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It’s a straightforward request co-authors Chris Brogan and Julien Smith pose to readers in their latest book, Trust Agents. But earning trust has taken thousands of tweets, hundreds of blogposts, and hours upon hours of conversations; ultimately, it has required both Brogan and Smith to abide by one principle: Create goodwill. For companies, this means breaking down the business-consumer divide to establish a real relationship—and there’s no better relationship than one built on trust. CRM’s Associate Editor Jessica Tsai spoke with Brogan—who was named one of the magazine’s 2009 CRM Influential Leaders (see the September issue)—about how to develop trust by simply being human.
CRM magazine: Why “trust”?
Chris Brogan: Trust is probably the most visceral of words, and the most necessary of words right now. We started the book more than a year ago…[before] the collapse of [General Motors], the collapse of the banking system as we know it. But even back then we had this feeling of, “I can’t believe businesses operate this way.” We really have to get back to this human-shaped business. To us, trust is the real baseline of what we look for in our needs system. If you think about it, “credibility” is one thing, but trust is all the way down through your life.
CRM: Many industry reports focus on this element of “trust,” but there are nuances in each. [See “Who Do You Trust About Trust?,” page 17.] How do you resolve the various approaches?
Brogan: Businesses like to try to use bigger words or professional words to try to get to a point—and I’ve decided I’m done with that. Business communication is sort of about obfuscation. I think what they’re all aiming at is something [Julien and I] go at in a slightly differently way: We understand that it’s baked into being human to use trust as one of our levers, and all of these things start at the same idea. They color [trust] up a bit to match a business need. One of the best books ever written, Freakonomics, talked all about incentives: “Why does someone do something?” Edelman needs to have a barometer of trust because [it needs] to come out well on that barometer of trust.
CRM: You emphasize the notion of giving and not expecting anything in return. Is being a “trust agent” a balanced relationship? Or is one merely content knowing they did something good?
Brogan: In an odd way, this actually mirrors a really famous quote [attributed to John Wanamaker]: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Karma is that way: “Be good all the time, and you’ll just have good when you need it.” It’s a very eastern philosophy. Julien and I both [believe that] the more good we do, especially when we expect nothing, the more good comes back to us.
The problem for businesses and organizations is that it’s really hard to put an Excel spreadsheet together that makes this case really well. It’s hard to say, “Chris flies all over the country and the world, and meets all kinds of people, and shakes their hands, and listens to their stories, and this turns into [a] real cash business.”
Believe me, there’s lots of things I want measured in my life. I like medical things to be measured. I like airplanes to actually know exactly where they think they’re going. But there’s a lot of interaction in a given day—your job, my job—that’s really more about faith than we’re willing to accept. It’s a lot more about human dynamics than we’re willing to accept. By forever pushing the soft skills to the edges because they’re harder to measure or because they don’t actually fit into an Excel spreadsheet, we’re missing a big opportunity.
Because we’re social media types, because we’re able to launch this mostly on our social media platform and hardly at all in the traditional sense, there’s been lots of evidence on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so there’s a huge footprint. We’ve left a giant footprint because all these people have come and are explaining their interactions with the book and how it matters to what they’re doing.
I’m actually hoping some percentage, 20 to 70 percent, say this is the stupidest book they’ve ever read because frankly, I’ll be using it as a marketing advantage.
CRM: One image in your book is of an individual in the center of his social circles. Was it intentional that the trust agent is in the center and the sole link to all the disparate groups? It seems like a very self-centered mentality, literally.
Brogan: Yes, self-centered, because…
that’s the nature of the book—starting in the middle. We talk about the Agent Zero…notion of being part of many people’s “150,” all these different Dunbar-number groups. We came up with this idea based on our travel-mindedness. Right now I’m in Seattle. I’m in Chris Pirillo’s “organization” and Chris has a really powerful community, so he’s loaning me this community right now. By extension of being here, I’m part of this organization and people will think of me as part of the Seattle scene. I also hang out with Realtors, I hang out with business types, I hang out with moms. All those groups consider themselves fairly cohesive. What we see with trust agents is, if you don’t spam those groups, and be an active participant in their community, that’s the sort of magic of Agent Zero and that’s one reason you’re in the middle.
The second reason is that—and we stress this as hard as we can in the book and I hope to God that people come away with this—is that it’s not about the tools. There’s a lot of books about Twitter, a lot of books about Facebook, a lot of books about why you should blog. None of the tools themselves are the thing. It’s connecting to humans and building relationships for business or otherwise.
CRM: Speaking of numbers, how did you come to “a multiple of 12” as the number of times you should be promoting others over yourself?
Brogan: It’s just a practice I’ve been doing for a while. I guess we could’ve put any number in there.
CRM: So no formula?
Brogan: Oh no, I’m not nearly that smart. I’m so absolutely all about feel—I’m more a cook, not a chef. What I’ve found, though, is that when I say that, people become mindful. No matter what, if I said 72 to 1, or 15 to 1, or 12 to 1. What they know is, stop talking about your damn self. I learned this trick a bit from David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men’s Health. If you’ve ever seen it, it’s ridiculously formulaic. Every single issue is about getting six-pack abs. I read this thing where he said, “Every time I don’t put the phrase ‘six-pack abs’ on the front of the magazine, the sales of that issue go down dramatically.” Six-pack abs have nothing to do with health or fitness. There’s no physical-fitness reason why you should have well-defined abdominal muscles. He says you should have a really good, strong core, you should eat well, so there’s an article in every issue that talks about six-pack abs but it has nothing to do with your abs, but people read for that, and that’s what they get.
What if I said “12” was an icon for “learn how to not promote yourself as much as you promote others,” and that it didn’t matter what I said there [if] I said something that makes people stop and think. It’s been successful. I see people quote that number all the time. It shows up in slide decks. I’m thrilled by this. If you go to anybody’s Twitter account, you can see really quickly if they believe in [promoting others] or not. The people who complain they have no effectiveness [in social media] are the ones who aren’t doing it.
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