Hey everybody, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. My name is Gunnar Rogers, as always, I am your host. Today, I am joined by the brilliant Scott Baradell, whose new book, Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World, is available now on Amazon. If you go today or this week, you can pick up a copy of the Kindle version, the ebook version for 99 cents for this week alone. So make sure you go check that out but first, enjoy this conversation with Scott Baradell. 

All right you all, as I said in the intro, I am honored today to be joined by founder of Idea Grove and newly minted author of the book, Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World. Scott Baradell, thank you so much for joining me on the Author Hour podcast today.

Scott Baradell: Thanks for having me.

Gunnar Rogers: We are super excited, and it’s not often that I get to ask a question about the title alone but the term “post-truth world” really stuck out to me. When did you first come up with that term and what even led you to this idea of living in a post-truth world?

Scott Baradell: Well, I can’t claim the term. It was coined by someone during the first Gulf War, during senior Bush’s administration because, at the time, they did something called, for the first time, report pools to cover that war, compared to in Vietnam where journalists were allowed to kind of just roam Saigon and roam the countryside, and we got all kinds of incredible journalism and a lot of traumatic kind of images and reporting during Vietnam that of course, ultimately became a factor in us leaving Vietnam.

The protest internally within the United States group, based on reporting. So during the Gulf War, they wanted to restrict the amount of access a journalist could have. They used a pulling system where basically, a small number of reporters could have access to see mostly what the government and military wanted them to see, and so the story that was about this coined the term because what the writer was saying was that, “You know, the public is okay with this.”

Why are they okay with this? Shouldn’t they be saying, “Hey, freedom of the press,” right? They said, “You know what? It was such a difficult and traumatic experience during Vietnam and all that we dealt with that perhaps, America’s reached a point where they really would rather just hear some good news and not have to deal with ugly side of things,” and so, you said, “We’ve come to kind of live in this post-truth world.”

So as I define it a little differently is, we’re in a world today where in our chosen echo chambers, we can hear only what we want to hear, you know? It can be all good news or it could be the bad news that we agree with. Either way, it’s an environment where there’s not this kind of shared sense of objective truth in the way that it was in the past, in a way that PR people, journalists, and others kind of counted on that was something that kind of held the society together. Well, if as marketers and PR people, you don’t have that kind of shared landscape of what’s true and what’s not, how do you navigate that? It’s mostly been talked about in a political context, and that is the challenge for marketers and PR people as well.

Marketers and Manipulation

Gunnar Rogers: Exactly, and I want to dig into that a little bit more. When did you start seeing marketers and PR people begin to maybe manipulate the truth or choose even what truth is, and how has that gotten even worse over the past decade?

Scott Baradell: Well, I mean, marketers have — you’ve always had marketers who, some marketers who are more ethical than others. I mean, if you go back to 1912, a long time ago, that’s when the Better Business Bureau was formed, and that was formed because big brands like Coca-Cola were doing deceptive advertising and the government was getting involved and there was a lot of bad publicity around the advertising industry.

This is over a hundred years ago, and Better Business Bureau, that’s — they’re still around today, they’re actually bigger than ever — it’s always been an incentive for marketers and companies to kind of take shortcuts to sell, but I think what’s changed is that there used to be a sense that journalists — I could trust, you know, the New York Times or different mainstream publications. I could trust government agencies and so forth to kind of hold these marketers to account. And so what’s really kind of changed is that there’s not the level of trust in government that there used to be, there’s not the level of trust in media that there used to be. Some people call this a trust deficit. We’re not only in a post-truth world, but we’re on a post-trust world. I argue that that’s not actually the case. 

That is more about trust displacement that we need things to trust. It’s embedded in our DNA. There’s research from primates and others that trust is a necessary part of any animal that kind of lives in a communal environment, which people do. 

So what happens is, we have to find other things to trust. So for example, you’ve got a lot of people who don’t trust or believe Donald Trump, for example, is an honest person or a trustworthy person. But you’ve got other people who, as we can see from his rallies, believe very strongly that he is someone you can trust in a sea of government organizations and media and so forth that you can’t trust. So we gravitate towards those polls or those echo chambers or however you want to think of them and kind of align with sources of information online that we decide, we come to a determination that we trust, and that’s the environment that brands have to negotiate today.

I’ll give you an example, this was about ten years ago when I first really noticing this phenomenon happening not just in politics but just in the business world. I had for a client that was in the oil and gas space, secured an interview with the New York Times, which was a big coup. This was a big enough deal that a reporter was actually going to fly from New York into Dallas. It was this big piece that where my client was going to be used as a resource to kind of speak on some larger trends in the industry, great for thought leadership. I mean, it just — it was a great opportunity but what happened was, after initially saying yes and the reporter booking her flight and all that, well, the CEO got cold feet because some of his internal managers as well as some clients he decided to then talk to told him, “Hey, you can’t trust New York Times. You can’t trust them, they’re going to screw you.” 

Of course, I’ve cleared all that. I knew that this wasn’t going to be something that was — where there was much risk at all of them looking bad because they were going to be asked to comment on others in larger trends, but we were already at that point where the New York Times, what used to be, all the news that fits a print, well, had become this lightning rod of polarization, where you had people that completely don’t trust it and those that still think it’s one of the best newspapers out there, right? 

So this is what in the business world, you have to negotiate that too. I had a client who had a really cool technology product. We mostly work with technology clients, and he had decided that, we’re trying to put together a media plan for him, he had decided that he really only wanted to be in Fox News of Fox Business. He did not think that other national news outlets are trustworthy and that they didn’t have credibility with him.

Now, and what we told him is, “Well, whether that’s true or not, right? It’s really about your customers and what they think is credible.” And that’s how we kind of got in this whole idea of what we can do is build and what I encourage in the book PR people to do as a profession is to really build trust profiles for your clients. Every brand should have trust profiles that speak to their customers, clients, target audiences and what builds trust or does not build trust with them.

That’s how the environment has changed. There’s so many choices of how to market yourself and get visibility online. It’s really important to choose the right trust signals, the right sources of evidence online to build trust with your target audience. 

For example, Nike knew that building a campaign around Colin Kaepernick would be profitable for it. Another brand who maybe had more conservative clientele, conservative customer base would be damaged by choosing Collin Kaepernick as a spokesperson.

So how do you make the decision for your brand? I think a lot of times it’s been done based on a CEOs gut, right? As supposed to, maybe you should do some research. So marketers currently are used to doing higher persona research, where they get a sense of what customers pain point was and how they came to make a decision about a product, but they’re not used to doing research about considerations that don’t involve with the product or considerations, our audience is other than the customer. Because in this day and age, an audience, community activists, employees, audiences that aren’t your customer matter a lot in terms of how you’re perceived online, and there’s lots of data to show that more and more people are making choices about what products they’d buy not based on just comparing one product to another but the values they associate with the brand. 

So all this speaks to beyond, you know, building and buyer persona as a marketing exercise to understand your customer. You should develop a trust profile to understand more broadly the messages and sources of information online that are going to go toward helping you build trust because you can’t sell anything, you can’t grow your business, you can’t build a relationship, you can’t do anything without establishing trust first.

Gunnar Rogers: I totally agree with that, and in your experience, has it been hard to convince clients of that as far as like, what matters more is establishing trust, not understanding our buyer personas, like how hard of a sell has that been over the past few years in a post-truth world?

Scott Baradell: Well, we do buyer personas too. We think they should be done kind of in coordination but to answer your question, now there is a cartoon that I saw, and I wish I could think of who the artist was, but it was two kiosks side by side of people selling something and then one kiosk, a person had a sign that said, “brand building” and in the kiosk next to it, there was someone who had a sign where they were selling “low quality leads”. The joke was that there was this never-ending line for low-quality  leads and no one was in line for brand building. The point is that the two are related. So yes, it’s a constant educational thing because, obviously, everyone wants to grow their business quickly, everyone wants to take a shortcut to just getting sales, right? 

But what happens is, if you haven’t established brand trust, which is really what brand building is all about, if I just wanted to make you aware of your brand, these days, the easiest and cheapest way to do that is not like trying to get media coverage or things like that. The easiest way to do it would be just retarget you, follow you around with targeted ads all the time and you would know my brand, you’d be aware of it but you would be very annoyed by me, right? So what I’m trying to do with brand building is to build brand trust. 

So to answer your question is, we work very hard to communicate the benefits of establishing brand awareness and trust in terms of making those leads better, making your growth something that there’s less friction, in terms of that kind of the last mile of getting those leads and turning those leads into customers. If you have established your brand first, all those things are much easier to achieve.

Becoming an Educated Consumer

Gunnar Rogers: I totally agree, and then I was curious coming to this conversation, how much responsibility is on the consumer or on the customer to build trust on their end? Like, working with brands, working with corporations to develop their trust signals and address profiles. How much onus is on the consumer as far as not just falling prey to the ads that are following them around or falling prey to a brand that they just like inherently? Just, what advice do you have for the consumer as far as building trust goes?

Scott Baradell: Well, it’s always been and still remains buyer beware, right? So I think what you have to do is be smart about what trust signals that you buy into. To define trust signals, since we haven’t really done that, what we’re talking about is the evidence points online that people use or brands use to establish trust. 

So for example, I encourage my customers to leave reviews about our agency, and someone who is doing a search online, will see a five star review. That will build trust. If a journalist writes a positive story about my client or my agency, that establishes trust in my client or in us. An influencer that has a following that trust that influencer, you can borrow that trust by them, endorsing you or your product. So these are all just kind of examples among many. I’ve got over a hundred in the book. A Better Business Bureau seal, that’s a trust signal, that’s a very tangible trust signal. 

So what the customer needs to do is — and they already do this, but they can get taken advantage of if they don’t do their homework — they gravitate towards those trust signals that resonate with them. So maybe if I’m someone who doesn’t trust the New York Times, an article that’s positive about a brand, wouldn’t necessarily influence me. Whereas a positive mention and maybe an email newsletter from an influencer, maybe that does influence me to purchase. So everyone’s going to have their own preferences that way. I think that every consumer is smart to educate themselves. 

For example, there’s an online advertising campaign that you might have seen by a company called Brand Feature. There are other organizations like it. Basically, they’re a press released distribution service but how they market themselves is, press releases that get put on a wire and get picked up in an automated fashion by all kinds of news outlets. It’s an automated service. The news outlets don’t endorse the press release. It is just part of a wire service, but what this Brand Feature does, it’s just one example is they, the way they advertise themselves is, “Hey, you can establish trust because once we put out this press release for you, you can say on your website — you can put these trust signals, “As seen on ABC, as seen on CBS, as seen on…” 

Well, if you do a little homework, you’d realize that that’s not a real endorsement, right? From that media source. So putting out a press release in five minutes and getting it kind of placed in an automated way and on a page, on a media organization’s website is not the same as a media organization actually writing about your brand and saying good things about it. That is a different thing. 

So if I see it on a website “As seen on…” a media outlet, I want to click on that, and then I want to go to link to the story, you know? So I know what it was, “Is this real? Is this real coverage that you’ve got, or is this basically trying to make me think you’ve got coverage?” When all you got was a paid placement of a press release. 

Building Trust through Media Placement

Gunnar Rogers: Yeah, exactly, and on that note, you do discuss a lot of trust signals throughout the book. Just in your opinion — and I know that it is going to be hard to choose, but I am going to make you choose today — just from where we stand in this cultural moment, what is the most crucial trust signal that a company can put out into the world? 

Scott Baradell: The most crucial trust signal that a company can put out to the world, that’s a – it’s interesting because the whole book in the post truth world is talking about how it’s so individualized and different. 

Gunnar Rogers: I know, I know. 

Scott Baradell: But I would say that today, the most important trusting note is going to vary per brand, but in general I would say getting really good media coverage in the right outlets for your brand can have so many great benefits because not only are you getting the respect and credibility that comes with appearing in this well-known outlet, you can do things to make sure the right people see that like targeted ads. Like including the link to the coverage in your sales emails, references on social media, all kinds of things like that. 

But beyond that, kind of the secret superpowers that big media placements have that a lot of people don’t think about is that’s what the big five websites today, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter, all these sites are using media coverage as the main criterion by which to establish your credibility. 

So for example, Twitter. After kind of keeping it as a black box for a while, last year released their guidelines for what it takes to get that famous blue checkmark, and it included either being in the ultimate nth percent of people in terms of your follower account or being in Wikipedia or being a public company. They made it less specific but when they first announced it, they said at least three media placements over the past six months. 

So articles about your brand, so if you could show three or more articles about your brand, if you had a Wikipedia listing then you can get the blue checkmark. That’s a benefit of kind of mainstream media coverage that a lot of people don’t think about, and I mentioned Wikipedia, well, Wikipedia uses the same thing. So how you get what’s called, how you cross the hurdle of what’s called notability on Wikipedia is by getting media coverage of your company or if you are the person. 

So if you think about it, if Twitter is saying you need to have a Wikipedia entry and have articles about you, well, Wikipedia is asking for a media coverage too. So you get media coverage each to the Wikipedia until you get a little more media coverage to add on top of that, and you get your blue checkmark. These are major trust signals online today and people don’t think about when they see the blue checkmark or the Wikipedia entry that it was really media coverage that got you those things, but it was. 

Facebook, YouTube, they both, as everyone knows by now, have come under a lot of fire for posting random conspiracy videos and different things from questionable sources and not just about issues like vaccines but a lot of other things too. They have taken down hundreds of thousands of posted videos, and they’ve really leaned into more traditional media sources.

So if you look on newsfeeds, you look at what’s popping up on YouTube, getting attention in those kind of outlets is getting more visibility because it has more credibility that the content is factual content than a lot of the lesser sources. 

So these are all examples of why one – well, let me mention one other thing related to that. Let’s talk about one big media placement, let’s say. It can go towards getting you the blue checkmark on Twitter, it can go towards getting your Wikipedia entry — also you know, John Mueller, who is the chief search advocate at Google last year, said that from an SEO standpoint, one high quality link from a tier one, as in top credibility news outlet was worth a million lesser quality links, that’s the words he used. So literally, if you got an SEO firm who has been working with you for five years generating a bunch of crappy links, you could do better than that with one really good story that gets placed. 

So to be clear, newsrooms have shrunk by 25% over the last 30 years. A lot of things have tapped into the news media, they have taken a lot of hits. No mainstream source of information has the same audience, it used to be those things are so fragmented, but it is still in terms of the many ways it can help your brand, there is few things to compete with it. 

Having said that, the elephant in the room for PR is that most people think of PR as media relations. That’s a very limited definition, so I have redefined for the purpose of this book PR as securing trust that scale. So that’s getting attention in the media and kind of taking than mantle of credibility that comes from that is one but one of many ways to secure trust that scale as a brand. 

You got to secure trust on a beyond, that kind of individual interaction between a sales person and a customer. You’ve got to find ways to basically what all marketing is, is taking sales and scaling it and online to scale it, it has to start with the ways that you are building trust. A great news article will do that, having a good review program so you’ve got lots of customers saying good things about you, having thought leadership online, doing the right things to manage your reputation, having a social purpose strategy so that you’re showing your customers and others that you care about more than selling your product, these are all different ways that you can build trust online.

Take the Next Steps

Gunnar Rogers: Definitely, and you mentioned in the book, there is a lot to take away from the book and all of it is incredibly useful, especially for people in the marketing or PR, even just business leadership space. I am curious, Scott, once people read the book because that is definitely step one and the best step to take after they listen to this conversation, what are some best next steps people can take as far as understanding how to leverage trust signals and really developing better trust with their customer base and with their audience at large? 

Scott Baradell: The book is divided into two parts, and the first part is really explaining what trust signals are and categorizing them and giving examples of them. So there are trust signals on your website, that’s the Better Business Bureau seal. That’s just having professional design, that’s having pictures of your team so people know what you look like, all these things. There’s so many different elements of a website that can either build or not build trust. 

There is inbound trusting, no such – you can think of like for the purpose of inbound marketing where people see you on social media sites or they see you in media or they see you in an article that you’ve written and posted on a trade magazine, all the different ways. Customer reviews, things that people find online that send you to your website. And then there’s what I call SEO trusting notes, which are those kind of signals that a lot of what Google goes by is what people go by. 

But Google also has things that people can’t see, like since they’re only analytics, they can see traffic to your website, they can gauge the performance of your website in terms of page speed and lots of things like that. They use all of those factors in determining how to rank your site. So those are and when you rank are trust signals. 

So we explained this whole concept of trust signals so you can start to understand and take all of these different evidence points and things that may be currently different kinds of marketing firms and PR firms do different things, and I am putting them all in one continuum and saying, “These are all sources of influence” right? You have to think big picture, and the second part of the book, I developed a system that I call grow with trust. 

Grow with trust is basically taking trust signals and putting them as opposed to saying, “Here’s a list, here’s a checklist of trust signals and make them happen,” putting them into a system that I think any modern PR firm or marketing firm with a PR orientation should really think about integrating these ideas and that’s third-party validation, which includes media influencer’s reviews, it’s reputation management, and that includes having a proactive social purpose strategy that can protect you against cancellation and online criticism and so forth.

User experience, kind of all the things that you can do with your own media and your website to make people to trust you, to resonate with your audience, and to show third-party validation on the media that you own, like your website, thought leadership, and search presence. So those are the elements of the system. 

And what I do at the end of the book is after kind of walking through here’s trust signals, here’s a system that an agency or a brand can use to implement a trust signal centered strategy, and we talk about how to then implement that. So what someone can do who read the book, let’s say they’re a marketer or a business owner, is they could — what I talk about in the book is a wish list strategy where, which is borrowed from the world of Agile software development, and the idea is that you look at what your goal is. Is your goal to protect your reputation? Is your goal third-party validation? Is your goal to establish yourself as a thought leader? 

Whatever your goal might be, let’s look at all the trust signals that can help you reach it and then put them in a, what I call a wish list, and then prioritize based on what’s going to give you the biggest bang for your buck. So as just one example, we have just like a lot of clients say, “Hey, we just want leads,” you know? We also have a lot of clients that say, “Hey, we just want media coverage.” 

The first thing we’ll do is say, “Okay, what would happen if we pitched you to the media right now?” and what we might find is a website that looks terrible, bad reviews online. We’ve had prospects approach us, and you can search for them by name and they don’t show up on the first page results. There is all kinds of things that basically, if we did pitch you to the media, we’d be pitching a whole lot before we ever got a bite, right? Because the first thing someone with the media is going to do is they’re going to do a Google search of your brand, and they are going to look for trust signals to see if you are worth covering, so it is all inter-related, right? 

So what we might tell a client is, “Hey, your website is priority number one,” or “Man, you’ve got some really bad reviews online,” but priority number one is figure out why that is and address it and maybe respond to these. 

So for every brand, it is going to be different, but if you understand the landscape, if you understand what trust signals are and then you kind of can prioritize based on what’s going to provide you the biggest impact based on the time and effort it takes to do that, I think that is a great simple approach to starting to implement the ideas in the book, and that’s kind of the last chapter before the conclusion is kind of talking about doing that. 

Gunnar Rogers: Heck yeah, and the book, once again everybody, is titled, Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World. Scott, I’d loved every second of this conversation. We definitely want people to go check out the book, want them to take those next steps. After doing all of that, just in general, what is the best way people can find you and engage with you? 

Scott Baradell: Well, the book grew out of a website called Trust Signals, trustsignals.com, where we post content regularly on this topic if you are interested in the topic of trust and specifically trust in business, and then I have an agency called Idea Grove. We’ve been around for over a decade now, and we work mostly with tech companies, and you can go find Idea Grove at ideagrove.com. 

Gunnar Rogers: Awesome. Everybody, make sure you go check that out. Go check out Scott’s new book today, you will not regret it. Thank you so much for your time today, sir, we really appreciate you. 

Scott Baradell: Thank you. I appreciate it.