Chapter 11: Earning Approval—Third-Party Validation

Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell
Published: Jan 23, 2023

(Following is Chapter 11 of  Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)

Influencer endorsements didn’t begin with the Kardashians’ promotion of flat-tummy shakes, hair vitamins, and twenty-five-dollar “couture” lollipops. They go back much further.

One of their earliest uses as trust signals was by British entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood, who corralled high-profile customers like Queen Charlotte (wife of Hamilton favorite George III) to endorse his fine china way back in the 1700s.

Talk about trust seals: a coat of arms accompanied by the words “By Appointment to HRH (Her Royal Highness)” is a pretty good one to have on your advertising.

Whether it’s a Kardashian, a queen, or a reviewer on Yelp, people want to hear what other people say about you, not what you say about yourself. That includes the media, influencers, analysts, experts, and—most importantly—your customers.

The elements of third-party validation are inextricably linked today. For example, if Idea Grove’s media-relations team pitches a story about a client to one of our media contacts, one of the first things that reporter will do is Google the client to check out its customer reviews and other social proof. Should the journalist decide to write a story, they may feature customer quotes about the client pulled directly from these sites, simply because they don’t have time to find and interview customers themselves.

The dynamic is similar with influencer relations. You’ll have a much easier time landing the right influencers for your campaign if your business already has good visibility, glowing reviews, and positive coverage online. Image is everything to influencers, after all; the best ones are very careful about who they partner with. They do their research.

STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING TRUST WITH THIRD-PARTY VALIDATION

We listed twenty forms of third-party validation in Chapter 6, ranging from speaking engagements to Wikipedia pages. But the three key pillars of a third-party validation program are the following:

  1. Media relations strategy. Securing news media coverage in top outlets is the holy grail for third-party validation and has tremendous value when leveraged correctly.
  2. Influencer marketing strategy. Social media influencers come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes your best bets have very small—but highly targeted—followings. Your job is to find them.
  3. Online review strategy. Customer reviews can make or break your brand online. Prioritize the review sites that matter; then, build a five-star presence.

Let’s discuss how to use each of these strategies to construct a successful third-party validation program, starting with media coverage.

Strategy #1: Media Relations

First, let’s talk about the wrong way to get media validation.

Scrolling through an Instagram feed today is a lot like driving on the highway and seeing a line of billboards that stretches over the horizon. There are endless ads—often eerily well-targeted. 

One ad I’ve seen many times is for a company called Brand Featured, which targets small businesses and ecommerce stores. Here’s a partial transcript from the video ad (featuring a young spokesmodel who is popular on Fiverr):

So why aren’t people buying? One reason is a lack of trust.

If your website does not have enough five-star reviews or trust elements, visitors won’t trust you enough to buy. But if they don’t buy, you can’t get those five-star reviews in the first place.

This negative loop can stop you from growing your business. 

But there’s actually a really easy way out of this, and it only takes five minutes to do.

Imagine if on your website you could have the phrase “As Seen On” big news sites like NBC, CBS, FOX, and more. You’d get a huge boost in credibility resulting in more sales for your business.

At Brand Featured, we do exactly that. We’ll write an article about your company and publish it to our wide network of over one hundred news sites, including aliates of NBC, CBS, FOX, and more.

Once your article is published, you’ll be able to proudly say, “As Seen On” these authority news sites.

Too Good to Be True

You know what they say: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What Brand Featured and services like it do is simply distribute a press release that is syndicated across many news sites. Your story has not been selected by affiliates of NBC, CBS, or FOX; these sites and others publish thousands of newswire press releases every day. It’s an automated service. No one at NBC, CBS, or FOX is reading it or vetting it before it is published—and no credibility is actually conferred.

In fact, there is typically a disclaimer under the headline that says the news outlet “was not involved in the creation of this content.”

That’s why it “only takes five minutes to do.”

Being one of countless companies whose press releases are published daily on news sites, through automated syndication, is not the same as earning media coverage.

And when your website visitors figure out what you’re doing (i.e., trying to trade on a media brand’s credibility without actually earning it), that can actually become a trust killer for your brand.

Earning Media Coverage the Right Way Takes Time

It’s understandable why services like Brand Featured exist. Media coverage from well-known outlets confers enormous credibility, even in our fractured, post-truth world. And the better aligned those media sources are with your audience, the stronger the trust signal that coverage will send.

But when it comes to earning meaningful editorial coverage from top media outlets, there’s just no getting around it: it’s hard work, and it takes time.

It used to be easier. A decade ago, a company could put a press release on the wire, blast it to a massive email list of media targets, and garner coverage. Today, a strategy like that can still work for the Amazons of the world, but for lesser-known brands, the only response you might get from journalists is an “unsubscribe” message.

For all but the biggest brands, media relations today requires a more targeted, thoughtful, and empathetic approach to be successful. Newsrooms are shrinking, writers fresh out of college are replacing industry veterans, reporters are jumping from job to job—and, all the while, those journalists are now juggling numerous topics or “beats,” often for multiple outlets. That’s a lot of stress and pressure for reporters to deal with.

So start with the premise that your job is to make their job easier by giving them something of value. This requires you to answer a number of questions before you ever send out your pitch:

  • What have they written about recently?
  • What are they tweeting?
  • What angles do they typically take in their stories?
  • Do they tend to interview execs? Write trend stories? Prefer data-driven pieces? Incorporate video?

We live in a world where everything is tailored to our preferences; we expect to be given what we want, from the targeted ads in our Instagram feeds to the content recommended to us on Netflix. Reporters expect that, too.
That also means when a journalist does bite on your pitch, you better be ready to deliver: with executives on standby, together with all the supporting data and assets necessary for the reporter to write the story. Otherwise, they will lose interest and find another story to chase.
The math is simple. Forty years ago, there was about one PR person for every journalist. By 2010, the ratio stood at four PR people to every journalist. Today, it’s a six-to-one ratio and climbing. That means each interaction with a reporter is precious. It also means that it’s more important than ever to make sure the media sources you pitch are the right ones—the ones that will send the most powerful trust signals to your target audiences.

Making Sure the Right People See Your Coverage

Once a story is published about your brand, your work shouldn’t stop there. The sheer volume of content published today means the feature article secured for you can be quickly buried by several others like it. It falls o the publication’s home page and down the list of your industry’s Google News results.

That means a smart media relations strategy today must include making sure the right people see your coverage.

How to achieve this? A number of ways, including the following:

  • Running targeted ads that point your buyers to the coverage
  • Including the coverage in your email marketing
  • Guiding your sales team in using the coverage in their prospecting emails
  • Sharing your coverage on social media and amplifying it with ads
  • Encouraging your employees to share your coverage in their social channels
  • Highlighting the media coverage on your company blog
  • Creating a search-optimized online newsroom that draws both journalists and buyers to your coverage

And of course, let’s not forget adding an “As Seen On” section to your home page, complete with media logos and links to the coverage you’ve legitimately earned. That’s the right kind of website trust signal to send your visitors. 

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SIDEBAR: THE SECRET SUPERPOWERS OF MEDIA COVERAGE 

Baradell-Graphic 17-Superpowers

Believe me: if the reality of dwindling readership has soured you on the value of earned media, I get where you’re coming from.

I really do.

But you’d be wrong. Because in many ways, despite the challenges the media industry faces, news coverage in well-known media outlets is a more powerful marketing tool than ever before.

In our fragmented media environment—and in a post-truth world where information sources are under constant scrutiny— established media organizations carry enormous weight where it matters most. And it matters most with Google, YouTube, Face- book, Twitter, and Wikipedia—the most trafficked websites in the world.

Let me explain why. 

Google Ranks Sites with Media Coverage Higher

Google is not only a search engine but the most powerful media company in the world, with more than five billion (with a “b”) visitors per day. These visitors depend on Google to tell them which sites they should visit and what content they should be consuming. And in answering their queries, Google relies heavily on traditional media sources.

To highlight this point, Google’s John Mueller has stated that a single high-quality backlink from a major news source is more valuable to your website’s search position than “millions” of low-quality backlinks. Mueller added that PR is the most effective, and least spammy, strategy for earning links (Southern 2021).

Facebook and YouTube Are Removing Less-Trusted Sources

Social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube have taken a lot of heat over the past couple of years for their lax moderation of news content—which led to an explosion of fake news. In response to this problem, organizations such as the Trust Project have emerged to help restore integrity to online news.

The Trust Project—endorsed by more than two hundred news organizations including PBS, the BBC, The Economist, Hearst, and Sky News—has partnered with Facebook and other social sites to help police the accuracy of online content. This has led to mainstream news sources achieving greater visibility on Facebook.

YouTube, meanwhile, in the past two years has removed tens of thousands of videos for spreading misinformation. Users increasingly expect Facebook and YouTube to take a stand against fake news, which means these sites are relying on traditional media sources more and independent sources less. That means earned media coverage in respected outlets is gaining more exposure and authority with audiences.

Twitter Validates Users Based on Media Coverage

A verified badge on Twitter has long been one of the most coveted status symbols online. Earning that blue checkmark tells the world you’re established in your field. But Twitter, like other social media sites that offer verification, has traditionally been less than forthcoming about what makes an account eligible for this designation. 

That changed last year, when Twitter unveiled a new verification policy outlining the criteria for obtaining a badge on the platform. To qualify, “your account must be authentic, notable, and active.”

Twitter’s assessment of notability includes meeting two of these three requirements:

  1. Presence in public indices, such as Google Trends, public stock exchanges, or Wikipedia
  2. Three or more featured references in the previous six months in media outlets that meet Twitter’s criteria for news organizations, including newspapers, magazines, TV, and digital outlets that adhere to journalism standards such as those laid out by the Society of Professional Journalists
  3. A follower count in the top 0.05 percent of active accounts located in the same geographic region

Reaching the top 0.05 percent of accounts would be a tough proposition for most businesses. But proving your account is notable through earned media coverage and having a presence

in public indices such as Wikipedia is reasonably attainable and

the much easier route in securing a blue checkmark next to your brand’s name. This underscores the importance of media coverage to attaining social proof.

For Wikipedia, Notability Comes from Media Coverage

In addition to being one of the most visited sites on the internet, Wikipedia is an unrivaled source for conferring authority on individuals and brands. The bar for attaining an entry in Wikipedia is high, but it can be met most easily by securing media coverage.

Wikipedia relies on media coverage to determine which brands meet its “notability” criterion. Candidates for Wikipedia entries must show an extensive trail of citations from reliable sources to clear this bar.

Third-Party Validation Matters More than Ever

While the world of public relations is constantly evolving, there’s still no substitute for the third-party validation an earned media story brings to a brand. Not only is it an important tool in building awareness, trust, and credibility within your target market, it’s a prerequisite for brands seeking validation from the Big Five web- sites: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia.

When it comes to building trust with target audiences today, earned media coverage from recognized and respected outlets remains one of the surest paths to success.

 

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Strategy #2: Influencer Marketing

Today, celebrity and influencer marketing is all about choosing the right partners—but it hasn’t always been that way.

In the late nineties, when I ran PR for a billion-dollar wireless communications company, Burson-Marsteller pitched that we use morning TV weatherman Al Roker as the celebrity spokesman for our latest product launch. They even showed us a video of Roker fumbling awkwardly with the device to illustrate what a great idea it was.

We said no—wisely, I think—to Al. He was famous and a nice guy but had no real connection or expertise that was relevant to us. That was the dimension that was missing.

Of course, that dimension often has been absent in celebrity endorsements. Sheer star power has frequently trumped sensible pairings of endorser and brand.

One of the more infamous examples was when Winston cigarettes sponsored The Flintstones and hired Fred Flintstone himself as its celebrity mouthpiece.

I never smoke nuthin’ else,” the cartoon caveman proclaimed to a TV audience of children and adults alike.

Influence Has Become More Fragmented—but Also More Relevant

Things have changed over the past fifteen years, since social media came onto the scene.

We still have star-driven campaigns like Matthew McConaughey’s iconic ads for Lincoln. But we’ve also seen an historic extension of the celebrity endorsement from Hollywood stars and professional athletes to tens of thousands of online influencers across Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and other social channels.

With rare exceptions, endorsements are a much more fragmented commodity today. As with virtually all institutions in our society, celebrity is no longer a monolithic status symbol. One person’s celebrity is another person’s “who?”

Most online influencers can be thought of as micro-celebrities, in that few people outside their immediate sphere of influence have ever heard of them. Some niche influencers don’t think of themselves as influencers at all—but have followings that can make them valuable avenues for delivering brand messages.

Back when my blog Media Orchard was in its heyday, the pseudonymous blogger known as Strumpette, popularized by Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post, dismissed me as a “micro-celebrity.” Of course, because I had no ambition to be a celebrity at all, I took it as a compliment. Brands sent me products like high-end cameras to try out in hopes I would write about them on my blog—unsolicited and no questions asked.

Influencer marketing has become far more sophisticated since those early days. A return on investment is expected.

Which brings us to the best thing about influencer endorsements, compared to traditional celebrity endorsements. While celebrities mostly win fans because people enjoy watching them in movies, sports, or TV, influencers typically earn their followings in a targeted niche by creating content specifically for that niche. They have expertise or at least genuine interest in the subject.

That means that niche influencers can actually deliver far more bang for the buck than big-name celebrities—if you know your niche and choose your influencers well.

Know Your Continuum of Influence

We introduced the concept of a continuum of influence in Chapter 2. This continuum begins with the individual consumer who leaves feedback about your brand in a Google review or on a product review site. Those reviews have influence on those who see them.

Beyond review sites, some consumers may have influence on their own platforms on social media. Should they choose to say positive things about you on their channels, this elevates them from simply a consumer to an influencer.

The larger and more relevant an influencer’s following, the more important their endorsement becomes. As influencers grow in reach, they move up in category: from nano-influencer to micro-influencer to macro-influencer to mega-influencer.

The relationship of brands with influencers can be paid, organic, or something in between. Traditional organic influencers—like industry analysts or journalists—are usually forbidden from accepting compensation. If they mention your brand, it’s because they believe it will be of interest to their audience.

Among paid influencers, compensation varies widely. For smaller influencers, being sent a free sample of a product can be sufficient compensation for a post. An A-list celebrity, meanwhile, might command a million-dollar price tag for a single product mention.

Credibility, Engagement, and Ethics

With all the possibilities, what’s the best way to get started with an influencer marketing program that works?

First things first: don’t worry about whether the influencer is paid or organic. Even if the influencer is organic, gaining their endorsement costs money—the time and attention you put into finding them and pitching them your story. Focus on whether an influencer has credibility with their audience, and how well that audience matches yours.

Today’s top influencers—those with one million or more followers—are closer to reality TV stars than they are to average consumers, which can make them not as influential as you might think. Engagement rates also tend to decline as people’s follower counts increase.

Whether working with a nano-influencer or a mega-influencer, a good rule of thumb is to work with influencers who have an average engagement rate of at least 1 percent. But these stats don’t tell the whole story, which is why you should carefully review the influencer’s content for quality, consistency, and alignment with your brand’s messaging and goals.

It’s also important to align on the issue of ethics.

Many influencers fall in a gray area between celebrity entertainers and the news media in the minds of their audiences. This can lead to confusion about whether an influencer is offering an honest opinion or simply a paid ad in their endorsements.

Look at an example like Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Scott Disick, who has posted paid endorsements not only without writing them, but without reading them either. That’s apparently why he inadvertently included his instructions from the advertiser in an Instagram post for the Bootea meal- replacement shake.

The post, under a picture of Disick and a container of the shake, read as follows:

Here you go, at 4pm est, write the below: ‘Keeping up the summer workout routine with my morning @booteauk protein shake!’

Disick made things worse by not including a disclosure that the post was sponsored. A simple three-character hashtag like #ad would have done the trick. Not disclosing sponsored posts actually violates guidelines of the Federal Trade Commission, making the faux pas even more dangerous.

Separating the Real from the Fake

When considering paying an influencer, be sure to check for the following:

  • The influencer clearly discloses partnerships. If it seems like the influencer is endorsing products and services without labeling posts as sponsored, stay away. An influencer unaware of FTC rules—or worse, willing to flout them—is not a trustworthy marketing partner.
  • The influencer’s engagement appears legit. As HBO’s 2021 documentary Fake Famous illustrates, it’s surprisingly easy to fabricate influencer status by buying bots— bots to follow your Instagram account, engage with your posts, buy your book, or even bid for your products on eBay. Idea Grove’s social media software partner, Sprout Social, advises any brand considering an influencer investment to first carefully assess follower-to-engagement rate, engagement quality, sudden spikes in follower count, and audience quality. If something smells fishy, it probably is.
  • The influencer doesn’t have reputation issues. Brands engage with influencers because they want to benefit from their reputation and credibility. If an influencer

has received bad press or gets more attention for their controversies than their content, you might want to look elsewhere. Influencers should always reflect the values of your brand.

Using Influencer Endorsements as Website Trust Signals

After you’ve invested the time and money to attract celebrity and influencer endorsements, it’s important to leverage those endorsements wherever possible. That means not only relying on the influencer’s social media feed as an inbound trust signal but sharing their seal of approval on your website as well.

Whenever possible, include your top influencers’ photos and endorsement quotes on your site, or feature a video in which they describe their experience with your product or service in detail. Even in the case of a paid relationship, audiences can see the difference between someone who actually knows and likes your brand and a Scott Disick who is cutting and pasting endorsements without reading them first.

Influencers and ROI

The best influencer partnerships can yield both short-term and long-term benefits.

For short-term ROI, you should look to the engagement rates on the influencer’s posts that mention your brand. Are their followers liking the post? Are they asking questions or seeking to learn more about your product? Can you track sales to the endorsement—and if so, how many? These are all tangible signs of return on investment.

But the even greater return can be as a trust signal for your brand. When you make a celebrity or influencer the face of your brand, the association tends to linger in the memory, particularly for influencers that maintain their visibility over time. That’s all the more reason to choose your partners wisely.

Strategy #3: Online Reviews

Let me start this section by acknowledging something we all know, but none of us like.

Life isn’t fair.

And as many marketers and business owners have found, online reviews aren’t always fair, either.

Let’s look at a few unfortunate facts:

  • Online reviews do not always represent an accurate sample of customers; for example, people who return products represent a small percentage of buyers but a much larger portion of reviewers.
  • Bad reviews have far more influence on buyers than good reviews, with four out of five shoppers specifically seeking out negative reviews and half of those declining to make purchases because of these reviews.
  • As many as one in fifteen negative reviews are from people who have never actually purchased the product they are reviewing but consider themselves “self-appointed brand managers” who want to offer feedback to the seller.
  • Some vendors pay shady online reputation management firms to counter negative reviews by posting fake five-star reviews; more than half of electronics reviews on Amazon, for example, have been accused of being fake.

All these things are true. So it’s no wonder that some brands simply want to throw up their hands, focus on their business, and hope their hard work will eventually show up in their reviews on Google, Amazon, or Trustpilot.

But here’s a second set of facts to consider:

  • Nearly nine out of ten consumers read reviews before making a purchase.
  • Three in four shoppers say they trust online reviews
    as much as recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues.
  • Google ranks the websites of well-reviewed businesses higher in search results.
  • On ecommerce sites, product pages with customer reviews experience 3.5 times more conversions than those without.

Burying your head in the sand when it comes to customer reviews is simply no longer an option. Online reviews rank among the most powerful trust signals for your potential customers, and their influence is only expected to increase in the years ahead.
That’s why virtually every brand should implement an aggressive strategy for soliciting and responding to customer reviews.

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SIDEBAR: WHEN SOLICITING ONLINE REVIEWS, AVOID REVIEW GATING

What is review gating and why should you care about it?

Review gating is when a business attempts to first find out if a customer’s experience was positive or negative before asking for a review—and then only asks for reviews from happy customers. While it might seem like common sense to encourage only your fans to leave online reviews, review gating brings up ethical and legal issues that can put you at odds with Google—and the Federal Trade Commission as well.

In 2019, Google updated its terms of service to discourage review gating in Google Reviews. The terms now say: “Don’t dis- courage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.” Other review sites, as well as review management tools such as Birdeye and Podium, quickly issued statements in support of Google’s position.

In January 2022, the FTC announced that online retailer Fashion Nova had agreed to pay a $4.2 million fine for concealing bad reviews. The case marked the first time the FTC has stepped in to punish a brand for review gating.

The FTC also sent a letter to ten review management vendors, including Reputation, Signpost, and Grade Us, warning them to avoid the practice.

Ungated Reviews Offer Plenty of Upside, Little Downside

Birdeye, among others, changed its method of soliciting reviews on behalf of their customers after Google’s policy change. Whereas before businesses could “pre-check customer sentiment in their review requests,” Birdeye updated its interface to solicit reviews from all customers after they interacted with a local business—like a restaurant, hair salon, car repair shop, or doctor’s office.

What has been the impact of the change? It hasn’t been as rough for businesses as you might expect, for a few reasons:

  • Customers are much more likely to leave positive than negative reviews when a business directly solicits a review; negative reviews are generally unsolicited.
  • Potential customers looking to review sites for guidance can become suspicious when they only see five-star reviews; it’s actually better to have a ratio of 5:1 in positive to negative reviews than to have no negative reviews at all.
  • If you’re able to win over a client who initially had a negative perception of your brand or product, it’s even more compelling for prospective buyers.

The review-capturing tool GatherUp, in fact, conducted a study and concluded that not gating reviews leads to more reviews but not significantly lower average star ratings (Blumenthal 2019).
GatherUp sought to answer the question, “Does review gating impact star ratings?” It looked at “roughly 10,000 locations that were in [their] system the year before the switch with gating turned on and compared those same locations after gating was turned off.” It found that “gating had very little impact on the average star-rating but that NOT gating saw a significant increase in review volumes.”

In the period following the elimination of gating, GatherUp saw review counts grow significantly in the aggregate, by almost 70 percent. Overall ratings on Google and Facebook went down slightly, but almost unnoticeably.

On Google, for example, average star ratings declined from 4.66 to 4.59 without any filtering or selective solicitation. However, review volumes grew from over 32,000 to more than 53,000 on Google.

Since review volume is a trust signal that a product or service is popular, the upside of ungating reviews clearly outweighs the downside risk.

It also keeps you out of trouble with Google and the FTC.

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How to Create a Review Presence That Grows Trust

No matter your industry or profession, it’s much easier for your business to grow sales if you first implement a review strategy that grows trust.

Here are five steps to creating or enhancing your online-review strategy:

#1: Address Any Product or Operational Issues Driving Negative Reviews

There’s no point in putting time and effort into a review program if you don’t first address the chronic issues that reviewers complain about. Study reviews carefully to identify common themes and address complaints. It’s critical to get your house in order before inviting people to visit.

#2: Determine Which Review Sites Should Be Your Priorities

Review sites have become a big business, with hundreds of sites competing for attention. It’s important to focus your efforts on the three to five sites that are most important to your business. Virtually every brand should care about Google, which accounts for more than half of all online reviews. The rest will depend on your type of business.

#3: Create a System for Asking Your Customers for Reviews

What’s the best way to ask for reviews? Local service businesses, like restaurants, hotels, and hair salons, should take the direct route by asking the customer for a review before they ever leave your place of business. For pure ecommerce companies, follow up with your customer right after their purchase with an email or text message that links to the site where you’d like their review to appear. For companies that sell products or services that require some time to evaluate, set up a quarterly Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey and ask for reviews at that time.

#4: Embed Positive Reviews on Your Website

Many review sites enable you to embed reviews directly from their site onto yours. Where to embed reviews? If you have individual products that are reviewed, embed those reviews on the relevant product pages within your site. If the reviews speak to your company as a whole, add them to your home page. And for online merchants, embedded reviews in the checkout process have been shown to increase conversions.

#5: Respond to All Reviews, Whether Negative, Positive, or Mixed

While some business owners think they should only respond to negative reviews, it’s a good idea to respond to all reviews. Always respond sincerely, acknowledge the reviewer’s specific situation, and never argue or act defensive. We’ll discuss responding to negative reviews and social media complaints more in Chapter 12.

With an equal focus on the news media, social media influencers, and customer reviews, a third-party validation strategy can build a pathway of trust to your website—and ultimately to growth.

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