Practicing Trust-Based Marketing

I wrote recently about trust-based marketing and the lack of trust in marketing on the Web. I was surprised at the large response I received. Most responses were from marketers, most of whom agree that trust is an issue but worry about the aggressive growth, push-based ethics of today’s dot-com world, noting that balance seems impossible to achieve.

So how would you know if you are trustworthy? How do customers perceive your marketing? Are you reaching new people, or are you just irritating them? Ask yourself the following questions:

Is your language trustworthy? In a world that is post-Watergate, post-dot-com swindles, post-market crash, and post-unfulfilled promises, consumers have overdeveloped BS detection that automatically dings at the slightest hint of marketing doublespeak.

I’m still amazed at the mission statements, press releases, and ad campaigns that try to cover up faulty business models, bad news, or even good value with “written for analysts by analysts” language. Witness recent press releases by dot-coms that couch layoffs in terms like “right-sizing” (all of them) or “optimizing shareholder value” (Boeing) or “involuntary attrition” (Cisco). In a world where “Dilbert” is a top comic strip, consumers, analysts, investors, and — most important — your customers are not fooled by language that sounds like it comes from LeveragedSynergies.com.

Are your ads trustworthy? In a recent ad campaign, a unified messaging company showed a man on a golf course, checking his email. What? Where is the trust? Would I buy this service so that my employees can spend more time golfing? Aside from the lack of messaging about productivity, value, time or money saved, or more efficiently communicating with your customers, the ad showed a vivid illustration of where the company’s own priorities were. The executives are all, like the ad, well-heeled white male golfers. This is a spectacular case of an advertisement inspiring cynicism rather than trust or value.

Is your site trustworthy? Just as ads can be exclusionary, sites that are overdesigned or poorly designed can be detrimental to your customer relationships. While researching health issues, I came across a large national health insurance company site that did not allow any viewing by browsers other than Internet Explorer, no older than one version behind. When I contacted the company, the response was, “Sorry, that’s the way it’s designed.” I am not — and now will not be — a customer; it’s too peculiar to alienate your audience and even existing customers through poor design.

Overdesign can, ironically, be just as alienating. As Christopher Locke has repeatedly advocated in his “gonzo marketing” theology, too many companies have gone overboard in “professionalism,” leaving their sites, press releases, and ads without any hint of the company’s personality, culture, or human side. I appreciate sites that are thoroughly edited, clean, and exact. But I’m also bored stiff by sites that refuse to take a design risk, never make a joke, don’t illustrate well, or don’t reveal who its employees are or why it’s a unique community.

Do you let the customer talk? The Web is supposed to be uniquely two-way. Is it? Too many sites assume that Web- or email-based interaction is enough. Have a question? Send an email, or fill out this form. Want to buy something? Fill out this form, or send an email.

This is all hugely convenient because it’s available 24/7 and takes very little additional staffing, compared with a call center. But no amount of usability testing or Web interactivity is as useful as a mere phone call. In a recent revision of a client’s site, my firm made a simple change: We added a field to each form on the site (support, ordering, inquiries, etc.), asking customers if they preferred a reply by email, phone, or fax. A significant portion continue to select phone, despite their obvious access to the Internet.

A recent article cited a small-business owner who said that adding an 800-number to every page of the company’s site increased orders by 30 percent, almost instantly. Why? Because in a virtual world, people like to know who is behind the site. Because the fastest email response time is still slower than a phone call. Because one 3-minute phone call can often clear up questions that would take multiple emails.

Are your policies trustworthy? Online ordering is still uncomfortable for some consumers, believe it or not. A reluctance to give out credit card numbers lingers, and all the security measures in the world won’t counter a story about stolen identities on “Dateline.” It doesn’t matter if it’s rational or not. Thus, the importance of alternatives: ordering by fax or ordering by phone.

These solutions may be less convenient to you, but they can be more comfortable introductions to a relationship for the customer — once customers trust you, you have a better chance of converting them to simple Web-based ordering later. You can also comfort them with comprehensive policies to cover guarantees, quality, product samples, returns, product loss or damage in shipping, and even your technical security measures. It’s just verbiage to some, but to others, it’s the difference between taking a risk and skipping to the next site with a better name.

Is your brand trustworthy? Your brand is either trustworthy or it’s not. If you are not inspiring trust, you are inspiring suspicion. The dot-coms that blew millions on brand building had their business model all wrong, but they were right about the importance of branding. Everything about your brand has to be trust-driven, familiar, and recognizable: your logo, your marketing, your language, your hiring policies, your management, your salespeople, your designers, your press releases, your advertising.

Are you actually addressing people’s needs? Do they believe you? The simplest test is to ask your customers. Or look at your most successful competitor: Is its advantage a real-world presence, a long-lived customer base, a more consistent business model, better quality? Then that’s what the customers are valuing over Web-based convenience, lower pricing, or a brand-new idea.

The simple truth of trust-based marketing is obvious: Be trustworthy. I have worked with many companies in pre-launch, early-stage, start-up, small-business, big-business, and big-brand categories. Many small businesses, and especially the dot-coms that have been in turmoil over the last year, have inadvertently or even with strategic intent screwed over an investor, a customer, and whole groups of employees. Every time it has been a sign that the company is bad juju for everyone, and it’s only a matter of time before its customers figure that out. If you disappoint a customer now, let a hacker in, or treat your employees badly, the karma will come back to haunt your brand later.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but it bears repeating in the cutthroat, do-or-die world of Internet marketing these days: Trust-based marketing starts with trustworthiness. As your Mom once told you back in kindergarten, “Play nice, then you’ll make friends.”

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