By Kate Pavao
According to Web 2.0 experts Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, trust agents are people who are able to “use today’s Web tools to spread their influence faster, wider, and deeper than a typical company’s public relations or marketing department might be capable of achieving, and with more genuine interest in people, too.” How do they do this? Here, Brogan and Smith, authors of Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust (Wiley, 2009), explain how agents operate—and why every company should have one of its own.
Profit: You say being a trust agent is about bringing the human side to business, and stress the importance of listening and doing favors. Why are those skills critical right now?
Smith: Consumers are so good at detecting when people are lying to us; we know very easily when people are telling the truth and when they’re not. For some reason, companies feel that they can speak to us in a different way than they speak to their own colleagues around the watercooler. And they shouldn’t. Chris and I talk like human beings when we meet with clients. We’re trying to be honest, and we’re trying to be real with people.
Brogan: Using the Web immediately removes a whole bunch of visual cues. We can’t judge body language; we can’t see your folded arms; we can’t see your eyes darting around, as if to say that you’re a little uncomfortable. But we can glean a lot of elements of trust from how you talk, from how you conduct yourself, from how you handle answering bad questions.
We find that there are a lot of big businesses taking opportunities to have conversations when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t. This is not a call for the world to open up their business doors, and it’s not a call to tap every phone line to every executive: there are lots of times when private business is private business. Instead, we’re saying, “Just be human and open with us as you’re doing business.”
Profit: Should businesses appoint someone to be their Web 2.0 presence?
Smith: So few people develop themselves as trust agents that if one person in a company does, that person becomes a representative for everyone who works there. All of a sudden that person is extremely responsible for the company’s image in certain circles. So you might as well choose somebody on purpose who can do the job right, instead of some guy who randomly decides he’s going to start blogging. Choose somebody who can do it well, or groom someone for the job.
Profit: We interviewed Tim Ferriss when his book The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown Publishers, 2007) came out. He argues that you shouldn’t check e-mail more than twice a day because then you’re just wasting time. How much time should you be spending with Web 2.0 tools?
Brogan: The answer is as much as you see value, as much as you see returns. If your tribe is there, if the people who are complaining about you are there, then that’s where you go. If people are talking about you on blogs, then you spend time on blogs. If they’re on arcane forums, then be involved in the forum or the message group. Furthermore, remember that you’re really trying to use the engagement as more than just, “Howdy do,” but less than a structured campaign. If you have enough trust agents talking specifically to people about what they’re specifically interested in, then that’s where the magic happens.
Smith: If you’re going out there and you don’t know who you’re speaking to, that’s probably one of the biggest mistakes. You can’t say, “OK, what am I getting as a return on this?” because you don’t even know who you’re talking to; you don’t know where they are in the sales funnel; you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to convert them easily, because you don’t even know who they are.
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