How We Lost — and Regained — Customer Trust

by Ted Leonard | Aug 28th, 2019

How We Lost — and Regained — Customer Trust

Customer loyalty isn’t what it used to be. Especially in the online world, trust can be elusive — hard to earn and even harder to keep. The fact is, digital consumers are growing ever-more skeptical when they’re thinking about buying. And can you blame them, given the almost daily drumbeat  of stories about people getting their  data stolen or their  privacy violated? It’s no wonder that consumers are quick to exercise their power, always just a few clicks away, to switch allegiances to another brand. 

As difficult as it is to maintain customer loyalty, it’s even harder to win it back once it’s lost. The Internet is littered with the digital skeletons of companies that betrayed the trust of their users, and there’s no shortage of brands that are struggling to burnish their reputations. Just take a look at Facebook, which has promised major changes in how it handles user data after getting hit with a record $5 billion fine. Meanwhile Flickr, facing a backlash over its plans to impose a 1,000-photo limit on free users and delete the photos of users who choose not to upgrade, had to postpone the cutoff date several times. 

Look, if anyone knows about trust, it's Photobucket. A couple of years ago, we nearly “broke the Internet.” My predecessors made a gamble with customer loyalty by betting that they could force Members to pay $400 a year for hosting. It was a losing hand; once the speedometer icon appeared in place of thousands of Members’ images across the Internet, the backlash was immediate. 

Regaining our Members’ loyalty hasn’t come without significant effort, and I credit my team for putting in the time and effort to restore their trust. But Photobucket’s journey back to being a trusted brand has revealed some basic truths about the nature of loyalty in the digital age. The fact is, it’s only by going through a crisis of confidence that you fully realize the precarious nature of online relationships. And like all relationships, the key is communication.

So beyond reversing our pricing structure and restoring everyone’s images, my first priority after taking the helm last year was to do something that was long overdue: engaging with and listening to our Members. We launched an intensive outreach program, we conducted surveys, then we followed those up with individual phone interviews. We needed to know what our Members liked and didn’t like about Photobucket.

The first thing we discovered was that our Members appreciated being listened to. And while some were intent on getting some level of service for free, most understood that you need to pay a reasonable price for a higher quality of service. Finally, and not surprisingly given today’s realities, they wanted assurances that their privacy and security would be protected.

Armed with these and other valuable insights, we created a pricing plan structure that lets Members choose the level of service that fits their needs, while keeping in place  a free option for anyone who just wants the basic service. More importantly, we wanted to let our Members know that we heard their concerns about cost, privacy and security by encoding our policies in a Bill of Rights, a first for the industry. Among other things, we have pledged to always keep a free option, to never delete their photos, and to never change their privacy settings without consent. In short, to always put them first. While some parts of the Bill of Rights are unique to Photobucket and our industry, the basic concepts are universal to online brands. 

Here are three main elements that I believe any digital leader should keep in mind if they want to maintain — or regain — their customers’ loyalty by putting them first:

Communicate constantly: The key to any relationship is listening to — and hearing — what others think. Whether it involves surveys or feedback channels, communication is the main building block of trust. In my case, that means being accessible to our Members. They can just email me at and I’ll make sure their suggestions get in front of the rest of our team.

Be radically transparent: No customer likes surprises, so it’s important  to clearly telegraph any changes in fees or policies and to give customers enough time to plan ahead. Learning from the botched rollout of the annual fee, we have made sure to give Members a heads up before introducing any limitations on storage or hosting. 

Have your customers’ backs: When it comes to building trust online, nothing is more critical than knowing that your information is private and secure. At Photobucket, we make sure to stay on top of the latest in security technology. We also promise to never change our customers’ privacy settings without their consent. Your photos are your photos, period.

Earning your customers’ loyalty isn’t easy. It takes hard work and constant communication. And from the new headlines about data and privacy violations, it’s clear that the online industry still has a ways to go to earn people’s trust. But it’s not too late to fix things. Let’s do what’s right and make sure we’re putting our customers first.