Content marketing and the forgotten principles of trust

Sonja Jefferson

The point of content marketing is to build trust. Here’s how to apply four fundamental trust-building principles to your content so you rise above the online noise and help people to believe in your business.

Who is your trusted advisor? Your safe haven on tough issues?

This is the question posed by client and friend Andrea Howe, founder of The Get Real Project, and co-author of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook on her new website. It’s a question that’s obviously relevant when we think about our behaviour as consultants or sellers. Perhaps a little less obviously it’s a question with real significance to content too.

The whole point of the approach that’s become known as content marketing is to build trust. This is its key purpose and one that’s sometimes forgotten. I want to show you how to apply four fundamental trust-building principles to your content so you rise above the online noise and help people to believe in your business.

But first, let’s have a think about Andrea’s question.

My trusted advisor

Who is my trusted advisor? Not a hard one to answer just now. The person who immediately springs to mind is our family doctor. We’re struggling with tricky times in my household and a visit to the GP last week confirmed all the reasons I so trust his advice.

As with most professionals his knowledge is evident, but I think it is the softer stuff that makes him stand out. He always asks the right questions and listens hard. He is honest and upfront without ever being judgmental. I can tell that he cares about his work, about patients like me. I saw him at 5.30pm – I’m sure he’d had a gruelling day, yet he found the time to listen and empathise. He went beyond expressing empathy – he told me the story of his own similar family experience. Nothing could have built my trust more.

Quite naturally, my GP demonstrated the principles of trust in action. Think about these when it comes to your content too.

Four fundamental trust principles

The book The Trusted Advisor by Charles H. Green et al. was the first business book I ever bought. This book and its sequels Trust-based Selling and the later Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (co-authored by Andrea Howe) have had a massive impact on my views on business. They showed me the importance of the soft skills in professional life – honesty, listening, caring, dependability, authenticity and empathy – attributes often played down in the cut and thrust of commerce. As Charlie Green and Andrea say, it’s these softer, human skills that are the true differentiators, the qualities that build great business relationships, enduring loyalty and trust. How refreshing is that!

The Trusted Advisor books give us the four underlying principles that govern all trustworthy behaviour.

  1. focus on the other for the other’s sake, not just as a means to your own ends.
  2. collaborative approach to relationships.
  3. medium to long-term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus.
  4. A habit of being transparent in all your dealings.

Whether selling, advising or writing and sharing content, the way to become trusted is to act consistently from those four principles, just like my lovely, over-worked GP does every day.

Building trust in your marketing

At the end of the day your job as marketers is to build trust and connection. How can you apply this to your content? Here are my thoughts.

  1. Shift the focus from selling to helping. If you want to be trusted then be more helpful. It’s about putting client/customer needs first – showing we have their best interest at heart by making our marketing useful, even if they don’t buy from us. I’ve found that the more you help and the less you ‘sell’ with your marketing the deeper the connection and the more you sell in the long run.
  2. Talk more about others than we do about ourselves. No different to meeting someone face-to-face, self-orientation is seriously off putting.
  3. Play the long game. Quick-win tactics that annoy the majority of customers in the rush to knock down a few will never win out long term. Spammy mass email campaigns, black hat SEO tactics, native advertising, remarketing – long term pain (trust shattered) for short term gain (if indeed any gain) in my book.
  4. Don’t force yourself on people. Think of the people you trust: like your GP, or a trusted business coach. They are there when you need them, but I’ll bet they don’t force themselves on you or over-sell. I knew where to find my doctor, and went to him when the time was right. True trusted experts respect you and your time.
  5. Talk about your competitors. Share content by others in your field – yes, even your direct competitors – if it’s useful or interesting to your audience. This takes confidence. Your business is unique. If you’re clear on who your ideal customer is and communicate from there the right people will still want you.
  6. Make time to listen. Even in your marketing. Genuine curiosity is compelling, so invite participation (in comments, forums, groups, events). Ask good questions. Listen hard and respond helpfully (and fast).
  7. Don’t be afraid to share your own experiences. Give a bit of yourself away in your content. Ditch the professional veneer on occasions and tell your real story. Vulnerability is a strength, so take a risk and show your human side. People will thank you for it. I find this pretty scary personally. How about you?
  8. Do what you say you’ll do. Hard when you’re busy but if you make a commitment then stick to it. To take a marketing example, if you say you’re going to deliver a monthly newsletter then do so. And if you can’t manage it then own up and apologise.
  9. Be honest about your business. Who are you right for and when should someone go elsewhere? What do you shine at and where are your limitations as a business? Insane honesty as our friend Doug Kessler calls it builds trust fast, so step out from behind the hype and tell people who you really are.

It only works if you care

The thing that I really love is the fact that trustworthiness can’t be reduced to behaviours alone. Motives matter just as much. As Charles Green explains:

“Our actions are manifestations of our principles — the beliefs and values we carry inside ourselves and live by. If your values don’t drive you to behave in a trustworthy manner all the time, you’ll be found out quickly.”

You cannot fake the kind of trust-building behaviour we’re talking about here in the rush for revenue. It’s not a tactic you cannot apply without the values and belief behind it. So share valuable content because you care about your customers. Apply this approach cynically as a tactic and people will see through it.

Unless you truly give a shit content marketing won’t work for you.

Apply the trust-based approach to your business, and content

The trust-based approach is a far better way to do business, and a way more natural and comfortable one too. It’s a huge relief from the stress of manipulating and hustling people into buying from you, don’t you think?

Keep these age-old principles firmly in mind, whether you’re marketing online or selling face-to-face.

They’re hard to live by but that’s what makes them so important.

Other content you might like:

With a creaking NHS, GPs are under huge pressure in this country at the moment -See: I’m very grateful for the work they do.

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  1. Avatar

    Sounds like I need to read the Trusted Advisor books.
    Thanks for the tip-off.

  2. Avatar

    To anyone reading this, I just want to add that Sonja Jefferson really “gets” this material. She has taken it seriously, and to heart, and lives the concepts. Andrea and I are grateful for people like her who advance the cause of trust-based relationships; she walks the talk.

  3. Avatar

    Excellent post Sonja and I agree 100%. Your 9 points on how to build trust in your marketing are right on the money.

  4. Avatar

    Thanks very much indeed Charlie – I’m blushing but delighted you think that. Your books and ideas have had a big effect on me.

    Tim – much appreciated too. I was really looking for 10 points but ran out of ideas! If anyone can add a 10th I’d appreciate it!

  5. Avatar

    I’d like to bold and italicize what Charlie said. I love your list of 9 marketing best practices, Sonja. And my all-time favorite line in this post (and perhaps ever): “Unless you truly give a sh** content marketing won’t work for you.” Same goes for trusted advisorship. Way to bottom-line it. 🙂

  6. Avatar

    Hey Andrea – thank you. That’s the bottom line of it for me – you just can’t game the system. How cool is that!


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