Trust Me

Trust me, I’m in marketing.

If that line made your skin crawl, then you experienced an important aspect of marketing, namely a lack of trust (even Seth Godin noted an inherent instinct to distrust marketers). Where trust is lacking, so are sales. Mistrust prevents people from taking promotions, products and sales people seriously.

It is an ancient survival mechanism adapted for modern ages.

Sleazy salesman pointing(Mis)trust involves balancing risk and rewards. For example, locales where gun ownership is low tend to have higher burglary rates, which demonstrates that even the dumbest of criminals weigh risk and rewards. If risk is low, humans will accept nearly any reward. Where there is any risk, escalating degrees of mistrust develop. You may hesitate a second before spending a dollar on a soda brand you have never tasted, but you’ll hesitate forever when encountering a pushy car salesman who guides you directly toward $70,000 Escalade when you came to look at Chevy Cruze.

Some industries require overcoming congenital mistrust. Lawyers, financial advisors, telemarketers and mechanics start engagements with zero credibility and have to earn the trust of clients. Other industries, such as B2B software, require overcoming trust deficits for multiple buyer genotypes (a.k.a. personae) and bureaucracies designed to prevent mistakes (e.g. institutional mistrust). One of marketing’s jobs is to understand and mitigate mistrust before buyers are ever approached.

This slows the natural account executive process of destroying trust.

Mitigating mistrust in advance is non-trivial. People mistrust marketing, and are immune to standard claims of value. Tell a consumer that your desktop software package comes with technical support, and they’ll ask if the support center is in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Marketing has to go beyond simple claims to erode mistrust. They must understand the source of the mistrust and then deploy means for indirectly removing mistrust. The most common example is putting customer testimonials on top landing pages to assure prospect that they are not entering unblazed forests.

Where many marketers err is not understanding the source of mistrust or applying the wrong persuasion. Oracle was famous for benchmarking in the old DBMS wars (which they won). Benchmarking erased fears concerning scalability, which in the proprietary UNIX days was critical. Oracle understood the mistrust of CTOs concerning claims of scalability, and relentlessly promoted industry reports where Oracle outperformed everything (even when it didn’t). The CTO mistrust of software vendor claims was mitigated with industry-neutral testing.

Negative trusting works as well. A security software vendor once ran ads on television news networks because they knew CEOs tended to watch those channels. The ads were designed to scare CEOs into believing their data was endangered by hackers, and that the vendor could prevent this. CEOs created data security initiatives and forced this software vendor to be on the short list in part due to a higher level of trust for having been “warned” about pending danger.

This is how politicians work.

If reducing the risk of mistrust is not practical, you may have to raise the value delivered. Remember, people balance risk and reward. A big payoff can counter perceived risk, but only when the risk is measureable, non-fatal and the rewards are significant. People refuse to take long surveys for the “chance” to win an iPad because the risk is known and high (e.g. a waste of time) and the reward is itself risky (the mere chance to win). So either study and reduce risk, or be prepared to create stunning new value.

What do your customers distrust and what is the true source of that distrust? Odds are their wariness is slowing or preventing sales, and it is your job to decrease that mistrust before your sales staff arrives and increases it again.


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