Note: The following article is based on an excerpt from the newly published New York Times best-seller Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com).
Whom we trust has changed. We know from personal experience that this generation and the next aren't blindly trusting information from just any random source.
In fact, upon conducting research in this field, IBM discovered that 71% of 18-24-year-olds spend more than two hours online per day, compared with only 48% of the same group who spend two hours watching television. One-third of them (32%) received advice about where to go on the Web mostly from friends.
Consider your own behavior: You'll likely realize that your own skepticism is also on the rise.
We are living in a communications environment where there is a trust deficit. As a society, we no longer have confidence in advertising. We are hostile to those who appear to have ulterior motives, even if they're just selling themselves.
The result is our tendency to join loose networks, or tribes, that gather based on common interests. We are suspicious of anything that comes to us from outside our circle of friends. We form groups of like-minded individuals around those topics, products, or news items that interest us.
For example, the news-sharing site Digg.com reports news quite differently than Reddit.com, the London Times, or the Wall Street Journal. And that news might be suspect in certain circles because the stories on Digg that reach the top of the landing page are sometimes moved there by dubious means, such as voting campaigns, robotic algorithms, and so forth. So, whom should you trust?
Trust agents have established themselves as non-sales-oriented, non-high-pressure marketers. They are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business. They're interested in people (e.g., prospective customers, employees, and colleagues), and they have realized that the tools that enable more unique, robust communication also allow more business opportunities for everyone.
The Six Characteristics of Trust Agents
While researching how we wanted to talk about trust agents and how we would impart that information, we defined six overarching but interrelated behaviors that describe what a trust agent is.
We realized that if we organized our book this way, you could understand each action as a separate entity and grasp the concepts better. Those actions form a linked system. Trust agents use all six of them, though each manifests these traits in differing degrees.
As you read about them, you may notice that you can place people you know into some categories, but don't forget to consider your own strengths and work from those, too. That's likely how you'll have the most impact.
1. Make Your Own Game
Perhaps the first defining skill set that trust agents seem to share is their recognition that there's the established way to do things—and then there's a game-changing way to do things. That new method usually involves skill, experimentation, and a certain comfort level.
If you have an opinion, make it known through comments on blogs or by writing about it yourself. Always give credit for your ideas, and be humble. Commenting, by the way, is a lot easier than starting a blog, especially if you're unsure what you want to do. It also helps you write just a little bit and can help you decide whether you want to commit a whole blog post to a subject. Through trial, error, and early failures is how most trust agents break out of the mold and appear on our collective radar.
In popular entertainment, Oprah Winfrey went from being the local TV weather reporter to a multimillion-dollar media enterprise. Though she used traditional media tools to accomplish that, when you look back on the circumstances of Winfrey's rise you'll recognize all the various points in her career where she made her own game (against some fairly daunting odds). Put another way, making your own game is about standing out.
2. One of Us
One thing that distinguishes certain people as trust agents is whether a specific community sees them as ''one of us.''
Early in his career at Microsoft, Robert Scoble blogged about the good—but, more important, the bad—Microsoft products at the time. When he shared his take on why Internet Explorer wasn't as good as Firefox, we (his audience of readers) felt that Scoble was One of Us. We believed what he said because he was a member of our community, talked like us, spent time where we spent time, and seemed to be genuine and honest with us.
The characteristic of being One of Us extends to every trust agent we identify throughout our book. In other words, being One of Us is about belonging.
3. The Archimedes Effect
You can execute any of the six skills well, but when you use your unique abilities to enhance them (via knowledge, people, technology, or time), then what you do becomes immensely powerful.
The Web is one of the best tools for increasing the power of what you do, so we discuss this with you to get you started on bringing your skills together to achieve your goals.
The Archimedes Effect is all about leverage, as you might have guessed.
4. Agent Zero
Trust agents are at the center of wide, powerful networks. They make building relationships a priority because it's a human thing to do—long before any actual business requires transacting.
They are people who jump at the chance to meet others online, at events, or in mixed social settings, and who often connect their new acquaintances with other people in their personal networks.
Trust agents realize that the value of social networks isn't in the agents' ability to ask for things; rather, it's in their ability to complete projects faster, find resources more easily, and reach the right people at the right time.
Having a wide network is very powerful and opens doors. Agent Zero is about developing access.
5. Human Artist
Learning how to work well with people, empower them, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and knowing when to improve relationships and when to step away, is all part of what a trust agent does.
In business terms, those abilities are often called soft skills. Companies that don't value the power of peak performers in the arena of human interpersonal skills and social interaction are doomed to a painful future.
Being a Human Artist is the hardest skill to teach but one of the most necessary ingredients to becoming a trust agent. Being a Human Artist, in a way, is about developing understanding.
6. Build an Army
No matter how great you think you are, you can't do it all alone. When you can get a large group to collaborate, you can achieve monumental tasks that previously may have been impossible.
As more people gather on social networks and elsewhere, asking each to push a little can help each network become an avalanche in a way no set of tools has ever been able to do before. Because the Web is so vast, and we are so small, building an army is about developing mass.
Photo credit: Becky J McCray