Just about ten years ago, Julien Smith and I wrote and published a book called Trust Agents. It talked about the rising experience of companies being able to use the web to reach people directly and connect with them in a world where companies could no longer really control the information out on the web about their brand. It was a rallying cry to invite companies to be real and transparent and to connect with the people they most wanted to serve.
The book did well. It was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. It won awards from Inc Magazine, USA Today, 800-CEO-Read and more.
Ten years have past and I want to share what’s changed in that time. (I’ve written some thoughts on this already at LinkedIn, if you’re interested.)
Ten Years After Trust Agents
In 2009, I wrote: “Companies can no longer hide behind a veneer of a shiny branding campaign, because customers are one Google search away from the truth.”
It’s more true today. And people have endured ten years of feeling unseen and unheard. As companies adopted the tools (but not always the spirit) of the social web, they pushed information blindly to people without thinking much about who they were addressing. It felt the same as telling every woman at a bar that they’re beautiful and hoping the line worked eventually.
In 2009, I wrote: “Trust agents have established themselves as being non-sales-oriented, non-high-pressure marketers. Instead, they are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business.”
I would change this a bit. Sales isn’t bad. Bad sales are bad. A trust agent sells you something they believe will help you win the game you’re trying to win.
Make Your Own Game
The first of the six tenets of a trust agent was to make your own game. It means to define your own space. Be specific. Create the rules of the story instead of competing against other similar products. Amazing books like Play Bigger have really expanded on this in smart ways in recent years. I stand by this.
Julien wrote about how creating your own keywords was a much better way to win at SEO instead of competing with existing words. He pointed out that if you could earn enough media attention for a phrase you coined, all roads would naturally point back to your site. I’ve been using this trick since 2009 and if you look at the traditional SEO markers of my site, it stinks, but I have massive authority around all the terms I created for myself.
In 2019, there’s something more. We are in an age of identity, where people want to be very specific about who they are, what matters to them, and they want to support only those companies that share their values. If you can buy the same kinds of products from multiple sources, why buy from a company you don’t respect? Or most importantly, who doesn’t see you?
We’ve made our own games, and we want companies to see and speak to who we are.
Companies keep saying they know what people want.
“A black guy can’t do a country song.” On the day I’m writing this, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X is on its 11th week at number 1 on the Billboard Top 100.
“No one will want to see a black-led superhero movie.” – Black Panther made $1.3 billion at the box office.
“Women superheroes won’t bring in movie viewers.” – Wonder Woman made $800 million; Captain Marvel made $1.1 billion.
Inclusivity matters. Seeing people for who they are matters. REPRESENTING THEM IN MEDIA AND MARKETING AND YOUR BUSINESS PLANS matters.
One of Us
This chapter pointed out the importance of connecting beyond advertising. Not that ads are bad. They’re just one tool.
In 2009, I wrote: “Gaining the trust of another requires you be competent and reliable. It also requires you to leave someone with a positive emotional impression, which is something the Web has the potential to do quickly and well.”
We included our first of many references to the work of David Maister and Charles Green who wrote the amazing work, The Trusted Advisor. Julien was already friends with Maister, but we befriended both authors, and I still talk to Charlie Green about once a month to learn at the feet of a master.
Of all the chapters in Trust Agents, this is the one I feel companies discarded. I think very few marketing departments held conversations about the trust equation (even though Maister and Green helped companies make millions on this detail alone). And I know that very few companies set about trying to humanize their brands to reach people.
The Archimedes Effect
I’ve always called this “Julien’s Chapter” because he had a much stronger bead on what was going on here. Leverage was the topic. How do we understand leverage? What are the ways we can use arbitrage to our advantage. It’s still heady stuff, but if people spent a little time investing in this chapter, they often reported some great results.
The parts I contributed were about leveraging time better, about building stronger relationships, about making the most of your appearances.
One fun detail about this chapter is that I cover the first inklings of the rise of Gary Vaynerchuk, when we all started to realize that this guy was going to fly to the stars and back. It’s laughable now that I covered him in the book because he was already on the way to being a massive star.
I believe with all my heart that nurturing a network of great people you want to serve is the absolute most important work of a person or a company. To be the connector that helps others thrive is a powerful business driver, even if it isn’t an instant kind of reward. (It never is.)
This talks through the concept of having to become more visible. To put your presence out there on the web. To be seen on the social networks.
Over the years, companies seem to only put their CEO, CMO, and a few very junior people out on the social web. They never did quite adopt the belief that having people reachable via the social web was a benefit to the company. And frankly, many people were afraid of this kind of visibility. These tools seem foreign. Interactions on places like Twitter feel fraught with peril. And so many brilliant people worry that they’ll “do it wrong” or “look foolish” and so their brilliance is withheld from the many who would benefit from this.
The people within companies who work on “Agent Zero” type work see great rewards. Sales professionals get it. Deal makers get it. But I wish more of the folks who have non-selling jobs but massive amounts of helpful ideas and thoughts would come out and play on the web.
I might have said that no one cared to do the “One of Us” work. Human artist is married to that. It was our effort to point out that the Golden Rule was alive and well. So many great works focus on this. Bob Burg’s Go-Giver comes right to mind. Same-Side Selling by Altman and Quarles. Many more. Tim Sanders and Love is the Killer App.
We wrote about transparency and empathy and intimacy, all topics that most every company in the world would rather pretend doesn’t exist, though they’ll talk about it in speeches or ads.
People are SO sick of feeling invisible, being lied to, having to “find out” that a company has done them wrong. They’re so fed up, and when there’s a chance to pick another company to deal with, they will.
In a 2017 study, Cone Communications found that 67% of people wanted to align with companies that shared their values, and that furthermore, most people wanted to align with companies who would move their values forward in some way.
Identity matters to individuals more than ever before. My 17 year old is both gay and trans. He spends a lot of time online finding and listening to like minds, learning how to navigate his life, and so on. He pays attention to which companies really support trans and gay causes and not just in June.
We all want people to love what we sell, but it is only when people feel seen and understood that they’re ready to pay attention.
Build An Army
This chapter is about scale. How do we grow beyond where we are? How do we find more hands to lighten the load. Of all the chapters in Trust Agents, I could never have predicted the outcomes that companies have developed in this area.
Automation is nearly the norm in so many areas. Robots talking to robots. Everyone agreed that we needed scale, but sometimes to the detriment of human contact.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of places where automation is preferred. It’s the best. I love when companies reduce friction where they can (Roger Dooley has an amazing book on Friction).
But the human touch matters. We want it more than ever. And in a world where automation is doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, it means we have opportunities to earn more attention, retention, and stronger business relationships.
Trust Agents in 2019
I think there’s a lot to update and revisit in this book. I’ve been talking with Julien Smith about looking this all over again. I spoke to my publishing friend Matt Holt. I’ve talked with all kinds of people who I’ve known for the last ten years or more.
Keep your eyes posted. You might see a lot more about this. And regardless, it was super fun to look back on it all.
I help companies earn the right to sell and serve the customers they most want to nurture. Connect with me, if you want some ideas and help.