Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2009


Please don't buy Seth Godin's latest book -- he's made enough money already, and's not that great a book.  But its subtitle holds an important idea:  "the power of authentic stories in a low-trust world."  While his proscription is to tell better stories, the real problem is we live in a low-trust world... and we don't do enough to build trust.

Trust is what allows you to take risks.  Trust is what lets you engage a consultant in a mission-critical project even when you can't take a test drive (because the solution hasn't been built yet). Somebody Brilliant™ defined trust as "fidelity without control" -- the ability get what you expect even when the other party doesn't work for you. 

Trust is what makes most B2B sales cycles really happen, and makes any marketing effective.  


Trust is at the core of credibility and influence.  People with something to sell and who push it hard have very low credibility (think used cars, get-rich-quick schemes, Ron Popiel).  Regis McKenna's marketing influence pyramid enshrined levels of credibility from the customer's perspective: first, their friends; then colleagues; then gurus/pundits/analysts/press; and finally, at the lowest level, the vendors.  In cyberspace, the pyramid has been reborn, with social networking and bloggers replacing the middle two layers (colleagues and press).

It can all be boiled down to one sentence:  "nothing is as credible as someone who has nothing to sell."

A 2004 Roper ASW report found that over 90 percent of Americans cite word of mouth as one of their best sources of ideas and information. Further, they rate word of mouth twice as important in their decision-making as advertising or editorial content -- and we put one-and-a-half times more value on word of mouth today than we did 25 years ago.

According to a December 2005 McKinsey report, approximately two-thirds of all US economic activity is influenced by shared opinions about a product, brand or service.

In the explosion of low-quality information that is the internet (which only exacerbates our low-trust world), the opinions of friends, peers, and even competitors become really important.  That's why reference marketing is so powerful.  That's why most advertising isn't.

Trust is one of the most expensive commodities in the world:  you can't buy it from anyone, and building it can take quite a while indeed.  Rebuilding it takes even longer.

Trust isn't directly correlated with high performance, but it is related to brand value.  Customers develop a model or an image about a vendor or product or entity's trustworthiness, and use that model to make their judgments.  For example:

  • For the third year running, the US Postal Service has been rated the most trusted agency in government when it comes to protecting privacy.  Now while it's easy for the postal service to beat all the elected officials who voted to compromise our privacy, it's surprising that USPS beat out the the SEC, the FBI and the police.  The USPS is not highly trusted because it did the most for security, or innovated the most, or prevented identify theft, or made mailboxes secure, or even --god forbid -- had good service.  It's trusted because its behavior and performance are very consistent over time, and are exactly in line with what we expected of them (not much).

  • For the last 40 years, consumers could trust that Cadillac made a pretty crummy car that had old styling, bad gas mileage, marginal quality, and crummy performance.  You didn't need to own one to know this.  Now that their cars have serious innovation, great styling, mileage, performance, and quality, few consumers have noticed.  We can't trust Cadillac's new behavior because they don't fit our mental model.  It'll take years for consumers to adjust their expectations of Cadillac and trust them to make  a great car.

  • Trust is actually more important than "quality" or even "price."  If you have serious trust, you know that any quality problem will be resolved efficiently and well.  With deep trust, you're willing to pay more for a product or service because you know you're going to get more value.  

Businesses Opportunities Built on Trust

In recent years, a number of movements and companies have been built on trust relationships.  Here are some success stories with brief explanations:

  1. Open Source:  Community = Trust
    The larger the community and the broader the base of code access, the more you
    can trust the code to be secure, high quality, and have rapid innovation.  Having  thousands of eyeballs on the code increases the trustworthiness of the software, even if no vendor or standards body is there to stand by it.

  2. ClueTrain Manifesto:  Ongoing conversation = Trust
    The core argument of this 1999 manifesto is that commerce is a conversation:  the more open and continuous the conversation, the better the quality of the relationship, the "fit" of the product, and that trustworthiness of the commerce.  This thesis has been radically expanded with the advent of corporate blogs, online user forums, and customer surveying / scoring systems that engage prospects and customers in a continuous conversation throughout the product lifecycle.

  3. Seth Godin:  Permission = Trust
    In Permission-Based Marketing, Godin makes the case that in the online world the way to achieve the oxymoron of credible ads is to do marketing only when you have permission... and to live up to that permission with marketing that is actually relevant to the customer.  Recent Forrester surveys show that opt-in emails are trusted twice as much as TV ads and 10 times as much as banner ads, simply because the consumer chose to engage.  This has profound repercussions on community-of-interest marketing.

  4. Enterprise software:  References = Trust
    In the last millennium, Enterprise sales reps burned out a lot of credibility with high-pressure tactics.  The press also lost credibility by too often being vendor shills.  So the only way a customer could trust vendors was through customer references that could be contacted in advance of the sale.  Even in this millennium, nothing is more powerful for marketing.

  5. Gartner Group:  Access = Trust
    The Gartner Group owns the IT industry analyst business because they have unparalleled access to vendor and customer information about products.  In the offline world, they act as a clearinghouse for "the real story" (ranging from rumors to insider information), and have status as trusted advisors to every one of the Fortune 500.  I haven't found an organization in cyberspace with the kind of private access that Gartner achieved in the offline world.

  6. Google:  Relevance = Trust
    It's hard to remember that Google was not a first or even a second mover in search.  But they dominated the market because they were able to come up with more relevant search results than anyone else.  Not only was their engine faster, it didn't succumb to spam and porno the way AltaVista and other engines did.  By consistently outperforming the other engines on relevance, they have become the default entry point for accessing the web.  On top of this trust, they have been able to build an advertising business that increases the relevance of their results (about 1/3 of the time, people click on the ads rather than the "natural search" list).

Measuring Trust

In the old days, there were survey services to measure trust and credibility.  JD Power, Consumer Reports, the University of Michigan, and other specialized survey organizations established nationwide standards for measuring quality, customer satisfaction, and trust.  While these are still incredibly useful services for both vendors and customers, they're also really expensive and involve significant delay.

The online world has established new benchmarks for speed and specificity of metrics.  They can be statistically valid within days, and provide important markers for credibility and trust:

  • eBay buyer and seller ratings, based on feedback from each transaction in the users' history

  • Amazon customer reviews of books and other articles

  • Digg and dozens of cloned services for user ratings of articles and blog entries

  • ePinions and other ratings of product quality, features, and value

  •, slashdot, and other social bookmarking / ranking services

Each of these systems uses the wisdom of crowds and social / swarming techniques to come up with specific measurements of trust.  Each of these metrics is a powerful tool for marketing, both on-line and off.

But in commerce, serious research has all but proven that only one metric really matters for profitability:  would your customers recommend your product/service to others?  This net ranking -- you among your customers -- is the quantification of word-of-mouth and referencability. 

There are a couple of companies focused on the simple yet powerful idea of the net promoter score.  NetPromoter, based on the book "The Ultimate Question," provides a set of tools to calculate your score, with guidelines for improving it.

What to do About Trust

Trust must be earned and is best built through transparency and consistency of your behavior.  First off, you have to stand for something, and be clear internally that you value it and will reward supporting behaviors.  Quietly but firmly let people know what you believe in.  Don't make claims that you don't really expect to deliver on.  Identify and expunge weenies who don't or can't follow through.  Never blow your own horn:  get customers and partners to do it for you. 

Ask your customers the Ultimate Question regularly, systematically, and openly.  Track and publicize the results.  Identify the three types of customers:  promoters, neutrals, and detractors, and work on the detractors first.  Figure out whether each detractor is (1) justified because you set expectations wrong, (2) justified because you did something wrong, or, (3) is just plain wrong.  No matter which category they fall into, you need to move them to at least neutral because the damage they do can be 5 times more powerful than the happy effects from your promoters.  The good news is that really fixing a detractor can make them into your most avid promoter, because their conversion builds trust about your company and what it really stands for.

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