A client working on her social media strategy asked me a couple of days ago for guidance on gauging the credibility of industry bloggers. She wants to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with opinion-leading peers in her market space. Without actually meeting these people, how can one tell a legitimate, trusted expert source from a self-proclaimed one?
That question of whom to trust is the same for all of us when evaluating a business online. We look for basic data points to validate legitimacy. The more transparent and accessible that validation is, the more likely we are to believe claims—everything we need is available and easy to find, with nothing to hide. But there's more to trustworthiness than being transparent with information. There's the apparently simple—but actually very complicated—matter of how you behave.
Authenticity is the experiential aspect of online trust. The idea is that people respond to, engage with, and ultimately trust other people, businesses, and brands demonstrating congruence between their claims and their conduct. It means, effectively, you have to walk your talk in order to be trustworthy. It also means you earn trust through honest, personable, and transparent interactions with your audience. Only then can you build a valuable client-customer relationship.
This is all heady stuff. What does it mean to your online business strategy? Here is a checklist of basics to assure you're serving your online markets authentically:
1. Be Real. Use your name (or that of another real person at your company) and contact information. That means: No pseudonyms or generic addresses. Your business gets zero points for sending leads to an "info@" e-mail address, or forcing people who are interested in reaching out online to fill out an anonymous-feeling form. Let them connect with a real, caring person, with a real phone number or e-mail address. Post a photo, or video intro (five-to-10 seconds only) with the contact info. This goes for your Twitter account, too: use a real headshot photo, not an avatar or anonymous icon. Amplify the voice of your brand by personalizing your online bios with interesting details or stories; these can convey a lot about what it's like to work with you.
2. Be Responsive. Would you publish your phone number if you didn't intend to answer it? If you give people a way to reach you (phone, e-mail, Facebook Page, Twitter feed), make sure someone is assigned to respond. Responses should be prompt, helpful, and engaging. Even if you've set up an auto-notification to acknowledge receipt of an inquiry, make sure there is personal follow-up. It's really easy to blow this one. For example: I had dinner at a fabulous, popular neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco a couple of weeks back. The food was fantastic, service great, and entire experience one I would gladly pay for again. I went to the restaurant's website the next day and wrote a glowing thank-you message via its "Contact Us" form. What happened? I received no response—not even a simple acknowledgement. The restaurant had nailed its core value proposition, but blew an opportunity to win a new evangelist.
4. Spotlight Kudos and Comment on Critics. For some categories of products and services, buyers routinely look to peer or expert reviews before making purchase decisions. Think: restaurants and software, as well as plumbers and cars. A successful business likely has great reviews. Do your audience a service by aggregating reviews on a prominent page on your site. You get high authenticity points when your customers and admirers do your marketing for you. Include testimonials in your customers' words. 37Signals posts customer testimonial videos on its homepage (scroll down the screen for examples). Make it easy for your new admirers to find what your tribe thinks of you. Likewise, always provide comment, context, or correction—or a simple apology on negative or neutral reviews that show up on sites like Yelp or Honestly.com. That way your prospects will know you're aware of the critique and addressing it constructively and proactively.
5. Socialize Your Presence. Can people easily verify your claims of expertise? Particularly in business-to-business markets, it's routine to check up on people you're considering doing business with. Your management team and key people interacting with customers and prospects should have current and complete LinkedIn profiles posted. SuccessFactors does this well. Their bios should be posted on your website and should include enough of their history to convey competence in their function—as well as anything relevant to what your company specializes in—even if that seems super casual. Check out the inclusion of music preferences in bios of Pandora execs, for example. Figure out which social media platforms are most-used by your targets. Make sure you have complete profiles in those places and actively participate where there is critical mass of people you're trying to reach and influence.
6. Cultivate a Following. Online marketing, particularly via social channels, is all about creating content valued by your audiences. Via blogs, YouTube, Twitter, FaceBook, Quora, as well as your own site, you have tremendous opportunity to articulate your point of view and assert thought leadership in your market space. How do your markets know you're a thought leader? They scope out who follows you, re-tweets your posts, cross-links your content, and subscribes to your feeds. You must actively nurture dialogue with your followers so your tribe stays active and engaged. On Twitter, for example, make a habit of following people who follow you. For example Tony Hsieh at Zappos (@zappos) and HBO's Game of Thrones (@gameofthrones) both amassed an initial following of devotees this way. When people new to your content see others like themselves following you, they'll more readily assume you are credible expert.
7. Reveal Interesting Details. Nothing says confidence more than revealing things your competitors typically keep behind the scenes. When it looks from the outside that there's no part of your business you need to hide, people will conclude that transparency translates to quality and candor. Provide details explaining what it's like to do business with you at all points of customer interaction, from purchasing, implementation or delivery, support, customer service, and repeat patronage. Check out how this Berkeley, California, cheese and pizza shop conveys its unique vibe and key information via commissioned art. Leverage the voices of your employees, customers, and partners to share success stories at key points of a customer relationship. Video, audio, guest blog posts, or even simple pull-quotes about details of working with your business, convey the genuine attention to detail valued by loyal customers.
Alice Hansen is a brand and communication strategist and principal of Great-to-Market Labs, a growth catalyzer based in San Francisco.