Grow with TRUST: The Trust Signals Mantra
Everybody claims to be a growth hacker these days -- at least if you check out people's bios on...
“Everybody talks about the weather,” Mark Twain is famously said to have remarked. “But no one does anything about it.”
So it seems to be with trust these days. There is plenty of gnashing of teeth among marketers and communicators about how consumers are less trusting than they used to be. But where are the pragmatic solutions for improving trust between brands and their audiences? Mostly I see surveys and institutes and panel discussions—not practical guidance.
That’s where trust signals come in. Trust signals are the tools that should fill every PR professional’s toolkit. A modern public relations agency should be able to help its clients build a path of credibility—“breadcrumbs of trust”—to accelerate every aspect of the marketing funnel.
But having a list of trust signals to work from isn’t enough; your business’s trust-building efforts need to be part of a unified plan. That’s where my Grow With TRUST system comes in. It brings together trust signals in an integrated set of solutions, all supported by strategies proven to help brands secure trust at scale.
While Grow With TRUST is designed to help any business, and can be deployed successfully by marketers, entrepreneurs, and others, I stated at the outset of Trust Signals that I created this framework with PR professionals in mind.
That’s because Grow With TRUST can help PR agencies expand their services and grow their own businesses in a more organized way, with a more coherent rationale. The entire system is built around what PR firms do best: helping brands secure trust at scale.
SELLING GROW WITH TRUST TO PR CLIENTS
When I share the Grow With TRUST system with my peers at other PR agencies, I am often told it won’t be accepted by clients.
“When companies call us, they just want media coverage. They aren’t open to other services,” they say.
My team used to think that, too, until we began having different kinds of conversations with our clients and prospects—and began listening for clues that they wanted something more, too.
For example, when we ask prospects what they are hoping to achieve with media coverage, we often hear something like this:
“Buyers do their own research today, and we want them to see us in news coverage when they are doing this.”
Now, when we get an answer like this, we could respond in one of two ways:
We used to settle for the first response. Give the people what they want, right?
Now we always ask the latter question. We’d rather show our clients what they need, and give them that, instead.
BUYERS AND DYOR
In the 1990s, conspiracy theorists on the web began using the phrase, “Do your own research,” to encourage skepticism of the mainstream media and academic elites. With the emergence of QAnon and similar movements, the admonition to do your own research—or DYOR—has become more popular than ever.
But it’s not DYOR about controversial topics like vaccines that has had the biggest impact on our society; it’s DYOR about everything. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey showed that 81 percent of Americans rely “a lot” on doing their own research before making important decisions—with the internet being their number-one source of information. That’s compared to 43 percent of Americans who rely on friends and family and only 31 percent who look to professional experts for advice (Turner and Rainie 2020).
As part of this shift to internet research, consumers have transitioned to a DYOR mentality when buying almost anything—from a pair of sneakers to multimillion-dollar enterprise software.
As we’ve learned throughout this book, the breadcrumb path to purchase is different for every individual and audience. That’s why it’s so important to invest in research to understand your buyers and the sources of influence they trust.
But based on what we know generally to be true, if a client is seeking to reach buyers who are doing their own research, will a couple of positive news stories be enough?
Would that article in Parents magazine have been enough to convince our account manager, Laurie Lane, to buy that crib mattress in Chapter 6?
No. For Laurie, the breadcrumb trail included, in addition to that Parents coverage:
This should come as no surprise to us. It’s how internet research works.
So what are we actually doing for a prospect who comes to us in this environment and asks for media coverage—and we agree to do only that for them?
What we are not doing is helping them as we should—and in the way, with the right tools, organization, and mentality, that we can.
DEPLOYING A CROSS-FUNCTIONAL SYSTEM
The Grow With TRUST framework sets forth a modern, integrated approach to the practice of PR. This can present implementation challenges for some agencies and brands—but it is worth the time and effort to overcome these.
In any cross-functional system, organizational silos can make working across disciplines—toward shared goals—difficult. The idea of PR, content, social media, design, and strategy working together seamlessly is a pipe dream in many organizations.
But it is a necessity for the Grow With TRUST system.
If you’re a brand seeking an agency’s help, make sure the firm is organized to make cross-functional cooperation as frictionless as possible. Every team member working for your brand—no matter their function—should speak with a single voice for you.
If you are a PR agency that would like to break down silos to offer the Grow With TRUST system to clients, the first step is to organize around solutions rather than capabilities. Grow With TRUST can’t be implemented without a solution-centered approach.
For some agencies, that may require significant changes to your organizational chart—for others, simply a change of mindset.
SIDEBAR: SUPERMAN, FLASH, AND THE INTEGRATED AGENCY ADVANTAGE
When I was a kid, I was a DC Comics guy. And that meant I loved Superman—the original superhero who had it all: super strength, X-ray and heat vision, invulnerability, super hearing, and “freeze” breath, just to name a few of his superpowers.
Superman was more powerful than a locomotive. He could leap tall buildings in a single bound. And he was faster than a speeding bullet.
That’s pretty fast.
But after introducing Superman in 1938, DC later created the Flash, “the fastest man alive.” And ever since then, comics aficionados of all ages have debated the eternal question, “Who’s faster?”
This led to a series of races over the years—the first in 1967. Most of the races ended up in a tie; the others were narrow Flash victories.
Growing up, my perspective on those races was this: “Who cares if Flash is a little faster? Superman is the total package!”
And that’s the rationale for choosing an integrated agency over a specialist firm. While the specialist firm might be better at certain things, an integrated firm is usually the better choice overall.
A Single, Strong Partner
Integrated agencies provide inherent advantages over going the specialist route. If I’m a CMO and I hire separate agencies for PR, social media, website design, brand strategy, SEO, and content marketing (to cite a rather extreme example), that’s six different invoices to pay every month.
It’s also six different times I have to repeat myself whenever the company’s strategy changes or a big announcement is going out—or I just want to update everyone on anything.
I also have to deal with the fact that everything in digital marketing is inextricably linked today. Is it even possible to separate content from SEO, or social media from media relations? Not effectively.
And good luck having a consistent brand voice with so many mouthpieces. It just doesn’t work.
Having a single, strong agency partner can also help a brand stay on track with its program.
Often, a client comes to Idea Grove with big goals. The CMO has been given a directive from above to do any number of things—improve awareness, increase site traffic, fill the sales funnel. We kick off a program for them, and for the first few months, that’s what we work toward.
But then other things start to compete for the CMO’s attention. Someone in sales asks for a new piece of collateral. Or the sales deck needs to be redesigned. Or they need a new page added to the website. And slowly, that singular focus on strategic goals gets blurred. The urgent overwhelms the important.
It’s understandable. As a marketer, your table gets crowded. Your eye wanders. Or a directive from one leader starts to compete with a directive from another.
When that happens with my agency’s clients, we consider it our job to direct focus back to those original strategic goals. That only works, though, when you have one strong agency partner who, like you, can see the big picture and step in to help.
All of this makes for a pretty good case for integration.
But what’s the argument for hiring a PR firm, rather than a creative firm or performance-marketing firm or advertising agency, to lead the way?
My argument is the Grow With TRUST system—the PR-centric approach to brand building in a post-truth world.
DETERMINING PRIORITIES WITHIN GROW WITH TRUST
For brands implementing the Grow With TRUST system, all five solutions—third-party validation, reputation management, user experience, search presence, and thought leadership—are equally important to building, growing, and protecting a well-rounded brand.
But it can seem like a lot to take on all at once, particularly with a smaller marketing department or limited budget.
So what’s the best place to get started?
It depends on the things you’re already doing and the areas in which you’re already strong, but in general you should prioritize the Grow With TRUST solutions as follows:
Priority #1: User Experience
All roads lead to your website, so if you aren’t establishing trust here, your other efforts won’t matter. When brands contact us about PR services, the first thing we do is analyze their website. If we don’t believe the site is capable of building trust—for all the reasons discussed in Chapters 4, 5, and 13—we recommend the client update their site before considering a PR campaign.
Priority #2: Third-Party Validation
When your buyers do their research, the first thing they seek is validation from media, influencers, and customers. If they can’t find that, they will question if you’re legit. So ensuring that you have a steady cadence of positive reviews, influencer endorsements, and media coverage is critical to guiding consumers along the trust breadcrumb trail.
Priority #3: Search Presence
The best way to amplify your website and third-party endorsements is to enhance your search presence. That means developing social media profiles, review site profiles, and a Google Business Profile to appear high in search results when people look for you by name. It also means aligning your brand’s content with the topics your buyers search for—and then attracting inbound links to that content so it will be more easily found.
Priority #4: Reputation Management
Protecting the trust you have built online requires an insurance policy for when things go sideways. Everything your brand has done up to this point—creating a great website, earning third-party validation, gaining traction in Google results—helps create a foundation that is easier to protect when criticism, complaints, and cancellations come for you. But you must also be ready to respond to bad press, negative reviews, and social media pile-ons at a moment’s notice. If you’re not, a reputation built over years can be lost overnight.
Priority #5: Thought Leadership
Sharing helpful ideas that deliver value without promoting your product expands your audience, ensuring a steady breadcrumb trail at every stage of the marketing funnel. Remember, at any given time only 5 percent of your buyers are in market; the other 95 percent are not looking for your product or service at the moment. If you give those people useful information, however, they will be more likely to remember you when they’re ready to buy.
IMPLEMENTING A GROW WITH TRUST WISH LIST
There are any number of ways to implement Grow With TRUST solutions for your company or clients. What works well for one brand or agency might not work as well for another.
At Idea Grove, we use an approach borrowed from the world of agile software development to guide us.
We call it the Grow With TRUST wish list.
We start with our client’s goals. Let’s say the client is interested in increasing brand trust through third-party validation, for example.
Working with the client, we brainstorm to identify trust signals that could help achieve this goal. Then, we write down these ideas in a list. A client’s wish list might include a wide range of possibilities, such as the following:
And many more.
Then comes the hard part. We prioritize which items on the wish list to pursue that month within the program budget. We look at a number of factors in determining a plan of action:
That last question is the most important one of all.
As we discussed in Chapter 8, measuring ROI in branding campaigns is a difficult proposition. But estimating the expected return on competing wish-list items is a far better approach than simply focusing on one tactic at the expense of others or taking a shotgun approach that ultimately has little impact.
Audience research should give a better idea of which trust signals are most important to your buyers and other target groups. Over time, you’ll be able to see the impact of your chosen initiatives through measures such as branded search traffic, media visibility, share of voice, review site referral traffic, and social media engagement.
You can follow that up periodically with market surveys and qualitative research.
THE TRUST IMPERATIVE
Securing trust at scale should be every PR firm’s business imperative. Because nothing is more important for agency clients today. And no weapon should be left out of the arsenal in pursuit of this goal.
Unfortunately, most of what PR practitioners do today, besides media relations, is viewed as marketing, not PR, by clients.
PR agencies often fail to make a compelling case for why a client should choose them for services such as website design or content strategy. This hinders their growth, because unless they can convince the client otherwise, that client might decide to go with an agency specializing in design or content.
The Grow With TRUST system solves this problem by creating a PR-centric model for brand building in a post-truth world.
It’s also the best way for virtually any company to build, grow, and protect its 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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