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(Following is Chapter 10 of Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)
I started Idea Grove at the worst possible time in my life.
I left my last corporate job in the fall of 2004, with the intent to launch my own business in early 2005. But just as that plan was coming together, I was blindsided by a series of tragedies, including my mother’s unexpected passing and harrowing health crises for my wife and brother.
I was also jobless—and trying to get a website up for my company and, somehow, find the motivation to win clients and to work.
It felt pretty hopeless. I was just too distracted and depressed.
The one thing I was able to do—more as therapy than anything else—was start a blog on the new Idea Grove website.
I’d never owned or worked at an agency before, and I’d never had a blog before, either—very few PR people did at the time. So I decided to just be myself and have fun with it.
I didn’t take it too seriously. I had enough things to worry about, after all. I just got by as best I could, taking it a day at a time.
But then several months after I started the blog, something strange and unexpected happened: people started calling who wanted to work with me. They had found my blog in various Google searches or mentioned by other bloggers.
I realized that letting down my guard had drawn people in. When prospects reached out to me for the first time, it was like they already knew me. They knew my personality, my sense of humor, my professional background, and my approach to PR and marketing.
Without realizing it, I had been laying breadcrumbs of trust for Idea Grove through my blog all along.
SUCCESS WITHOUT SELLING
By early 2006 I had a full client load, and the agency has been going strong ever since. Idea Grove has been a three-time Inc. 5000 company and ranked as one of Inc.’s Best Workplaces in 2021 and 2022. We’ve won our fair share of local and national awards. And most meaningful to me, we’ve launched the careers of dozens of young PR and marketing professionals.
What I’ve learned from this experience is that you can be successful without “selling”—if you are able to achieve awareness and trust.
To this day, Idea Grove has earned virtually all its business organically, through PR, referrals, social media, and search.
That’s why I believe in the power of trust signals to grow brands. I’ve seen this, time and again, for Idea Grove’s own clients —like the two-person startup we helped to a $100 million exit, or the twenty-something coder with the full-time job who created an Android app in his spare time that we helped to forty million downloads.
Today we work with companies of all sizes, including some of the biggest brands in the world. The Grow With TRUST system is our foundation in helping them build, grow, and protect their brands.
FROM TRUST SIGNALS TO A TRUST SYSTEM
I wrote this book because I believe that trust signals are the tools that should fill every PR professional’s tool kit in 2022. A modern public relations agency should be able to help its clients build a path of credibility—breadcrumbs of trust—that accelerates every aspect of the marketing funnel.
But having a list of trust signals to work from isn’t enough. Every brand’s trust-building efforts should be part of a unified plan. While I’ve detailed some of the most important trust signals in earlier chapters, the best way to integrate these signals into a PR and marketing program is to organize them strategically, with specific goals in mind.
That’s where the Grow With TRUST system comes in. It brings together trust signals in an integrated set of solutions, all designed to help brands secure trust at scale.
The “TRUST” in Grow With TRUST is an acronym for the five PR and marketing solutions I believe every modern PR firm should offer to help their clients secure trust at scale:
These solutions require the use of multiple disciplines to be successful. When all you have is a hammer, all you see are nails, but it’s time for forward-looking PR agencies to grab a saw, a screwdriver, and a level, and build trust across all audiences important to their clients.
The five solutions within the Grow With TRUST system each consist of three program strategies. Let’s take a closer look at the Grow With TRUST system, solutions, and strategies.
Solution #1: Third-Party Validation
People want to hear what other people say about you, not what you say about yourself. This includes the media, influencers, analysts, experts, and—most importantly—customers.
A third-party validation program should consist of three primary strategies:
To build a brand in today’s post-truth world, companies must consistently secure third-party validation—and showcase it at every marketing touchpoint.
Solution #2: Reputation Management
It’s critical to listen and respond to what customers, employees, and others are saying about you on social media, including sites such as Glassdoor and product review sites.
A reputation management program should consist of three primary strategies:
Brands must anticipate and prepare for a full range of reputation challenges, including customer criticism, company crises, and social media cancellation attempts.
Solution #3: User Experience
User experience is how your buyers and other audiences interact with your brand in all the spaces you control online—from your website to your social media accounts. Are you creating experiences that build brand trust?
A user experience program should consist of three primary strategies:
Brands must create compelling, consistent brand experiences across online touchpoints to break through the noise and connect.
Solution #4: Search Presence
Google is not only the world’s largest search engine; it’s also its most powerful media company. Improving your brand’s visibility and trust online starts with your search presence—which tells the world what Google (or at least its algorithms) thinks of your brand.
A search presence program should consist of three primary strategies:
PR and SEO have effectively merged in recent years. Not taking an integrated approach to these disciplines is a significant missed opportunity for agencies and brands.
Solution #5: Thought Leadership
Sharing interesting and helpful information with those who come across you online is one of the best ways to build trust with them. It shows you have more to offer the world than a widget to sell.
Your thought leadership program should consist of three primary strategies:
The bottom line on thought leadership: talk about your ideas more and your products less.
THE CASE FOR A PR-CENTRIC APPROACH TO DIGITAL MARKETING
The Grow With TRUST system represents the most effective way for virtually any company to build, grow, and protect its brand today. It’s also the most natural way for PR agencies to meaningfully differentiate their services from those of other digital marketing firms.
And digital marketing is a field where meaningful differentiation is hard to come by these days.
Think about it.
Over the past decade, virtually every kind of agency has recast itself as a digital marketing firm:
That creates a lot of choices for brands—all of which can sound pretty similar when you visit these agencies’ websites.
So what’s a company in need of digital marketing services to do?
AN AGENCY’S HISTORY MATTERS
When we assess people as individuals—whether it’s a job candidate for your company or a romantic interest in your personal life—we tend to do some specific kinds of research. We don’t rely on what they tell us during a first interview or a first date. We fire up the Google machine. We study their personal histories and backgrounds.
The same goes for digital marketing agencies. Before you choose one, do a little research into their history. The niche where an agency started typically has a disproportionate influence on its strengths, weaknesses, and strategic focus.
SEO-Centric Digital Marketing
Until fairly recently, SEO was a highly idiosyncratic field. It operated in a completely separate world from other forms of marketing.
The reason is that the driving rationale for SEO from 1995 to 2010 was to “game” Google—to exploit gaps in algorithms—with link farms, offshore website networks, and other tricks of the trade. “Good SEO” is what an SEO firm would call it when you searched Google for a Boston Kreme and got a corner donut shop in Roxbury instead of Dunkin’ Donuts.
Since 2010, Google has been on a systematic, Sherman-like March to the Sea against this kind of SEO—now known as “unnatural” link-building—wiping it out with ruthless efficiency through steady improvements to its algorithm. Many traditional SEO firms have repositioned themselves as digital marketing agencies to adapt to this new reality.
The challenge for these firms is that what Google wants today is what website visitors want: sites that earn their ranking and visibility by generating high-quality content that attracts real audiences, as well as earning links from high-authority sites like news media outlets.
In other words, Google rewards quality today—not trickery.
Many SEO-centered digital marketing firms have had a di- cult time making this transition. Their historic focus on collecting backlinks and increasing rankings by any means necessary consigns them to the role of tactical resource rather than strategic partner.
Design-Centric Digital Marketing
Web design firms have been squeezed by easy-to-download Word- Press templates and plug-ins that have made building a high-quality website easier than in the past. Making it even tougher for these firms, more clients are asking hard questions about the design process.
Before, creatives could mesmerize clients with talk of how their designs “tap into the energy of your business” or “symbolize movement toward the future.” They would talk about color theory and aesthetics, but rarely about the purpose of your site: to grow your business. Now, clients expect the proof to be in the pudding. If they are going to spend $50K or more on a website, they want to make sure it will deliver results.
These are the changes that have turned web design firms into digital marketing agencies. But for many design-centric firms— accustomed to being hired for their visual eye rather than KPIs—it has not been an easy transition.
Advertising-Centric Digital Marketing
Many traditional advertising firms have also repositioned themselves as digital marketing agencies. The irony is that inbound marketing is very much a response—a negative one—to the paid, one-way messaging that advertising agencies have specialized in since the days of Don Draper and before.
Today, consumers want genuine dialogue with brands. And they would rather hear from the brand’s customers, influencers, and others than the brand itself. While advertising is necessary to amplify the organic reach of digital marketing programs, it is no longer an end in itself.
PR-Centric Digital Marketing
The problem for firms that start with SEO, web design, or advertising as their core discipline is that, while these are all important tools for digital marketers, they are not the foundation for an integrated digital marketing strategy in 2022.
What is the foundation?
Telling authentic stories that earn third-party validation organically. That’s been the focus of PR for the past one hundred years.
When journalists change careers, it is typically to go into PR because it’s such a natural transition. Journalists are less likely to join SEO or web design firms, and when they do, they often feel like fish out of water—a “content provider” bolted onto an agency that doesn’t really understand storytelling.
Too often, hiring a firm that is SEO-, design-, or advertising-centric to manage your digital marketing strategy is choosing the tail to wag the dog. You’re better off picking an agency that knows how to tell your brand’s story in a way that can earn attention—and trust—organically.
Over the next several chapters, we’ll outline how the Grow With TRUST system—a PR-centric approach to digital marketing—is the most effective way to build, grow, and protect your brand.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
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