New research from comms giant Ketchum exposes a reputational chasm between positive attitudes toward technology and a growing skepticism and increased scrutiny of technology companies’ business practices, from both enterprise purchasers and consumers. According to the firm’s new study, while technology was pivotal in making commerce possible and fueling key elements of people’s lives during the COVID lockdown, the reputation of technology companies did not see a boost.
Three-quarters (74 percent) of the general public say they like having technology in their life but distrust big tech companies. Among enterprise IT B2B buyers, a company’s commitment to ensuring ethical use of technology makes nearly 9 in 10 (87 percent) more likely to purchase their products.
The Ketchum 2021 Social Permission and Technology Study revealed serious challenges for the tech industry in a comprehensive look at enterprise IT buyers and business leaders, employees, consumers and society. In addition to ethical use of technology, enterprise IT buyers and business leaders say reputational elements such as commitment to data privacy (86 percent) and support for eco-friendly product lifecycles, such as product trade-ins (83 percent), rank very high in their purchase considerations.
“B2B companies operate within a broad, highly connected ecosystem that is greatly affected by consumer and public perceptions—B2B is really B2B2C,” said Melissa Kinch, managing director and portfolio leader, Technology and Food, Agriculture & Ingredients, at Ketchum, in a news release. “If you are a B2B tech brand, understand that your customers’ decision-making is affected by how consumers view your company and its values. You aren’t selling in a B2B bubble. Making a commitment to ethical use of technology and data privacy—and backing that with actions—is critical.”
Hiring managers take note: more than half (56%) of employed “Techruptors”—a group Ketchum identifies as influential technophiles who tend to be leading indicators when it comes to tech trends and changing perceptions—say they have considered leaving their job because their company is not committed to the ethical use of technology.
But there is a bright spot: the growing scrutiny of tech companies means that business leaders and IT decision makers also notice positive actions by tech brands. According to the survey, 75 percent of B2B leaders have noticed tech companies promoting STEM programs for students, and a similar percentage (76 percent) have noticed tech companies promoting STEM upskilling/reskilling programs for adults.
Consumers like the tech, but distrust the big tech companies
The data shows that 72 percent of B2B leaders say they like having technology in their life but distrust big tech companies, similar to 74 percent of the general public. When asked who is most responsible for ensuring tech is used ethically, 45 percent of B2B leaders say it’s the companies that provide the underlying technology—more than double the number (22 percent) who believe it’s the companies that sell end products or services using the technology.
“Despite tech’s role in solving problems large and small during the pandemic, both consumers and enterprise buyers say they like the products but not so much the companies who make them. What we’re seeing isn’t a reputational gap—it’s a chasm,” said Lisa Sullivan, managing director, Technology, at Ketchum, in the release. “As one of the most powerful and influential industries in the world, tech now shoulders the blame for many of our societal ills. Brands whose actions clearly align with their stated values have a real opportunity to rise above the current mistrust and build incredible brand equity across all their stakeholder audiences.”
Americans’ growing concern about tech’s impact on mental well-being
Roughly half of Americans (49 percent) say they are worried the use of technology is impacting their mental state and 42 percent say they feel worse about technology’s involvement in their lives since the pandemic began. Techruptors and B2B leaders are even more likely to feel the negative impacts from tech: 60 percent of Techruptors and 57 percent of B2B leaders worry it’s affecting their mental state and nearly half (48 percent of Techruptors, 46 percent of B2B leaders) feel worse about tech since COVID began.
Gamers—a group that embraces technology willingly—are the most concerned, with 64 percent saying they are worried about the use of technology impacting their mental state.
“The pandemic is showing us that people’s capacity for using technology in work and daily life is not infinite,” said Sullivan. “The burnout that arose is an indicator of how a tech brand’s key audiences—business decision makers and Techruptor—will react long-term as technology becomes increasingly pervasive. Our industry needs to look around corners on topics such as mental health impact.”
Blaming tech for society’s problems? Gender concerns, digital chasm and political division are top of mind
The tech industry’s issues with gender inequality have been widely publicized. However, those workplace issues might just be the most visible signs of a much deeper problem about women and their general feelings toward technology. The study found that women tend to be much less enamored with technology than men, with one-third (33 percent) saying they are not glad they were born in a time where we have a lot of technology, compared to just 1 in 5 men (20 percent).
In addition, women (54 percent) are significantly less likely than men (70 percent) to say they are comfortable with how technology companies handle their personal data, and fewer women than men (52 percent vs. 63 percent) trust tech companies will handle data ethically.
The study also suggests that the digital divide is becoming a chasm, with digital technology actively fueling social, political and economic divisions. Three-quarters (76 percent) of Techruptors, 82 percent of B2B leaders and 70 percent of the general public agree tech companies are helping bridge the digital divide during the pandemic, but they expect tech companies to do even more. Those surveyed say it’s not just that tech companies aren’t doing enough to address the problems they are creating; in some cases, they are actively and knowingly making things worse.
For example (see full report for general public and business decision makers’ results):
- 76 percent of Techruptors and 75 percent of IT decision makers believe social media has fueled the anti-vaccine movement
- 74 percent of Techruptors and 74 percent of IT decision makers believe Big Tech has fueled political division in the past year
- 65 percent of Techruptors and 69 percent of IT decision makers believe the tech industry is driving income inequality
- One in three people (33 percent) believe technology played a negative role in the 2020 U.S. presidential election
- One in four people (26 percent) believe technology has played a negative role in the social justice movement
Ketchum’s Analytics team conducted the third Ketchum Social Permission and Technology Study, an online survey of 2,000 total respondents, between July 19 and July 23, 2021. This includes 1,000 adults age 18+ in the United States, nationally representative of the U.S. population as it relates to age, gender, region and race/ethnicity, as well as 1,000 adults who qualify as business leaders and/or IT decision makers. The margins of error for the consumer sample and the B2B sample are both +/-3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Smaller subgroups will have larger error margins.