To Foster Online Trust, Build a Community

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In 2006, when three business school classmates in France told people they were launching a ride-sharing service, the reaction they heard most was, “No way this will work.… People are never going to step into a stranger’s car!”

Sure, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, hitchhiking was pretty much accepted behavior, as was ride sharing among college students who didn’t know one another. But by 2006, people were much more wary of riding with a stranger.

Still, the French students secured their first round of venture-capital funding in 2009 and launched the site the same year, setting out to change how society viewed ride sharing. “By creating a community, you create trust,” the company’s cofounder Nicolas Brusson told me at the Next Web startup tech conference in Amsterdam earlier this year.

“By creating a community, you create trust,” BlaBlaCar cofounder Nicolas Brusson says.

BlaBlaCar (named for how talkative drivers rate themselves on a scale from “bla” to “blablabla”) differs from ride-hailing companies. Its drivers are not professionals; rather, they are individuals going from point A to point B and looking to offset driving costs. BlaBlaCar sets a price bracket for each ride to make sure that the driver does not profit from the ride.

Those first years were quiet while the small team focused on building an online community within France and tested what appealed to drivers and passengers. The company gathered feedback from members in focus groups, member surveys, and its own customer-service team.

Today, BlaBlaCar has helped connect 30 million passengers and drivers in 22 countries on three continents. What started in France is now a presence across Europe, and used in Russia, Brazil, and India. Its biggest market: “Professionals who have two places in their lives and commute between them,” says Brusson. But, he says, “the reason to share the ride isn’t just economic. It’s also having company, meeting people.”

“Trust is paramount in business and is foundational to value creation,” says David Dubois, assistant professor of marketing at INSEAD. “Building trust will be increasingly important to truly claim being customer-centric, and part of customer-centricity will be serving as the platform on which to build trust among customers themselves.”

How did BlaBlaCar earn its customers’ trust and build its online community? It credits six components of online trust, which it calls DREAMS. “The six key pillars…were decided after continuous innovation and product iterations,” says Brusson. And they can be used to build trust in almost any online community.

Declared: The site requires users to register with personal information such as their real name, age, driving/riding preferences, and a description of themselves. Full identification lays the foundation of a trusted online profile, as users are secure in the knowledge of who else is in the car with them.

Rated: Users rate their experience with one another after their ride, and passengers rate the driver’s ability. Users trust the opinions of online peers and pay close attention to these ratings, which are especially helpful for users who haven’t met.

Engaged: BlaBlaCar requires members to prepay for each ride, which assures other users that the person will honor his or her agreement.

Active: Users are more likely to trust someone who is active on the site, and so activity stats are displayed on a member’s public profile. It’s easy to see when a user was last on the site, how many rides a driver has offered, a driver’s ratings by passengers, and drivers’ comments on passengers.

Moderated: All information users add to the site — contact info, bank details, or comments — must be verified or approved by a third party.

Social: Users are encouraged to connect their BlaBlaCar profile with their pages on other social media. This further boosts confidence that they are who they say they are.

Research (pdf) conducted in mid-2015 through a partnership between BlaBlaCar and Arun Sundararajan, a sharing-economy expert and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Management, confirmed the pillars’ effectiveness.

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“When measuring specifically whom they trust, a striking 88% of respondents say that they highly trust another BlaBlaCar member with a full online profile. This is close to the 92% who highly trust their friends, and significantly higher than the 58% who highly trust their colleagues,” the study’s authors found. “Online platforms, or peer-to-peer marketplaces enabled by databases, search engines, and connectivity create new systems for the provision and nurturing of unprecedented levels of interpersonal digital trust.”

By building online profiles and accumulating feedback “individuals are becoming their own brands, moving from a ‘one-to-many’ configuration to a world where trusted interactions can occur on a ‘many-to-many’ basis…[and] creating a new ‘crowd-based’ form of capitalism,” the study reports.

INSEAD’s Dubois says, “Digital trust can take many forms — reviews, of course, but also image sharing, ratings, and so forth. It’s a matter not only of quantity but also of quality, as reviews need to convey authenticity.” And when authenticity is achieved, trust will result, and a user is no longer stepping into a stranger’s car.