What Is a Trust Signal?
Let’s say you are interested in the topic of a book by an author you aren’t familiar with.
(Following is Chapter 1 of Trust Signals: Brand Building in Post-Truth World.)
I hadn’t heard from my friend David in years. But when my former colleague reached out over LinkedIn to ask for a breakfast meeting at a nearby diner, I accepted the invitation right away.
I liked David and enjoyed sharing war stories about our days together in the corporate world at a wireless communications company. David was a senior network engineer whom I frequently offered up for interviews with the news media.
When it came to media interviews, David was a natural. He made my job easier because he could discuss telecommunications in engaging language that even the most technology-challenged reporters could understand.
“Oh, I get it,” they would always say.
That was music to my ears, because it inevitably led to better, longer, and more sympathetic stories about our company.
The coverage was a feather in my cap and great personal branding for David.
The sky in downtown Dallas was clear and crystal blue that morning as I walked into the restaurant. David spotted me immediately and stood up and waved from a corner booth.
“Hey! It’s good to see you,” he said.
We shook hands, then slid into our respective sides of the booth to order our food and talk.
I quickly learned that the visibility David had achieved through his role as a thought leader had helped him secure a position as CEO with a promising mobile commerce startup that had received more than ten million dollars the previous year in VC funding. David was in his third week on the job.
“That’s very exciting, David,” I said. “How is business going? Are you doing well?”
“Yes and no,” David told me. “Securing that funding was amazing for a bootstrapped startup that had just gotten o the ground. And the technology is sound. But the company has only landed a handful of customers, and they just haven’t been able to leverage their financial resources to accelerate their growth as yet.
“That’s why the investors brought me in,” he continued. “They want someone who understands the technology and can communicate it in a compelling, credible way, and I’ve earned a reputation for that.”
“Yes, you have,” I said. “So what’s your next move? How can I help?”
“I’m getting to that,” he said with a smile. “Shortly after the founder got funding, he brought in a big PR firm to get the word out. He thought his company had built a better mousetrap, and he wanted the world to know about it. He expected the sales to follow.
“Unfortunately, a year later, it hasn’t worked out that way. That’s why he was asked to step aside as CEO.”
I asked David what kind of results his new company had seen from its investment in PR.
He told me that, in doing his research before joining the startup, he had found articles in TechCrunch, Fast Company, Forbes, and a number of industry trade publications.
Then, a few days after he started as CEO, the PR agency came to his office to make a presentation. They showed him a pie chart indicating the company had increased its share of voice relative to its competitors. They were now receiving 20 percent more industry coverage than when the engagement started.
“The agency expressed satisfaction with this result. But it didn’t really add up to much in terms of impact for us—certainly not what the founder was hoping for,” David said.
“What specific impact was the founder hoping for?” I asked.
“He wanted it to open doors for us, and it didn’t,” David shrugged. “No one really saw or mentioned the coverage. No one recognized our name when we emailed or called them.
“Traffic to the website went up briefly when the agency put out a press release, but then it would flatten out again. We’ve seen no sustained lift in people finding out about us or wanting to learn more.”
David then told me he believed the founder hired the wrong agency; he wanted to work with my agency instead.
“I know PR can make a big difference, because it did when we worked together before. I want you to get us on the map. I want media coverage that will help our salespeople get a better response rate.”
I realized, at this point, that my eggs were so runny that they had made my plate look like a yolk-splattered crime scene. So I put down my fork and decided to stick to the coffee.
I took a long sip before responding.
“PR has changed, David. What we did back when we worked together doesn’t work now.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” he replied. “It’s all about hustling to get media coverage, right? Coming up with story ideas, figuring out the right media, building relationships to get visibility—isn’t that the whole point of the job?”
“It’s fair to say it used to be the whole point of the job. And many agencies still operate that way—the agency you just fired, for example,” I said.
“But the problem is not that the agency isn’t good at what they do; it’s that they are doing the wrong things.”
David’s complaints are all too common among dissatisfied clients. They truly believe the agency just needs to “hustle” harder to get results.
But the truth is, PR practitioners who fail their clients are rarely incompetent or lazy. In fact, in many cases they are working harder than ever.
The problem is that they are still doing what worked five or ten years ago—and not what works today.
David’s interest was piqued, and he asked to hear more. I gathered my thoughts before continuing.
“Look, this pains me to say, David. I started my career as a newspaper reporter. I believe in journalism. But the fact is it used to be that if you were in a front-page story in The Dallas Morning News, that had a powerful, immediate impact,” I said.
“Think about it. The paper carrier would throw that big Sunday newspaper on your front porch, you’d pick it up, and the whole world would seemingly know you were on the front page.
“Now, who knows the difference between a ‘front-page story’ and any other story on the paper’s website? And who reads it, anyway?”
I then shared a startling—and sobering—fact about our home- town newspaper. The paid circulation of The Dallas Morning News is less than a third of what it was two decades ago; that includes both print and digital subscribers. This is during a time period when the population of the Dallas/Fort Worth area is booming— growing by nearly a third, with new transplants from California and elsewhere arriving daily.
It’s a classic case of diminishing returns, I explained. And it’s not just true for newspapers—it applies to virtually all media outlets targeting broad-based audiences.
The cycle we’re experiencing is this:
David had come upon media coverage about his new employer during the interview process, but only because he had searched for the company by name. And while PR firms can use paid media, such as retargeting ads, to better expose coverage to target audiences, many agencies simply don’t consider this part of their jobs.
“That’s why the work that other PR agency did for you had so little impact,” I told David. “They thought their job began and ended with getting publicity, when today that is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.”
David frowned for a moment—then his eyes lit up.
“But some mainstream media sites seem to be doing really well,” he said. “Forbes, for example. They sent me a media kit and it said they reached more than 100 million unique visitors per month. That’s much bigger than their readership in the past, according to the media kit.”
“That’s true, but it’s also a bit deceptive,” I cautioned.
Traffic on the Forbes website is spread out over more than 1.5 million pages on the Forbes.com domain, so most stories get relatively few visitors—especially compared to the kind of audience an article in the print version of Forbes once commanded.
There is no limit to how much content you can publish on a website, so outlets like Forbes.com have decided that more pages are better for traffic. In order to achieve that, over the years they have recruited thousands of contributors to publish on their platform—often just for the privilege of saying they are published by Forbes.
I told David that this never-ending demand for online content, combined with the lack of sufficient numbers of journalists to create it, has led to an explosion of so-called “bylined article” opportunities—chances for a brand to submit content with their CEO’s name on the byline.
In the past, I explained, when a PR person pitched a story that a publication’s editor liked, a reporter for the publication would be assigned to interview the company executive for ten minutes and then write a story. Now if the editor likes your idea, they’re more likely to ask you to write the story. A ten-hour time commitment to write a 1,500-word article is a much bigger ask than a ten-minute interview.
David cradled his coffee cup in his hands. “Yes, a number of the placements the other PR firm got us were bylined articles in trade journals. Are you saying we shouldn’t write articles for industry publications?”
“You should,” I replied, “but you have to be selective. Most PR agencies aren’t, because they grade themselves on the number of placements they achieve rather than the return they deliver. When the only tool you have is the media hammer, you’ll pound on any nail you can to demonstrate your value to the client.”
I explained that my agency has a checklist we run through before recommending a byline to a client. For example, we make sure the outlet is a Google News source, has industry credibility and a relevant audience, has high domain authority as measured by marketing-analytics companies (like Moz and Ahrefs), and will agree to link back to the client’s website. We also make sure the client has something worthwhile to say to that publication’s readers; otherwise, it’s just not worth it.
The sad fact is, many of the bylined articles that PR firms get published today—often at great expense—quickly disappear into the bowels of the internet, never to be heard from again.
David paused for a moment. “So what’s my best play then, given all these changes? Where does that leave you as an agency? And me as a potential client, for that matter?”
I smiled reassuringly.
“Well, I’ve spent most of breakfast giving you the bad news, so let me finally give you the good news. People are still reading and consuming information, including information about brands, companies, products—and thought leaders like you. They’re just consuming it in different ways.
“I’ve watched these trends develop for a while, David—with increasing levels of frustration. I finally decided to stop focusing on media coverage for its own sake, and to start focusing on its ultimate objective. I decided to tackle that larger goal for my clients.”
“So what is that larger goal?” David asked. “Awareness? Visibility?”
“No,” I said. “Your goal is to achieve brand trust. Brand exposure is meaningless without trust. Without trust, nothing else you do with your marketing budget matters. You’ll never be able to open those doors your founder wants you to open if you don’t first build trust.
“Fortunately, there are many ways to secure brand trust today besides hounding journalists to write about you.”
I asked the waitress for the check.
“Hey!” David objected. “Not so fast—I asked you to breakfast.”
“That’s OK,” I smiled. “I have a feeling you’re going to be a new client soon, so I’m writing this meal off as a business-development expense.”
The next week, we were off and running on a PR program focused not on media coverage, but on securing trust at scale—by deploying trust signals to build, grow, and protect David’s 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.
Let’s say you are interested in the topic of a book by an author you aren’t familiar with.
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