Chapter 6: Inbound Trust Signals— Laying the Breadcrumb Path

Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell
Published: Dec 19, 2022

(Following is Chapter 6 of  Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)

In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, Medieval Germany is in the grips of famine, and a woodcutter’s family is starving. The woodcutter and his wife plot to abandon their children, Hansel and Gretel, deep in the forest so they will have fewer mouths to feed. But Hansel overhears the plot and leaves a trail of breadcrumbs in the woods so he and Gretel can find their way home.

Unfortunately, the crumbs are eaten by birds and the children get lost. They must defeat a wicked witch to ultimately escape being cooked and eaten themselves.

Although Hansel’s plan was foiled, today the idea of following a “breadcrumb trail” to a destination or decision is one just about everyone is familiar with.

In digital marketing, breadcrumb paths are most closely associated with web navigation. But there is another way to think of breadcrumbs in marketing.

In Hansel and Gretel, the children leave a path of food, in the form of breadcrumbs, to guide them home at a time of great famine.

Today, successful brands leave a trail of breadcrumbs, in the form of inbound trust signals, to guide their buyers to purchase—at a time when trust appears to be in short supply.

FROM INBOUND MARKETING TO INBOUND TRUST SIGNALS

When HubSpot co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah coined the term “inbound marketing” in 2005, their notion was that consumers were tired of being interrupted by marketers and pestered by salespeople—and that the better way to reach them was through helpful, non-salesy content and conversation.

By helping these consumers, brands could lure them “inbound” to their website. 

I view inbound marketing through a specific lens—one that puts trust front and center. That’s why I believe that the best marketing programs focus on laying a path of inbound trust signals—the trust breadcrumbs that attract interested visitors to your website.

FOLLOWING THE BREADCRUMBS TO A NEW CRIB MATTRESS 

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Earlier this year, one of Idea Grove’s account managers, Laurie Lane, had a baby girl. In the months leading up to the new arrival, she and her husband set a budget and began building out a nursery in their home. Among the items on their shopping list: a crib mattress.

To stay within budget, the couple initially decided to seek out the least expensive mattress they could find. But then Laurie remembered an Instagram post from one of her favorite creators recommending a specific mattress as being the safest on the market.

Laurie couldn’t recall the name of the mattress, so she Googled “safest crib mattresses.” Her memory was refreshed when the brand turned up high in search results. She then found hundreds of four- and five-star reviews from this brand’s customers across numerous sites.

Next, she saw positive coverage of the mattress in Parents magazine. Finally, she noticed that a celebrity she respected, an Olympic gymnast, had partnered with the brand and offered a testimonial based on her own experience.

Laurie and her husband ended up spending twice as much as they’d planned for their baby’s mattress—but they were confident they had made the right choice.

In Chapter 2, I introduced the concept of a continuum of influence. For Laurie, the continuum in this case included:

  • an Instagram creator, who introduced her to the brand;
  • Google, which elevated the brand in search results;
  • customers, who gave five-star reviews to the mattress online;
  • a news source, which gave the brand positive coverage; and
  • a celebrity athlete, who partnered with the brand.

 

Each of these sources laid a breadcrumb along Laurie’s ultimate path to purchase.
Traditional PR people, ask yourself this: if Laurie had only seen the coverage in Parents magazine but nothing else, would it have been enough to push her to purchase?
Probably not. That’s why it’s so important for PR practitioners to embrace the buyer’s full continuum of influence in our efforts—if we want them to have the intended result.


THE YELPIFICATION OF THE INTERNET


In a world where gatekeepers like media critics, analysts, and experts have been knocked o their high horses, the public turns first to their peers for advice on products and brands. And today, the most powerful form of peer influence is customer reviews.
Most consumers today trust online reviews from strangers as much as the advice of friends and family. Compared to traditional word-of-mouth referrals, online reviews are easier to access and more likely to include use cases that are relevant to the buyer.

The first major success story in the review-site space was Yelp, founded in 2004 to provide crowdsourced recommendations for local businesses and services. It went public in 2012 with a $1.5 billion valuation. At the time, it had twenty-two million reviews on its site, attracting sixty-one million unique monthly visitors.

Today, despite intense competition from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tripadvisor, and others, Yelp draws 180 million unique monthly visitors to more than 225 million reviews on its site. 

Meanwhile, the public’s trust in online reviews now extends beyond local restaurants, hotels, and service businesses to virtually every industry and product—from vegan ice cream brands, which you can compare at Influenster, to multimillion-dollar enterprise software, which you can review at Gartner Peer Insights, PeerSpot, and other sites.

My own agency focuses on B2B technology, where, driven by the explosion of SaaS products, review sites like G2, Capterra, and TrustRadius now far surpass the influence of traditional gatekeepers, such as industry analysts and computer magazines.

Chicago-based G2, in fact, appears to be replicating the Yelp story in the B2B tech space, having now raised more than $250 million on a valuation of more than $1.1 billion. The site hosts more than 1.5 million reviews.

THE STRANGE CASE OF FEATUREDCUSTOMERS

The success of review sites, from Yelp to G2, is powerful testament to the fact that people trust what other people say about you more than what you say about yourself.

That’s why even when Google users search for your brand by name, they will likely read content about your company on other sites before visiting yours. And if they don’t like what they find, they probably won’t visit you at all.

Did you know there is a successful website, FeaturedCustomers, that appears, at first glance, to be another B2B tech review site, but that actually gathers no original reviews itself? It has built its entire business by scraping and resharing testimonials and customer stories from the websites of B2B tech companies. It has aggregated more than 1.3 million customer references, testimonials, and success stories in this way.

How does FeaturedCustomers make money?

By charging B2B tech brands for sponsorships—of their own republished content!

This business model works brilliantly because it understands buyer psychology—specifically, that the exact same stories about your brand are more trusted when they appear on someone else’s website.

TOP TWENTY INBOUND TRUST SIGNALS

If web users are more likely to trust the same testimonial for your brand, from the same customer, simply because it is hosted on somebody else’s site, that tells you how essential inbound trust signals are to building, growing, and protecting your brand.

Inbound trust signals are all forms of third-party validation, and the most important of these are media coverage, influencer endorsements, customer reviews, and Google visibility.

Let’s take a closer look at twenty specific trust signals to drive interest in your brand and trac to your website:

#1: Media Coverage

Few forms of third-party validation are as powerful as coverage in well-known media, such as daily newspapers, national business publications, and respected trade journals. This is why so many brands invest in PR agencies for media relations.

#2: Press Releases

Press releases can be helpful in establishing credibility, especially if they are distributed by major wire services such as PR Newswire and Business Wire, which have higher standards for acceptance. Wire releases are also more likely to appear in Google News results.

#3: Bylined Articles and Op-eds

When you submit an article that appears in a business or industry publication, you earn credibility as a thought leader with potential buyers.

#4: Blog Guest Posts

Many bloggers in your field may be open to you providing a guest post, which can achieve similar benefits to a bylined article. But tread carefully: if Google decides you are littering the web with keyword-stuffed guest posts just to rank higher in search results, you may be penalized for it.

#5: Sponsored Content

Today, publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Fast Company have paid programs that give you special access to submit or be quoted in stories. These typically appear in Google News results.

 

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SIDEBAR: WHY FORBES COUNCILS IS A NO-BRAINER FOR THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

As the blurring of earned media and paid media accelerates, the once bright line between editorial content and advertising is rapidly fading. Unfortunately for journalistic purists, most news consumers appear to be unconcerned about this trend—they believe they are perfectly capable of distinguishing between what information is credible and what isn’t.

Once again, the gatekeepers lose and the crowd wins.

While many public relations practitioners—like most journalists —bemoan this trend, the PR agency’s first obligation is to serve its clients, using the tools that best help clients reach their goals today.

That’s why augmenting your earned media efforts with a membership in Forbes Councils or similar programs is a no-brainer for thought leadership marketing campaigns today.

Sponsored Content Loses Stigma, Gains Trust

What’s known as native advertising or sponsored content today used to be called advertorial. In the old days, advertorial content was often pretty horrible. It was thinly veiled advertising and lacked the same quality standards as editorial content—so much so that it stood out like a sore thumb. It was also clearly labeled as advertorial, further separating it from earned media content.

Particularly since the emergence of BuzzFeed in 2013, native advertising has become far more sophisticated and helpful to readers, which in turn has reduced its stigma. And while most outlets still label their sponsored content as such, it now blends in much more effortlessly with the editorial copy around it.

Put another way, as native advertising has shed its stigma, it has gained audience trust.

Forbes Councils, managed by the Community Company on behalf of Forbes, further elevates sponsored content by making it more than a simple pay-for-play transaction. Forbes Councils calls itself an “exclusive membership organization” in which the opportunity to publish content on Forbes.com is one of the benefits.

The Value of Visibility through Forbes Councils

In addition to being an ingenious business model, Forbes Councils is also far more accessible to midsize and smaller businesses than many brand-name sponsored-content programs. Many of the top outlets won’t work with a company without an investment of $50,000 or more; the cost of a Forbes Councils membership, by contrast, is less than $3,000 per year.

And it’s hard to argue the value of the visibility and credibility that Forbes provides. The modest annual investment earns you the opportunity to publish as many as ten to twelve articles per year with your byline on the Forbes website. These articles appear in Google News results and in LinkedIn’s Mentioned in the News, earning the authority and trust that come with those placements.

There is also the opportunity to appear as often as several times per month in “expert panels”—roundup stories on topics relevant to your field.

Keep in mind that with both the bylined articles and the expert panels, Forbes doesn’t guarantee that it will publish your content if it doesn’t meet its standards. Indeed, Forbes Councils’ editors may kick back your articles for multiple rounds of revisions to make sure they are non-promotional, meet quality standards, and are deemed to be genuinely helpful to readers.

The Forbes Councils model has been so successful that the Community Company has launched a similar program with local business journals in cities nationwide, called the Business Journals Leadership Trust, as well as programs with Fast Company, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. Entrepreneur and other publications offer similar programs.

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#6: Celebrity and Influencer Endorsements

Especially in fashion, beauty, food, and travel, but now across virtually all industries, influencer endorsements on social media— whether paid or unpaid—carry real weight with buyers.

#7: Social Media Accounts

An active presence on major social media platforms, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, is advisable for most brands. Your customers and prospects expect to see you in these places, and if you’re not there they’ll wonder why.

#8: Social Media Responsiveness

Many buyers check out your social channels to see whether customers are tagging you with complaints, and if they are, how well and how quickly you respond to them.

#9: Google Business Profile

When people search for your brand by name, think of that first page of results as your “second home page.” For businesses with local offices, your Google Business Profile should be that page’s centerpiece.

#10: Google Maps Listing

When you search for a local business, the top three results will appear with a map at the top of the first page. Securing your place in this “Google 3-Pack” is great for trust—and even better for traffic.

#11: Google Reviews

Google has surpassed both Yelp and Facebook in reviews, with those results appearing in your Google Business Profile and Google Maps listings. They’re a must for most brands today.

#12: Customer Reviews on Relevant Sites

Review sites have become part of the decision-making process for virtually every product and industry. See which sites come up in your first three pages of branded search results—then reach out to your customers to contribute reviews.

#13: Glassdoor Reviews

When people search for a company by name, Glassdoor is often one of the top results. Earning five-star reviews from your current and former employees is not just valuable for recruiting; it’s important to winning new customers as well. Buyers are more likely to trust you if you treat your people right.

#14: Participation in Online Forums

From LinkedIn and Facebook groups to industry-specific forums, your company’s team can build relationships and gain credibility for your brand by joining the discussion.

#15: Participation in Industry Events

When you participate in trade shows, virtual conferences, and other industry events as a speaker, sponsor, or exhibitor, you often receive an endorsement on the event’s website or in press releases, generating trust online and o.

#16: Directory Listings

Local and industry-specific business directories are an easy, typically free or inexpensive way to increase authority and visibility. But be warned: some business directories are scams. Check the site’s domain authority on Moz as a quick way to see if a listing has value.

#17: Wikipedia Entry

Securing an entry for your business in Wikipedia, the most popular reference site in the world, establishes your brand’s authority. The site’s editors carefully screen submissions to ensure they meet “notability” criteria. Earning media coverage and other forms of third-party validation is a prerequisite to inclusion.

 

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SIDEBAR: LANDING A WIKIPEDIA PAGE: IT’S COMPLICATED

Beyond media coverage, online reviews, influencer endorsements, and Google visibility, a wide range of other sources of trust serve as inbound trust signals. Some of these are easier to attain than others.

One of the most coveted by many of my agency’s clients over the years has been a Wikipedia page.

Can you get my company in Wikipedia,” they ask? 

My answer is always the same: “It’s complicated.”

My Long, Strange Trip with Wikipedia

In February 2005, immediately upon founding my PR agency as a solo consultancy, I successfully listed Idea Grove on Wikipedia. The glowing reference included links to my brand-new, bare-bones website.

Those were simpler times, of course.

Soon enough, an overwhelming deluge of companies and SEO practitioners got in the Wikipedia game, forcing Wikipedia to tighten its policies. The site began to enforce stricter standards of “notability” as a requirement to be included in the encyclopedia. 

It also classified its outbound links as “no follow” links with search engines to prevent SEO firms from gaming the resource. And it implemented a sweeping conflict-of-interest policy that dis- couraged individuals, companies, and their representatives from editing their own entries.

This basically shut marketers and PR professionals out of Wikipedia—at least theoretically.

How to Handle—or Not Handle—Wikipedia

Although Wikipedia links no longer carry the SEO benefits they once did, Wikipedia’s higher standards for entries have made the encyclopedia an important gatekeeper for determining what companies and people are notable or prominent.

As just one example of Wikipedia’s clout, Twitter recently stated that having a Wikipedia page helps qualify organizations and individuals for its verified badge—the famous blue checkmark.

So, how does a marketer go about getting their company in Wikipedia? As I said, it’s complicated.

I love Wikipedia; I truly do. It’s a wonderful resource and amazing achievement. Heck, it’s the third-most-trafficked site in the world.

But it’s like sausage—sometimes you love it a little less once you know how it’s made.

Wikipedia is a sprawling community of more than 130,000 volunteer editors with competing agendas, axes to grind, varying perspectives on who and what deserves a Wikipedia listing, and an even wider range of ideas about how those entries should be written.

More often than not, though, the wisdom of the crowd prevails over time. That’s why Wikipedia, founded in 2001, is both the father of crowdsourcing and crowdsourcing’s greatest success story.

For most of its history, Wikipedia has taken a strong position against PR agencies, SEO firms, corporate marketing departments, or anyone else who has a financial interest in a Wikipedia entry creating or editing that entry. The current policy states as follows:

Conflict of interest (COI) editing involves contributing to Wikipedia about yourself, family, friends, clients, employers, or your financial and other relationships. Any external relationship can trigger a conflict of interest...COI editing is strongly discouraged on Wikipedia...

For example, an article about a band should not be written by the band’s manager, and a biography should not be an autobiography or written by the subject’s spouse. There can be a COI when writing on behalf of a competitor or opponent of the page subject, just as there is when writing on behalf of the page subject...

COI emerges from an editor’s roles and relationships, and the tendency to bias that we assume exists when those roles and relationships conflict. (Wikipedia 2022)

Wikipedia does make exceptions for what it calls “uncontroversial” edits by COI editors, but these exceptions are extremely limited in scope:

Editors who have a general conflict of interest may make unambiguously uncontroversial edits. They may...remove spam and unambiguous vandalism, fix spelling and grammatical errors, repair broken links, and add independent reliable sources when another editor has requested them...

The bottom line is: creating or editing your company’s own Wikipedia entry is highly discouraged and can lead to your entry being removed or your account being blocked.

Wikipedia Risks and Rewards

Having said that, the surreptitious creation and editing of Wikipe- dia entries on behalf of clients is a staple of the online reputation management (ORM) business, and if you run a simple Google search for ORM firms, you’ll find many who freely promote their Wikipedia services.

Should you partake of these services and create Wikipedia entries on the sly? You could—but it’s important to know

the risks.

An agency called Wiki-PR boasted, a few years ago, that it could create Wikipedia entries for companies through its “network of established editors.” It claimed clients like Viacom and Priceline, along with many smaller companies. Wikipedia ended up identifying and banning Wiki-PR’s editors and pulling down hundreds of Wikipedia entries. It was an embarrassment for those involved—although the practice has not stopped and probably won’t.

If you want to participate in Wikipedia, I would suggest that the best way to do so is to do it transparently. Create an account, identify yourself, disclose any conflicts of interest in your account profile, and then edit away. If you are careful, and incremental, and make every effort to be objective, your participation may be accepted.

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#18: Community Involvement

Pursuing a social-purpose strategy that includes sponsoring or volunteering for nonprofit organizations can earn visibility on the nonprofit’s website and social media channels—as well as build goodwill in your community.

#19: Top Ranking for Branded Search Queries

A high percentage of Google queries are searches for brands or specific websites (“youtube” and “facebook” are the top two Google searches). When someone enters the name of your company or product in search, make sure your site comes up first in the results.

#20: High Ranking for Industry Keywords

Ranking among the top results for common search terms in your market segment not only greatly increases your website traffic but also confers authority on your brand.

THE BREADCRUMBS THAT MATTER MOST

If Hansel and Gretel got lost in the woods today, they would probably just pull out their smartphones and enter their home address in Google Maps.

But if they were looking for the best place to find candy (with no witches in the vicinity), they would likely seek out online reviews, media reports, and other inbound trust signals. Those are the breadcrumbs that matter most to consumers in 2022. 

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