and online places. This does not mean companies cannot play with communicative elements, but they might benefit from incorporating signs that refer to what the target group identifies as markers of trust from elsewhere. Based on the analysis of the communication elements from the three selected cases and the target group analysis, the findings are concluded in a framework for building trust in a digital reality. This framework consists of five steps, starting with an organization’s trust capital as the foundation. From this, organizations can benefit from creating clear and consistent messaging to their target audience through elements of security, clear communication, and the right channels. The consistency of these elements should then be evaluated through the antecedents of trust, to determine whether the organization’s communication can be perceived to create trust. The trustor’s ability, benevolence and integrity, indicates how this trust is built, in digital interaction systems. The above fulfillment of consistent elements and antecedents of trust will enable the target audience to perceive the organization as trustworthy and allow it to decode the messaging as intended. All of the above enable a foundation of trust created between an organization and its target audience in the digital space. This process leads to a newly acquired baseline of trust, which contributes to the organization’s trust capital. In this context, the organization must also be aware of external factors that can be argued to affect the organization’s actions regarding the creation of trust and thereby, whether the target audience perceives the organization to be trustworthy. Given that trust and especially trust-building is a dynamic process, it must be followed continuously to maintain and develop the achieved level of trust. Based on this, the results from this thesis should not be seen as a line of conclusions, but rather a contemporary framework for organizations. Accordingly, both the framework and organizations must continuously evolve with the ever-moving world of digital for creating and maintaining trust in a digital reality.

EducationsMSc in Business Administration and Organizational Communication, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2021
Number of pages136