We began offering free credit scores at Credit Karma in 2008 because we felt that people shouldn't have to pay for this data. As worthwhile as that mission was, our success as a company would have been much harder if we weren't able to translate that into a story that consumers could identify with and a brand they could relate to.

A great point of pride for us at Credit Karma is the connection we've created with our members over the last seven years. We have an extremely positive net promoter score, especially for a company in the financial services space. When we poll them, our members tell us that they feel like we have a helpful product and are a company they can trust. We have built up the same sort of market awareness in seven years as companies who have been in our space decades longer.

For us, building this connection with consumers has had three components.

Tell your story actively

At Credit Karma, I've run two IAMAs on Reddit, allowing anyone to ask me a question. Both times we did this, we saw strong engagement and were upvoted to the front page of the site. More than that though, on each occasion it afforded me an opportunity to tell the Credit Karma story in a live environment, where people could talk back and I could respond to their queries, confusions and concerns. There are so many avenues now for companies to tell their story. Last week, we launched a video series on social media featuring people talking about their journey and struggles managing credit. When we first launched, I used to email bloggers before bed each night to get them to try out our product. Throughout all of these efforts, you need to be authentic. If you do an IAMA it needs to be you and not a PR person. Emails to bloggers can't be mail merges.

You can have the best mission but if consumers don't believe in it--or worse, they don't know about it--you're undercutting yourself. As a company, you need to know your story and tell it well. Once you know your point of difference and why consumers should care, communicate that as proactively as you can.

Always be positive

When Credit Karma began in 2007, we were entering into a space where there was a lot of consumer distrust. When we launched our site offering free credit scores in early 2008, a lot of people were convinced we were selling member data or being dishonest about being free, even though we were not. It was an unusual position to be in, seeing people's suspicions towards us. It was important for me to focus on the fact that if I were looking on as a consumer in this space, I'd share many of these exact concerns. So right from the very start, we chose to focus on what we do well and how we think we can help people. Even when people have taken swipes at us over the years, we've chosen to not engage in negative dialogue. People are adept at picking up on negative or disingenuous corporate messaging and it can be a red flag. Our positivity has paid off. We're excited about what we do and when we stick to talking about that, we're forging a much more authentic bond with our members.

Think long-term

That connection you're looking for with your users is tenuous. If you break this trust, no matter how long and good your history is as a company, no one is going to give you a free pass. You can undo a lot of hard work quickly, and shortcuts are never excusable. At Credit Karma we think of our relationship with our members as a long-term investment. It didn't just happen. We've always been careful that our product matches up with our public message. With every new product feature and privacy policy, it's important for us to keep our promises to members close at hand. For example, we're clear with members that we don't sell or rent personal information to any third party for their marketing lists. To change our commitment on this would be letting our members down. We take a similar view with how we behave publicly. We focus on where we want to be as a brand 10 years from now and will never put that in jeopardy for a quick publicity hit.

People have long memories and missteps will not be quickly forgotten. On the other hand, if you can build and keep trust with your members, that relationship will only deepen with time.

Published on: Aug 25, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.