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Chapter 19: Getting to Trust (and Beyond)

It’s one thing to spread a message about your company, but quite another for people to believe it. You can scream it, wrap it beautifully, or get famous people to say it, but you’re stuck by the fact that most won’t believe you. Everyone else faces the same challenge in trying to sell something: we need to move people from, “Yeah, whatever.” to “This thing is actually pretty good!”

Perception and reality

Try this: Go into a shop—any shop—and ask how business is. Odds are that you’ll hear responses like “It’s great… really great!” or “It’s amazing! We’re so busy!” My bet is that if you return and ask the same question once a month for a year, you’ll never hear much deviation from this. Sometimes this will be the truth and perhaps they’re doing quite well. It’s also reasonable to assume that this isn’t always the case. I think this springs from a fear of truth. More accurately, I believe we’re petrified by the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider what happens when people start to talk of a slow-down in the economy; almost immediately companies react by freezing spending, reducing marketing, and bracing for a storm. What’s the result? Things slow down.

I think this notion scares the shit out of most business owners. The thought process goes like this: “If we tell one person that we’re having a slow week, they’ll pass that on to their friends. Soon, the story will grow out of proportion and people will think we’re in trouble. Then they won’t buy anything from us out of fear that we’re not stable. Nope—we can’t have that! No matter how bad it is, we keep a stiff upper lip, and tell people that we’re doing just fine.”

In part, I can’t argue with this logic. Humans are fickle: A line outside a restaurant attracts others, in part from people thinking that something good must be going on, in order for that many people to be willing to wait. On the flip-side, few wish to be present when the “smell of death” is in the air. I’ve experienced this first hand. When we’re busy, it seems as though new projects simply land in our lap. Yet, when I solicit new work, even our best clients tend to avoid responding to me.

A fresh coat of bullshit

With all of that said, I think there’s a flaw in the “everything’s great” tone: it loses meaning without context. I have lunch with a certain colleague every few months and, without fail, he recounts his firm’s successes and shining prospects. At first I wondered what he had figured out that we hadn’t. (Our firm does well, but we’re not without our challenges.) Do they afford better value? Are they providing something unique for their clients that we should consider? What’s their secret? With time, little cracks around his story appeared, and the accuracy of his observations became questionable.

You can tell a fib every once in a while. The problem is that with each one you compromise the validity of every future claim. Few have unending runs of good-fortune. While one fib attracts little scrutiny, a series of them becomes difficult to maintain. Around the edges inconsistencies do arise, compromising one’s story.

The fellow I mention serves as a good example of this. On one occasion—when our firm was particularly slow—he noted that perhaps we should pool our resources. He explained that he simply couldn’t handle all of the work that was coming in. This raised my suspicions as we had just spent most of lunch talking about some great people he felt I should hire. If he was so busy, why wasn’t he hiring these wonderful people and putting them to work?

A month later the jig was up. We bumped into one another and the look on his face said it all. Things were lean, his staff was unhappy and performing a small exodus; plus, work wasn’t nearly as lucrative as had once been suggested. Maintaining an illusion of prosperity can be daunting.

Being transparent

We take a different approach at smashLAB and it may shock you. Most traditional business thinking would suggest it to be insane: we tell the truth.

We tell people when we’re slow at the office and don’t believe that such admissions have the potential to damage our business. We accept that most people know there are ups-and-downs in any industry. I open my personal life to business colleagues and like the idea that they see me as “human” first and “business-person” second. I tell other studio owners our business “secrets” and believe we have more to gain by sharing knowledge than by being secretive and paranoid. The truth is, few of our secrets are that good anyway. I’d bet that few of yours are either.

We tell the truth for a few reasons. First of all, our moms told us to. I’m not trying to be funny here; that influence is still hard-wired into us. It’s also easier. We’re not forced to remember which stories we told to which people. We don’t have to worry about inconsistencies from exaggerating. Aim for transparency and just put it out there. Edit as little as possible and speak as plainly as you can. You might be surprised by the results.

There’s something rotten in here

Acting honestly makes you acutely aware of how easy it is to sniff out bullshit. Liars can’t hear truth, because they’re surrounded by exaggeration. The rest of us have built-in radars that catch this sort of thing rather quickly. I like to believe that truth builds trust. Admitting it’s slow at your operation gives fellow business-owners permission to acknowledge the same. From there you can concentrate on the more important and beneficial aspect of the dialogue, “So what are you doing about it?” Fear of looking bad only limits these opportunities. Beyond this, you’ll find that your “word” starts to mean more than that of many others. If those around you know you speak candidly, they’re increasingly likely to ask for your counsel. This can facilitate more meaningful connections with clients, peers, and those who know of you solely by reputation.

Some people might feel strange about these suggestions. It might seem as though I’m asking you to put yourself out there for anyone to look at; in some ways I am. You either have to get over this discomfort or move to a cabin in the woods. Anyone can run a search and learn a great deal about you. It’s up to you to determine whether others control the resulting perceptions or if you take an active role. Whether you run a business or work for someone, you’ll have to increasingly think about this. Learn to expect that potential clients/employers are going to learn everything they can about you. Wouldn’t you do the same in their shoes? They may invest substantial trust in you. It’s reasonable for them to do some due-diligence before handing you the keys.

Just try to remember that very few expect you to be a saint. I like learning that those I work with are interesting, vibrant, and even flawed. We all are fallible and had better get it out there from the outset. On the other hand, there’s little excuse for poor judgment and bad behavior online. While you might like to put on pay-per-view chihuahua death battles (how avant-garde!) in your basement, blogging extensively about them will likely be discovered by someone you’d like to work with. My suggestion is to consider this carefully and act accordingly.

I’ve spent a great deal of time here making note of things that are really little more than sensible behavior. I imagine you’re wondering why I’ve invested so many words in something seemingly so banal. I’m getting to that...

Why this matters online

I’ve alluded to the same notion over and over again throughout this book; I think it’s of particular importance when it comes to your online persona and your company’s. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are hucksters on the web calculating how to get ahead through unscrupulous means. There are phishing schemes, theft of content, phony auction items, and countless other rackets. The anonymity and reach of the web makes it easy for people to do things that they shouldn’t, and this leaves many of us skeptical about what we find online.

In the past, something published was often taken for fact. This is certainly no longer the case. Publishing tools have become so democratized that the accuracy of media and our faith in it has become compromised. Think about it this way: In a matter of moments you can create a website proclaiming you to be the leading thinker on post-modernism, the CEO of Nike, or even the King of Pupunatuna. (I love Pupunatuna! It’s lovely this time of year!) In this setting, reputation becomes a commodity; it may be one of your business’ most valuable assets.

Social media is hard to scale

It’s interesting to consider how much better social media can work for small companies than their larger counterparts. Let’s pretend that you run a micro-brewery and that you have a loyal following of beer-drinkers who think your offering is pretty swell. For you, social media might prove to be quite effective. You’d have limited technology costs, as blogging software is inexpensive (or free) and social networks can be leveraged readily. These methods allow you to “narrowcast” directly to those who love your product.

You could tell them about new beers in development, provide suggestions on pairing certain brews with food, and start to build personal connections with each of these folks. Not only would these connections be fortified through your interactions, you’d also be privy to the good buzz from loyal buyers, increased traffic from higher page-rank, and the opportunity to tap fans for suggestions on how to improve your offering to better suit their desires. With time, this might lead you to write a book, speak at seminars, or perhaps make an appearance on television because you’d be the expert on this particular topic.

What you’re probably seeing here is just how important it is to actually live and breathe the product or service you sell. It’s your knowledge and passion that attracts a following, and without this, it’s unlikely that anyone would frequent your blog—or whatever avenue you chose to employ. Your blog about micro-brewing might not resonate with the masses, but for those who really care—the only people you’re likely concerned about reaching anyway—you might find your efforts to be highly effective.

Let’s look at why it would be more difficult for a larger competitor to match you in this way. Let’s say you own the largest network of breweries in the world: Megabeerco. You’re a highly-paid CEO and have decided that although you already sell a lot of beer, you’d like to sell more by employing social media in your marketing. You’d have all the same tools available as the fellow at the microbrewery, and much greater resources. (You are the CEO of Megabeerco, right?) My question is whether anyone would actually care. You’re likely missing two things that the little guy has: passion and knowledge.

Well, you aren’t really missing these two things; yours just might not be the right kind. Of course, you have passion: you love building a great company, connecting with your staff, and continually improving your operation. The problem is that this might not matter to those who buy your beer. Similarly, you likely have a great deal of knowledge—it’s not like you became CEO for no good reason. My guess is that your expertise is more closely related to what you learned through years of managing a large corporation. Sadly, this likely holds little interest to beer fanatics. On top of all of this, you probably don’t have much spare time to deal with social media. You have to concentrate on negotiating an expansion, addressing some staff/management conflicts, meeting with screened candidates to determine who’s the best fit for your VP of Finance opening, or something else equally important.

“I can delegate!”

Owners of small companies might need to connect directly with fans, but CEOs of multinationals don’t. Most are way too busy for that. So instead, they delegate these tasks. They shuffle them to the marketing department: people who are good at marketing, but may have little hands on experience brewing beer—or passion for the topic. “Ah-ha!” you say, “So why not bring in a few people from the company to share their thoughts: perhaps Robert, the brew-master; Tom, that funny guy in accounts, and maybe even Gladys at reception who everyone loves?” You know, that isn’t a half-bad idea, but if you do, these people are going to have to put aside their other work to write blog entries or interact with the public. Plus, what happens if they write something that you don’t want the public to know? That could be bad.

“Wait a second” you counter, “We can outsource it! We’ll hire a PR company—they understand social media and this will ensure that we don’t waste any time given that we’re already busy.” The challenge with a PR firm is that they don’t know your company inside and out. They might be good at sending press releases but they probably can’t articulate the difference between barley and hops. (For full disclosure, I’ll acknowledge that I certainly can’t.)

People at PR firms are busy and don’t typically have a strong passion for what you do. If they did, they would likely quit their jobs and apply for one at Megabeerco. They’re persuasive though, and tell you that they’d love to help you connect with customers. They come up with some fun ideas that might cost a bit. They suggest that you build your own proprietary social network, run some contests, and fly people around in a jet filled with bikini-clad models. (Perhaps it’s something a little more sensible than this.) The point is that with each layer of “neat” they dollop on your strategy, they’re even further away from building a relationship with the buyer. Meanwhile, the microbrewery guy keeps writing inexpensive posts that reach the people who care, and continues to establish a core group of believers.

I have to take a moment to be extra-clear. I’m not saying that big companies can’t use social media—actually, I believe quite the contrary. What I am saying is that the tools aren’t skewed in favor of the big guys like traditional advertising was. Social media is harder to employ for a team of twenty marketing experts than it is for one passionate entrepreneur who can put aside an hour a day to write about what they love, and connect with their customers. Plus, social media works better when it’s real. I don’t want to hear the CEO’s story any more than I want to receive a PR firm’s crafted press release. I want a real person who loves what they do, to let me in on the inside story.

You might think that I’m exaggerating

Perhaps you work at a PR firm. If this is the case, you’re probably about to toss this book out the window. Allow me to apologize; I don’t intend to discredit the work you do, and I know there are spots where companies like yours afford enormous value. At the same time, I believe you are experiencing an industry-wide midlife crisis. Allow me to elaborate.

If I arrived at work one day and was told that my keyboard had been reversed for ergonomic reasons, it would likely take me a year before I could type at the same rate I currently do. The tasks that come naturally would feel alien and cumbersome. Methods of working that had become hardwired as motor memory would need to be unlearned and relearned, and I’d be pretty frustrated. I might even continue to do things the way I had originally learned, given that I’d be pissed off that my past proficiency had been rendered out-of-date. I think you’re in a similar spot. In fact, I have evidence of it.

Last year I received an email from a PR firm in Phoenix, Arizona. It contained a relatively standard press release, but the sender accidentally started the post with the salutation “Hi <<First Name>>.” You guessed it: a bulk email from someone I’d never had contact with.

I won’t go into great detail about this (if you want the whole story, you can just read it here: short, for several weeks, I received numerous messages from the same firm, each one nearly identical. I asked them to stop sending these messages but they seemed to think I wasn’t worth replying to. With time, this angered me and I wrote the aforementioned blog post. I didn’t spare much in my criticism of the firm’s methods. The operation’s President later wrote to me, noting that she felt my write-up was “nasty.”

I can’t say that I entirely disagree with her observation; I wasn’t pulling any punches. The thing is, her company had been acting in a fashion that most would see as plain bad behavior. The unfortunate part is that my post likely had some negative repercussions for her firm, as it seemed to echo through the blogosphere.

Over the weeks that followed, I received a large number of emails from other PR firms. It seems that my cranky little post had in turn led more PR professionals to my blog. These new messages tended to begin with the semblance of a personal introduction (in the best instances) but would then awkwardly transition into an impersonal press release. It’s not that these aren’t fine people; it’s just that most of them haven’t wrapped their heads around the idea that press releases and mass messaging don’t work well in this landscape.

PR is still important, and I know there’s a place for these people. The feeling I can’t shake is that many of these operations need to take a cold, hard look at the new realities of communication and determine how they fit into it. (Needless to say, some PR firms are clearly ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing more “human” interaction. They can disclude themselves from the above generalizations.)

This isn’t going to be easy

Most of us who use social media in our marketing simply have to get our fingers in the dirt. I’d take this a step further by saying that if you, as the owner of the company, aren’t willing to get involved personally in this, it might be worth reconsidering whether to employ these tools altogether. While you can certainly ask for help, I don’t think that connecting with your customers can be delegated entirely to external (or less involved) parties. It’s your baby; you’ve got to be there with it!

As seductive as it may be to think so, most good things just don’t happen instantly. I encourage you to accept that you’re unlikely to make any meaningful online connections immediately. Building relationships and an online persona takes time, but it also brings the possibility of exponential opportunity from the network effects of the web. Establish ten amazing relationships with your customers and the next hundred may come more quickly… and from places that you might not have even anticipated.

Consider it a “conversation”

This notion of conversation is popular in social media marketing circles, and with good reason. In the past, you could just barf out a noisy message with limited ramifications. New communication tools come with the ability for the recipients to respond to these same messages. This means you’ll have to accept that yours isn’t the final-word and that some may criticize and perhaps even change it.

The upside? This is your opportunity to get down on the floor with everyone else, and hear what they have to say, direct and unfiltered. Get out there, talk to people and respond to comments. You could even become involved in relevant forums and become one of the regulars there. Contribute and share, perhaps without initially making any mention of what you sell. Give away the “good stuff” and encourage them to interact with you as one of them.

By getting active in these communities and speaking frankly with others, you stand a chance of turning naysayers into champions. Instead of trying to sweep criticism aside, you have an opportunity to get closer, ask questions, and find out exactly what’s going on. From there you can make things better for your customers and correct misunderstandings.

I don’t know about you, but I loathe finding myself at a party where one person monopolizes the conversation with stories about their dietary problems. I’m comfortable discussing almost any subject matter, but I believe a few basic rules apply. Being interesting doesn’t necessarily call for mystery and intrigue, but it usually involves varying subject matter and asking a few questions. This isn’t so different on the web: engage with your audience, encourage discussion, and find out what others are interested in. Sometimes this is as easy as commenting on others’ posts or sending an email to someone you admire. It seems to me that interesting people are equally interested in others.

Aside from a few exceptions, broadcasting via social media is largely pointless. Instead, I urge you to concentrate on connecting with smaller groups and individuals. This approach simply fits with social media more appropriately than bulk-mailing a single message to thousands of people. Part of this will require being as interested in the people you’re speaking with, as you want them to be of you. (This is a concept quite foreign in traditional advertising.) There’s little room for one-sided communication or relationships in this setting.


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