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Trust Agents: The New Digital Natives

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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


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Chris Brogan is president of New Marketing Labs, LLC, a new-media marketing agency and events company. He makes media of all kinds at chrisbrogan.com, a blog in the Top 10 of Advertising Age's Power150 and a top 100 blog according to Technorati. Connect directly by emailing blog at chrisbrogan dot com.

Julien is a veteran trend analyst and helps companies prepare for and profit from disruptive changes in their industries. Find him at juliensmith.com and on Twitter at twitter.com/julien.

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  • by Kathi Rabil Tue Sep 15, 2009 via web

    Thanks for sharing this. I've been following Chris Brogan for about six months now and was wondering about his latest book. He has quite a following and his posts typically show alot of depth and balance.

    One observation about the social nature of blogs, however. Most of the comments I read on blogs only comment on the blog content once and then disappear. There is rarely a back and forth, true dialogue between the writer and commenters or among the commenters themselves. This includes my following of Chris Brogan's blog. Everyone seems interested in making their one statement and then moving on.

    Is there someone out there that is really engaging in "discussion" with their readers and encouraging discussion amongst their readers? Is that what Twitter is supposed to do--carry the discussion further? Most of my reading of Twitter has shown only updates of what a person is doing as they go through their day. Admittedly, I don't follow Twitter very much--I've got work that needs to be done!

  • by Donna Baske Tue Sep 15, 2009 via web

    I picked up Trust Agents over the weekend not quite sure what I was going to find inside. What I found was - myself, The writing, descriptions and analogies hit home.

    There are those of us who are running hard to keep up wiht the innovation that is happening around us. Then there are those of us (Chris & Julien) who are shining a light onto the path to lead the way.

    Trust Agents isn't a book just for folks who want to embrace the social media space and all that entails; it's relavant for everyone that wants to have a better knowledge of and relationship with their customers.

  • by Rick Yuzzi Tue Sep 15, 2009 via web

    This really highlights one of the important aspects of social media marketing, which is leveraging social media as a tool to build networks to better communicate with customers and prospects. It's not a new way to get a list of people to spam. You want to add value in non-sales ways, developing that "trust agent" persona, so that when you do occasionally find an opportunity to mention a product or service, it will be received as something from "one of us", and not a pitch from a door to door salesman.

  • by Kathi Rabil Tue Sep 15, 2009 via web

    Donna/Rick,

    Thanks for staying on topic. I apologize for digressing with my questions about blogs and engaging in discussion. Another time.

    Chris, you are correct that relationship and motive are at the heart of building trust in communities of any kind. And a good place to start in assessing how much we buy into this message is to measure ourselves against the trust agent standards that you and Julien are proposing. Self-knowledge is always a good starting point for understanding others and their needs.

  • by Bill Sanders Tue Sep 15, 2009 via web

    Trust Agents is an outstanding read! It sits next to my bookshelf right next to "Tipping Point" and "The Long Tail". Chris Brogan is at the forefront of the everchanging world of social media, and my most trusted source of ideas and information. GREAT BOOK!!!

  • by Jeff Brown Thu Sep 17, 2009 via web

    I don't think your comments were off topic at all Kathi.

    I believe you might be on the right track in thinking that Twitter is sometimes where the conversation happens. I too have noticed that often times blogs like Chris' are taken advantage of. People comment in the hopes that it will drive traffic to their own blog.

    I think if you'll give Twitter a chance (and follow more folks providing value), you'll be surprised at where it leads. In the last year, I feel as if I've gotten the equivalent of a graduate degree.

  • by Kathi Rabil Fri Sep 18, 2009 via web

    Thanks for your positive feedback, Jeff. I just attended the Digital Marketing World virtual conference and it helped me understand the marketing potential of Twitter. I can see I def need to be paying more attention.

    Just curious....who do you follow on Twitter for marketing communication conversations?

  • by Jeff Brown Fri Sep 18, 2009 via web

    I follow thebrandbuilder, KrisColvin, ariherzog, GuyKawasaki, chrisbrogan, danschawbel, MichaelHyatt and JohnHaydon on Twitter, among others, when it comes to MCC.

  • by Kathi Rabil Fri Sep 18, 2009 via web

    Jeff, thanks for your help. If you want to continue to keep in touch, you can find me on LinkedIn. Also, my Twitter name is songbird57. Just give me some time to get it going there.

    Best of luck to you!

  • by Beth Harte, MarketingProfs Fri Sep 25, 2009 via web

    Kathi, I actually appreciate you taking the conversation a bit down another path. I agree with you...it's rare to see true back and forth conversations on a blog, but it does indeed happen...especially if it's a topic that is either near & dear to someone or if it's controversial (both seen to spike debate).

    Like Jeff said, I think you'll see a lot of folks conversing around a post's topic on Twitter.

    You can follow me on Twitter any time! ;-)

    Beth Harte
    Community Manager, MarketingProfs
    @bethharte

  • by Tony Faustino Sun Oct 4, 2009 via web

    Jeff, Kathi, and Beth:

    I couldn't help notice your insightful comments in this post. One of the points Jeff made re: "getting a graduate degree" by either particpating or listening in on Twitter Conversations really struck home with me.

    I absolutely agree with Jeff's insight. I have tremendous trust in the people I follow on Twitter and regard them as carefully selected "trust agents." In my opinion, these trusted followers are better sources of learning and content than what I could locate in my own Google Search. It's my hope that I'm also providing them reciprocal value with the content I share or link to on Twitter.

    Beth Harte, Anne Handley, Allen Weiss, Shelly Ryan, and other members of the MarketingProfs.com team are all on my Trust Agents List (and I follow each of them on Twitter).

    This is a great post and I thank you all for your engaging comments.

    Tony Faustino
    @tonyfaustino

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