While doing research on primates in the 1980s, the University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a hypothesis. An accepted scientific theory at the time held it possible to determine the size of a primate’s social group from their brain size, specifically the size of their frontal lobe. Since humans are primates too, Dunbar reasoned, the same should hold for us.

Thus the now infamous Dunbar’s number was born. According to his theory, confirmed time and again by subsequent research, humans can have roughly 150 acquaintances, 50 friends, 15 close friends, and 5 intimate ones.

Some speculated that social media would change this, but the evidence suggests this number holds even in digital spaces. Following Dunbar’s lead, we can safely assume something analogous holds for our relationship with brands.

The circle of trust

As the number of channels has exploded, and with it the amount of noise, many of us have responded in a particular way, which the authors of The Physics of Brand articulate well: “We can see a fortress being built by each person, not only filtering out branding from their lives, but also helping others avoid the stink of an intuitively bad customer experience through online reviews and social media comments.” 1

Most of us aren’t looking to interact with more brands. On the contrary, we want to interact with a limited set of brands in the way and at the times we prefer.

The good news is that from this perspective, loyalty is far from dead. But there’s hard news too: If you want to foster loyalty in today’s consumer-driven marketplace, you better be looking to be a part of that inner circle of 5 – 15. And that all comes down to trust.

Getting digital experiences right

Let me turn back to The Physics of Brand one last time to consider an example they present, using a brand that all Americans, at least, will recognize: Costco.

While nothing but a big box store, Costco has built an empire out of a consistent experience and the loyalty that it engenders. The crucial aspect of that experience? “Costco limits customer anxiety by limiting choice,” the authors say, “thereby increasing buying power.”3

Costco reveals one of the easiest ways to create trust with your customers — don’t overwhelm them. We all know how this works in practice. We just want some milk, but now we have to choose between non-fat, low-fat or whole as well as a cornucopia of alternatives — almond, soy, oat, rice, hemp, etc. (Don’t even think about bringing up carrageenan!)

Having options is great. But having too many is paralyzing. This is why personalization is increasingly critical today no matter what industry you’re in.

Personalization as curated experiences that build trust

It’s all about context and relevance.

Context is partly about device — are they on a desktop or Alexa? — but it’s also about the visitor`s intent. To use a retail example we’ll all understand, your favorite retailer might have you profiled as a middle-aged, high-spending female, with a propensity for luxury brands. And this may be accurate enough 90% of the time. But if you’re trying to look for a present for your husband, you’re going to be frustrated if the site won’t let you get away from the latest spring skirts.

Context changes for all of us, and sometimes quickly. This can be as true in a B2B context as a B2C one. The search terms visitors use on your site can reveal this, as can the way they engage with products. Whatever method you use, your digital platform needs to be attentive to the context of the moment — like a good salesperson would be in a store.

Here's how it might look in a B2B context.

A designated buyer from one of your customer accounts usually places replenishment orders for 20 items. When she logs in, your site recognizes her and automatically adds all 20 items to her cart. She simply needs to check the items and then click buy. Simple, easy.

But what happens when another buyer from the same company logs in and begins searching for similar items? The buyer has changed but the context of the account hasn't, and given this account's history, it's likely this new buyer is filling in for the previous one for one reason or another. If your site can pick up on that, it can autoload the cart just like it did for the previous buyer. The second buyer's job suddenly became a lot easier. The second buyer’s easy experience translates to trust.

And here we can see that context and relevance bleed into one another. Because relevance is more than presenting the right products. It’s understanding the entire journey and where customers are at in it. Most people are visiting your digital site because they have a problem they’re looking to solve. Their problem might be solved by one of your products. It also might be solved by knowledge that everyone at your company takes for granted as known.

If your focus is one-off sales, then it makes sense to push products at every turn. But from the perspective of CX, it might make more sense at times to try to solve someone’s problem without selling them anything — at least for right now.

This is why the connection between content and commerce is so critical. From initial research to increasing propensity, from purchase to post-purchase value realization, your customer’s journey is a series of experiences, but for them it’s also just one experience. Proving they can trust you to care for them through it all is an incredibly powerful way to foster trust. And having the intelligence to deliver the right content at the right time is the way to do this at scale.

The worldwide travel and tour provider Globus discovered the benefits of this approach. By first mapping out various customer journeys, they were able to design digital experiences that delivered the relevant content at each stage. The customer appreciation was palpable —including an 85% increase in overall conversions and a 350% increase in online booking.

Keep it intuitive to keep them moving

There’s one more crucial factor to consider for delivering great digital experiences — clarity. Your visitors should be able to find what they need simply and easily.

This of course includes ensuring products are easy to find, learn about, and purchase. And ensuring post-purchase activities — such as adding accessories, returning items, and getting support — are clear and intuitive.

But it also includes things like accessibility (alt-tagging your images for the visually impaired), a secure but not burdensome site, guest purchase (no registration required and no data retained) and one-click purchase options, easy mobile payments, the ability to auto-fill an address, and the list goes on.

Just start moving yourself

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but the truth is we’re all learning. Digital transformation is necessary to stay competitive. But you still have time — the critical thing is to get moving now. Our analyst report, “Reinventing Commerce,” unearths the data, trends, and insight to help you become a digital powerhouse.


1Aaron Keller, Renee Marino, Dan Wallace, The Physics of Brands: Understand the Forces Behind Brands That Matter,” BlueAsh: HOW Books, 2016), page 66.
2Ibid., 75.

Hansen Lieu is the Product Marketing Director for Commerce at Sitecore. With over 10 years of experience helping organizations gain competitive advantage with digital commerce and CRM technologies, Hansen is responsible for positioning, messaging, thought leadership, and go-to-market strategy. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter.