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Architects Of Next: Transparency & trust / David de Koning, Funding Circle

In the first of a regular series we’re calling #ArchitectsOfNext, we sat down with David de Koning, Head of Communications at Funding Circle. As one of the UK’s most disruptive and innovative businesses, he discusses his views on the evolving role of social media and data. This series aims to inspire others with firsthand insight into how people shaping innovative digital engagement models think and deliver their work.

David de Koning is not the conventional face of finance. The marathon runner has a warm informality and baby face (he disputes this point) which sees people light up around him: from the ladies in the Funding Circle canteen as we chat, to our photographer. It’s that disconcertingly open, trustable approach which explains much of the unconventional, and refreshing model he’s bringing to life for the financial services sector.

Throughout our conversation, he returns to the themes of trust and transparency, which he feels are at the heart of an alternative way to drive customer and stakeholder engagement – not to mention the Funding Circle business model itself.

“Culture matters when you’re taking on one of the largest and most conservative sectors” de Koning enthusiastically outlined. “How we behave internally extends all the way to the conversation you have with us on the phone, to the feel of our tweets. If we’re not totally transparent and trustworthy throughout, people will know”.

Referencing the book Legacy, about the All Blacks rugby team’s famous and self-renewing humble culture, he continued, “The All Blacks still ‘sweep out the sheds’ (changing rooms) after every game. It keeps the world’s best rugby players grounded and united. I think about that for us, but in a much more British way. How do you have a culture about fast decision making, about empowered people, who are self-regulating? Rather than a changing room, it’s about if someone spills a cup of tea, would you sweep the floor, even if it wasn’t your cup of tea, because it is for the greater good?”

If this sounds very Silicon Valley start-up tech infused, that’s deliberate. “We have a unique perspective because we are a fast growing FinTech company. People forget how opaque the financial services industry was, pre-2008 – and remains today for many organisations. For people to trust an online company they had never heard of, doing something no-one had ever done before (P2P lending), with significant amounts of their own money, needed a different model to engage and build that trust. Transparency is the only viable solution.”

That openness, and novelty in a highly traditional sector comes easily to de Koning – a man open by nature.

“We use data to understand what matters to people, and then build our engagement models around it. For most people, money is at the heart of our emotions – it is about security, status and wellbeing. If we wanted to disrupt an industry, we needed people to trust us with one of the most important parts of their identity. We also had to change behaviours: small businesses have been going to banks for financing for centuries.

“To do that, from our starting point, we had to show people we were different. We did, and continue to do so, through being very open about our data. We share nearly everything, right down to our bad debt curves. More people should be giving their data away to those who care about it.”

During our conversation, this struck me: de Koning’s challenge is not worrying about whether the brand is getting people to LOL as much as the next one (which is often the proviso of consumer brand leads), but how to create different models of engagement, in an industry which is often reviled by customers of all types.

“Financial services is complex, and on a content level, we use social media to digest that complexity, and break it down. It’s about simplicity – the “my Mum test”: can she understand it, and does it engage her. The age of flowery language has gone – it shows a complete lack of understanding of your audience. We’re in the business of mining data, and breaking that down for you.

“Our blog is the first port of call for all our engagement. It’s where anyone – customers, stakeholders, media, prospects – can find out what we’re doing first. Twitter is then used for the more passive, but interested, whilst the (private) forums are for the hyper-engaged.”

It’s apparent this allows for a natural segmentation of interests, which also allows a tailoring of content and engagement types.

“The worst thing for our 45,000 customers, would be to wake up and find we’d changed a product, without letting them know first. Do we always get it 100% right? No, but we do believe in engaging constantly, and transparently – when we do this well we avoid that ever happening. We hope that helps us to build trust. – It doesn’t mean everyone gets a vote – we’re a business, not a direct democracy – but it should  mean there are few surprises, and you’re always valued and shown the respect you should be, given you’ve trusted us with something so valuable to you.

“It’s easy for brands to view customers as monolithic blocks, when actually they are an assortment of hugely diverse people, with hopes, fears and aspirations of their own. Using data, and having a socially-driven engagement model allows us to treat them as such.”

One could sit in the uber-cool London office, and think this is a lovely sentiment, but perhaps somewhat divorced from the reality of making a nuts and bolts financial return. de Koning counters this: “Where we get interesting is how we then apply this to our performance marketing and vice versa. There’s a trust halo, which absolutely assists conversion optimisation. There’s also a consistency and credibility in the way our PPC, Facebook advertising and others is entirely in-line with our our owned and earned engagement. Once people have signed up to the site, we begin the engagement all over again: do you really understand what we’re doing, what you’re doing, and how can we ensure it’s as transparent as possible?”

Our conversation turns to his views on the world around us. “We’re living in this era of simplicity, but not all brands are there yet” he says, with some hint of frustration evident. “Take booking flights online, for example, that remains an awful user experience to check in. Simplicity really is key for digital channels.”

When pushed for advice he’d give to others who are aiming to change the digital interactions their organisation has, he continued: “Transparency is really hard. No-one thanks you in the short-term, and they only ever want more. But it is a true competitive advantage. It builds credibility and stickiness with customers.”

We conclude by returning to one of his favourite topics – GIFs. His excitement about introducing internal messaging platform Slack to the business is twofold: firstly to extend the transparent engagement model to even their digital internal comms, but secondly as another way to get even more GIFs used on a Friday all company communication. His next meeting? Looking for candidates for an entirely new role – a Customer Engagement Champion. It sums up the challenge of those acting as the architects for what comes next: “The issue is, where do you go and look for someone to do a new role like this? No-one else has done it before, which makes recruiting for it a lot more time-consuming…” With that he strides off through the office, beaming at all around – living the promise of trust and transparency.

If you want to get ahead, read/do:

  1. Top Twitter follow: @fundingcircleUK

  2. Top Instagram follow: The Rock

  3. Top blog subscribe: Fred Wilson at USV or FT Alphaville

  4. Productive habit: Prioritisation

  5. Unproductive habit: Reading and responding to emails too frequently

  6. Favourite brand: TOMS


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