Monday, 16 December 2013 18:30  /  Thoughts

Be Real = Be Trustworthy

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 11.43.20 AM 

Tons of today's consumer products and services are supposedly the best, easiest, simplest, smartest, most-beautiful, cost-effective and affordable things in their vertical. They also increase profits, decrease costs and save you time.

So knowing all of that, your decision to choose one is now very easy: they're all the best! No matter which one you pick, it'll be perfect! Right?!

Or so it seems, anyway.

These types of claims overrun our content because we're constantly looking around at what everyone else is doing. We compare our own websites and portfolios against those of others. We look at competitors' sites, then compare how our interfaces and feature sets are different.

After we've surveyed what exists out there, then we try to be unique. Ironically, one of the ways we do this is by describing "how we're different" from (and better than) others like us. Consultants might talk about their unique process. Companies might design graphics that position their "features and benefits" side-by-side against their competitors'.

The problem is, this shifts the context of the conversation to external factors beyond our control. What other people do online has nothing to do with us or our users.

Our best chance for establishing trust with our users is to be honest. After all, trust inspires confidence. And it's confidence—not just a knowledge of differences—that compels decision-making.

Perhaps we should stop fixating on what makes us different and, instead, acknowledge the real aspects of who we are, what we do, and why that matters.

So, the question then shifts to - How can we start getting real?

Ask your best friend.

One way we can establish trust with users is by cutting the crap and getting real with our content. Best friends usually know you better than anyone else, including family, so they should be the ones that can tell what's genuine and what isn't. 

So whenever I write any type of content, I apply the "Best Friend Test" to weed out hidden marketing or business jargon. Here's how it works: I write content, then read it out loud while imagining your best friend is listening. If at any point I envision my best friend saying, "That sounds nice, Jonathan," then I know it's not real enough. The goal of this technique is always to elicit an actual reaction from him, like "Oooh, can I use it?" or "When is this event happening, again?" These substantive "What next?" responses indicate that he really understood.

Getting real about consumers and their assumptions

Six years into my advertising career and I'm still applying the Best Friend Test. Except now it comes earlier in my process: I use it to identify unrealistic assumptions I'm making about my users, well before I craft any content.

I start by writing down my assumptions about what my users care about.

Then I ask, "Would my best friend ever say these things out loud?"

If the answer is "no," then my assumptions are probably a stretch. I need to try harder to get at the kernel of beautiful truth. I keep going until my assumptions all sound like something he would actually say out loud.

As an example, let's say we run The Most Amazing Agency in the World. We want potential clients to choose us, so we create a page on our site called "Our Approach" to describe why and how we're the most amazing agency in the world:

We don't force-feed you a solution. Instead, we listen to your business needs. Then our experienced team implements the most suitable technology to support your unique goals.

Now, keep in mind that this content is aimed at helping a potential client (who may not have domain expertise of the web) choose us over competitors because of our better approach.

Is this content helping a potential client trust us?

Let's apply the Best Friend Test. First, we'll dissect that paragraph for assumptions we've made about the user. Here are several:

  • I value this kind of approach
  • I know how technology influences my business goals
  • I think a cookie-cutter approach is an inferior approach to websites
  • I only hire experienced teams

These sound too stiff and business-driven; my best friend would never say them. But rather than jump into rewriting the paragraph, let's first make the assumptions more realistic. I could imagine him saying these things:

  • I don't want to feel stupid
  • I want to hire people I trust
  • I want to have a say in the final product
  • I want to feel valued
  • I'm nervous about this decision

So now that my user assumptions are more realistic, I can rewrite the paragraph itself:

Some clients prefer we take the lead and deliver fast. Others want to work with us for as long as it takes to get it right. But no matter your preference, we'll try our darndest to accommodate.
Cheesy? Perhaps. Pass the Best Friend Test, both in the assumptions and in the content itself? You bet.

Your best friend may not be your target user, but he/she is a real person who'll call you on your bullshit. That's what this exercise is about: forming real assumptions, and then writing what's real as a means to establish trust.

Having realistic assumptions first better enables us to write real content later. But traditionally, we don't do this—instead, we write content first that answers the question, "What are we trying to communicate?"

I hope you can imagine your best friend calling you on your crap, too. But perhaps your Best Friend Test is actually a Husband or Wife or Brother Test. Whomever it may be, use that person to keep you real. (He or she probably already does that anyway.)

Yet beyond the Best Friend Test, the rewritten paragraph speaks to the user's emotional needs in a more human way.

Being real means being trustworthy. And trust helps users more confidently make a decision.

Sameness is a problem

A challenge to establishing trust is that building it takes time, and time is precious. We only have a sound bite to convey worth to a user. We have real deadlines to meet.

These challenges aren't overcome by the formulaic approach we've learned to accept. They're why every car company is "best-in-class," every cell phone carrier has the "most coverage," and all consultancies are "full-service."

Why pressure users to make a choice based on the same absolutes your competitors claim?

For example, I don't know how many alternatives (both online and offline) there are to buying a new car from a car dealership, but that didn't stop me from showing up at Toyota Carlsbad, where I listened to sales pitches filled with words like "fully-loaded" and "smart technology" only to then ask topical questions like, "What kinda gas mileage does this get?" I went home exhausted and confused. I felt frustrated that I couldn't make a decision about buying a car, but one of the biggest reasons that kept coming up was me not feeling like I trusted the sales people. 

Then CarMax came along and restored my sense of confidence. It had more than 1,000 reviews from real people, plus regardless of whether I traded my car in for another, or simplly sold them the car and took the money, I was offered the same return value for my Toyota Tacoma. Plus, dealing with a sales representative that didn't work on commission and didn't have a seemingly-hidden agenda only made me more confident—an emotional feeling that the dealerships didn't inspire in me at all.

I trusted I was making the best decision for me, and even referred CarMax to several friends and family after the fact.

This made me feel happy.

Write real things

Not all of us have thousands of user reviews, better prices, or faster delivery. That's OK, because we do have other assets. (And if we don't, we have bigger issues than how to position ourselves online.)

We often overlook our own assets because they're real. Real things aren't flashy, polished, or perfect. That's often what makes them an asset in the first place.

For designers, maybe your assets are those sketches you created in college or while listening to a conference speaker. Just because they weren't created for a client doesn't make them any less valuable in demonstrating your creative skills. You can still write about those sketches.

For developers, maybe it's that Android app you quietly released that has 50 downloads and 5 stars with no marketing at all. Or it's a peer's email that states, "I don't know how you fixed that, but thank you. You're awesome." You can still write about your side projects and the praise you've received from colleagues.

For organizations, maybe it's a quote from the intern who wrote a blog post about how amazing it was to work there for the summer. Or perhaps a client or customer sent a kind email to one of the higher-ups. What did these people say, exactly?

The bottom line is that familiar-yet-generic approaches to positioning ourselves in this world work against our ability to build trust with those around us. Don't spend any more of your creative energy on fluff. Write real things that pass the Best Friend Test.

If you need a little inspiration, ask your users, employees, clients, colleagues, or family this question: Why do you trust me? Why do you trust my company? I bet their answers don't include words like cross-platform, leverage, or utilize.

Instead, they'll probably use plain-speak language chock full of emotional adjectives like confident or happy. Words that'll make you blush with pride.

After all, people don't edit themselves when they're telling you why you're awesome. That means you get real feedback that highlights specific assets about you. A hallmark of realness is specificity. People will get specific if you ask them why they care about you, your product, or your company.

Real is trustworthy. Trust in that.

Welcome to the MODE 3 blog. Posts include everything from digital and marketing news, trends, ideas and campaigns to thoughts on the industry, client projects and announcements. And occasionally, there are even some funny, random thoughts here and there. Enjoy.

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