Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith is a definitive guide to navigating within the social media economy. The Internet has changed how business is conducted in most industries, particularly in terms of transparency. When faced with crisis or criticism, a business can no longer just “no comment” a press release, and will the problem to go away. Nor can they ensure that the message they project via their expensive marketing campaigns is what will remain in the minds of their clients and customers. In fact, as the book’s blurb notes:
Consumer environments are short on trust and populated by consumers who are cynical, savvy and informed…Today the most valuable online currency isn’t the dollar, but trust itself.
But although mistrust among consumers and the general public is at an all-time high (and only destined to rise higher), there are individuals and companies who successfully use the Internet to establish levels of trust in the communities where they operate. Just like there was a time when the voice of a news broadcaster from the radio radiated with trust, these are folk who are digitally savvy, and conversant enough with the Web to use it to be genuine and humanize their business.
These then are the trust agents – power users of the new tools of the Web, self-taught by their own experiences and experiments rather than their professional experiences. They learn by trying and therefore are bold enough to try on new applications and devices. They are fluent with online technology. They recommend more, and more often, on social bookmarking tools than anyone else. They connect with more people than anyone else and know how to leave a good impression, building honest and healthy relationships in the process. Trust agents use today’s Web tools to spread their influence faster, wider, and deeper than a typical company’s PR or marketing department, and with more genuine interest in people too.
The book is structured around the six characteristics of trust agents, which gives a comprehensive picture of the typical trust agent, and provides a practical guide into honing our skills to become one ourselves. Each characteristic merits a post and discussion on its own, so we’ll just skim over them here and perhaps dive deeper in later posts.
Make your own game. Trust agents are skilful at identifying and acting on the game-changing way to do things, and not the established way. These new methods require skill, experimentation and being comfortable with trial, error and early failures (The interesting part? The tools that help you do this are readily available and mostly free). This is how they break the mould and stand out. Trust agents are adept are sussing out new and different strategies to make their own game, and finding better way to do things while everyone else is too busy to notice (Huffington Post, Radiohead’s “pay-what-you-want” strategy to launch a recent album, and Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Workweek are quoted as examples). Trust agents don’t wait for permission – they just do it. In the B2B space this is about going beyond the “template”, “best practices” and “ISO-certified procedures” to really exploring ways to engage with your clients in radical new ways.
One of us. Quite simply, whether the community sees you as “belonging” to them. This requires you to be competent and reliable and leave someone with a positive emotional impression. Fortunately the Web with its non-transactional origins, can do this well. People have a tendency to feel closer to each other there. They tend to speak like humans and are less reserved than in real life. By openly sharing your thoughts and ideas, people will become more comfortable with you. They would respond to you with respect, maybe even as friends, and share thoughts that you may never have otherwise heard, accompanied by insights your competition may never get. For B2B companies, this is akin to becoming the “go-to person” and “thought leader” first, when you clients come to you because of who you are as a person first, and the company you belong to second.
The Archimedes effect. Leveraging your knowledge, people, technology, or time to increase the power of what you do. Millions use the Web every day and ignore how best to use the tools at their disposal to bring the greatest benefit. Trust agents strive to learn how the Web can make things happen more, faster and bigger. They use the advantage they have in one place to help in another. B2B companies would do well to understand the important role personal networking plays in this, as does the attitude of doing favours not because you are expecting to be reciprocated but because you simply like the person or company you are helping, or it’s the right thing to do.
Agent Zero. Building relationships with a view, not to ask for things, but of improving access to reach the right people at the right time, find resources more easily and complete projects faster. Trust agents are naturals at building networks by being helpful, by promoting the good work that others do, by sharing even their best stuff without hesitation, and by finding ways to deliver more value without asking for anything in return. They recognise those who like building networks of value and know how to reach out. They also constantly seek ways to make their groups connect with each other, and thus get the opportunity to meet influential people.
Human Artist. Developing understanding and having the soft skills to work well with people, empower them, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and knowing when to improve relationships and when to step away.
Build an Army. Developing mass and getting large groups to collaborate to achieve tasks that may have been previously impossible. Once you have established yourself as a trust agent, reaching the next level means building and dispersing armies around projects and opportunities rapidly and with a very loose command-and-control structure. The Web encourages this in ways old-fashioned networking can’t match. Web-based interactions are fluid, flexible, and connect people who aren’t geographically aligned. The Web also allows us to build power in aggregate. Instead of asking one person to make all the effort, we can ask 100 people for a fraction, and get even greater results. The power is in the fact that everyone has access and distribution. You can now set up your own radio station (Blip.fm), or print your own book (Lulu.com). And with these democratised distribution channels, people vote with their interest, attention and trust. For B2B companies, building armies successfully means helping people internalise your efforts, ideas, overall goals, and take those ideas and make them their own, developing their own uses for them. Consider doing this by:
Writing blog posts that equip others with the tools and strategies you’re hoping to spread
Sharing liberally in online spaces and social bookmarking and news sites (Google Reader, Delicious and the like)
Contributing to shared collaborative environments like Flickr and YouTube
Discussing and extending ideas on Twitter and Facebook
Writing and distributing free e-books that equip others with your ideas so they can make their own
You can’t get a better primer on how to navigate the new “relationships-based” environment than this. Supported by several current examples, and littered with tons of practical guides, this is one book you will want to have in your field pack as you surge ahead with your social media communication and business strategy. For those who are well-entrenched in that path, it may not seem like anything new, so simply pass it on to those who are new to it – they will be ever that much obliged.