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Building and Breaking Trust: Three Common Tactics to Watch For

In marketing, we talk about the know, like, trust factor, but there’s an ongoing lack of understanding of what it really means to trust a business. What we often view as trust is really a superficial relationship that’s been built with us based on a set of twisted tactics.

In this episode, we’re digging into three commonly used online business practices that build, and ultimately break trust with an eye on helping you build more trust in business.

When you think about something like a consumer product, then it comes to trusting a brand we’re looking for very specific markers. We want to know the company is legit, we want to know the product is quality, and we want to figure out if it’s right for us.

This is exactly why when I buy any new skincare products I really do my homework. So many things seem way better than they are in reality. Plus, I have sensitive skin so I need to be careful about what products I try.

This is why I’ve been known to ask about it in the beauty and skincare Facebook group I’m in. Then, I read the reviews. And when I say read the reviews, I don’t mean a quick skim, I mean, I read them in detail both on the site, and by Googling to see what I can find.

Let me tell you, this research has saved me from wasting so much money on things that weren’t right for me.

Oddly enough, I think I’ve spent more time researching a $50 redness serum that I took with many of my business purchases. And I’m sure this is the same for many of you.

Personally, I find this a bit puzzling, as surely, I should take more time with a $500 or $5000 purchase than with a $50 one?

That’s clearly not the case for me in the context of my business.

In the next few episodes, I’m going to talk about how to build a trusted business and specific ideas for doing that. But first, I wanted to dig into three commonly used online business practices that build, and ultimately break trust.

For us to build trust-driven businesses, we need to understand how our trust is being eroded.

#1. Weaponizing Our Base Desires and Fears

There are a multitude of factors at play, especially in online business, when it comes to us making decisions about what to buy and not buy for our business.

One of the biggest ones is that the current state of marketing and sales in online business is built around business practices that are designed to play on our emotions. I’ve talked about this extensively in past episodes and essays, so I won’t get into all of the ways this is done, but our most base desires and fears are weaponized against us.

For example, a big part of the online business community is built around having the identity of an entrepreneur or business owner. With that identity comes certain expectations around the goals we set, how we measure success, and even how we invest our money.

For me, the idea that I should be doing something because of where I was in my business and the type of person I was has resulted in multiple failed investments. While I didn’t rush into these investments, I can see now that identity was the primary driver for those decisions.

I’d been indoctrinated by celebrity entrepreneurs with the idea that for me to be a certain way, I had to do certain things. That if I was really an entrepreneur I had to engage in certain rites of passage from being part of a mastermind to hiring a coach.

It’s important to note that I’m not someone who’s easily influenced or swayed, but I fell for this as the message and marketing were so deeply interconnected with my sense of identity.

Let this be a reminder that each and every one of us is vulnerable when it comes to being influenced by celebrity entrepreneurs, and that trust built by playing to our base instincts rarely will last.

Building trust in this way is manipulative, and it starts the relationship off from a place of unrealistic expectations. Speaking from my experiences working behind-the-scenes of businesses relying heavily on these types of appeals, the higher the expectations, the faster the fall happens.

Trust being built in a way that speaks directly base fears and desires is fleeting, as since those can’t be met, trust is broken. (And really, it’s a tall order for anyone to fulfill that much for us as a business investment, yet this type of marketing and messaging is extremely common.)

#2. Creating Intimacy with Personal Brands

Another key element of this is how faux intimacy is established in order to foster trust.

Have you ever wondered why so many celebrity entrepreneurs with big businesses and teams operate under a personal brand? It’s because they know the power of a personal brand for creating connections and building trust.

As consumers, we’re typically a little more suspicious of brands as we understand it’s a business and that they’re trying to sell us something. The rules of engagement are clear, and that helps remind us that it’s contingent on us as consumers to let the buyer beware.

A 2021 Report The Truth About Trust from the Kearney Consumer Institute found that 76% of respondents trusted small businesses more than large ones.

The use of a personal brand enables celebrity entrepreneurs to take this one further by disarming us so we think of them as not a brand, but a person. That removes a significant barrier as it’s much easier for us to trust a singular person than an entire brand.

The big-name celebrity entrepreneur brands in the online business market have more in common with influencers than they do with more mainstream small businesses in terms of how they create relationships.

They foster parasocial relationships with us using a mix of curated vulnerability, lifestyle content, and aspirational messaging. As we buy into their content and image, they build trust with us using a carefully curated set of images and messages which are deliberately designed to create faux intimacy.

The result is that we become invested in them as people, and we’re lulled into trusting them like a friend. Which means when they’re marketing and selling to us, we easily forget they’re not our friends. We fail to recognize that they’re running a business where they don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart.

This phenomenon is intensified by a steady diet of messages that tell us that if they did it we can too and that they’re just like us. That leads us to think that when we purchase products or programs from them, we’ll experience the same result.

The harsh reality is that this is manufactured trust which overrides our critical thinking and creates a relationship that simply doesn’t exist.

Clearly, this is an effective tactic, but I believe it’s why so many consumers in the online business market are so disillusioned. This type of trust which is created under false pretenses is quickly broken once the purchase is made. 

There’s absolutely a place for personal brands, but from my point of view, they outlive their utility at a certain stage of growth.

As the celebrity entrepreneur becomes less and less involved in the day-to-day and really are only the face of the business, it leaves questions around how they’re building trust with potential customers and if anbait and switch happens once the purchase is made.

Based on countless conversations I’ve had in recent years, as well as the data from the 2021 Online Business Investment Survey, the bait and switch where people are passed off to success coaches or simply never see the face of the brand again results in broken trust.

It’s a prime example of how trust gained in this way is fleeting as it’s not based on anything substantive. One-sided relationships are a one-way ticket to disappointed customers who no longer trust you. (This is really not a way to build trust in business!)

#3. The Absence of Credible Social Proof

It’s no secret that humans seek out social proof in the form of testimonials and reviews. Social proof is one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion and it’s based on the idea that we do what we see other people doing. We look to others to decide if something is safe or not.

In my case, it’s why I read skincare reviews like it’s my job as I don’t want to piss off my very sensitive skin. And in the case of online business, when we’re researching a purchase we read the testimonials, and we may even talk to a couple of our friends or peers as we make our decision.

Cialdini’s work says that when it comes to social proof if we’re unsure we’re more reliant on social proof to make our decision. If we’re on the fence about our purchase, testimonials, recommendations and reviews become even more crucial in our decision-making process.

This sounds completely reasonable until you realize that within the online business market when you go looking for this information you’re likely going to find overwhelmingly positive information.

Why? First of all, testimonials that are typically used fail to illustrate a diversity of experiences with a product or service. We’re literally seeing a handful of people’s testimonials and assuming their results are indicative of those of the collective.

We see the top 1% or maybe 10% of experiences with a brand, product or service, which are atypical results that will not be replicated for most people. When we purchase based on this information alone, we likely have unrealistic expectations.

Beyond testimonials, we may Google to find more information or speak to a peer about their experiences. This is where things get interesting, as this industry has literally been built on non-disparagement clauses. Even if you don’t realize it, if you’ve been enrolled in programs or coached with bigger names in this industry, you’ve likely had this included in the program terms and conditions when you’ve purchased.

When negative experiences are shared online, they’re often quickly erased citing the non-disparagement clauses. While reputation management is a standard practice in many industries, it does beg the question of how we get a more balanced assessment of any potential investments in our business.

Failing the Google search turning out the information you’re looking for, you’d likely turn to your peers or circle of business friends for input. This would seem like a reasonable way to obtain the information, however, this industry is built on a culture of silence.

Due to NDAs and non-disparagement clauses, along with fear of retribution from people with more resources, overall people across the industry are extremely reluctant to share their experiences.

This makes it hard, even when you have a relationship with someone, to get the full story of someone’s experience. I’ve come to learn that the real value is in what people won’t say. Unless they’re willing to rave about their experience with someone, there’s likely much more to the story than they’re willing to share.

Truthfully? I understand why people are guarded about what they’ll share. Even after nearly 10 years in this industry, I’m extremely careful about who I will name, and who I will divulge information to. The very last thing I need is some type of legal headache for sharing an opinion.

As consumers, we’re relying on trust signals that are incomplete or misleading, which means when we have less than the optimal experience we quickly become jaded.

These types of experiences are extremely common, and honestly, it makes it harder for everyone across the industry. Once people have been burned, they’re that much slower to trust anyone new, even if they’re operating from a place of truth and integrity.

Focusing on trust in business will go a long way to making the industry a better place, and help you stand out from the bullshit.

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Maggie Patterson Abou the Author

I’m Maggie Patterson (she/her), and services businesses are my business.

I have 20+ years of experience with client services, am a consultant for agency owners, creatives, and consultants, and vocal advocate for humane business practices rooted in empathy, respect, and trust.

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