You’ve heard the term paradigm shift before, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that truly encapsulated the meaning of the term. In their brilliant book Trust Agents, “digital natives” Chris Brogan and Julien Smith demystify the online world and teach us that using the web as a pro may not be as difficult as you think.
The Web, for all its hype and intricacies, is a tool. Yes, it’s advanced, yes, it’s multifaceted (billions of facets, really), but at the end of the day, it’s simply a technological tool, to be utilized to save time, money and energy, just like any other advancement of the human race. Brogan and Smith compare it to a car, a highway system, airplanes and the telephone – you could get by without it, but learning how to harness it’s awesome power is essential to compete in the global market. From The Long Tail, we learned what the Internet has done to barriers of entry (eliminated them). From Crush It! we learned of the splintering effect, and how virtually any passion can be turned into a business through hard work and commitment. Trust Agents teaches us something all together different – how to humanize the online world, and to use it as a continuation of our “offline”, real world conversations.
Get your head out of the cyber sand
“We are currently living in a communications environment where there is a trust deficit.”
Trust Agents, page 14
The one sided, “media megaphone” advertising model of the last 50 years is broken. For over 5 decades, we blindly followed the recommendations of television, radio and print ads for years, supporting bigger and more generic shopping centres, buying things we didn’t need (or even really want, if we stopped for a moment and were honest with ourselves); mindlessly consuming all that we were told to, like good little civilians. And then we woke up. The economy is in shambles, our job security is shaky at best, and the direction we’ve been following is leading us not to happiness, but to debt and (as Thoreau brilliantly put it) to lives of quiet desperation.
The web has changed that. For the first time in over half a century, we have a mainstream opportunity to take part in the conversations we want to take part in. The power to have a voice, and to choose which voices to listen to. The Web of the 21st century is, first and foremost, about personal connections. Paradoxically, this freedom, sprung upon us over a very short period of time (the internet as we know it has only been around for 14 years, after all), is a bit overwhelming to say the least. We suddenly have thousands of ways to take in information, and (for the first time ever) an equally large number of ways to share our opinions as well.
The mainstream media doesn’t help. Every day there’s a new social media platform that we “need” to be on (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, DailyBooth and Flickr as only a few of the many potential examples). And so we’ve entered a period of online panic. Like young children playing hockey, many of us swarm around the latest “opportunity”, without a clear sense of why we’re doing it, or what we’re supposed to be doing. Instead, we’re there simply because we don’t want to miss out.
In Trust Agents, Brogan and Smith simplify things. The Internet (and all its iterations) are tools. Nothing more, nothing less. Is twitter a powerful tool? Absolutely. Provided it makes sense for your message, and your business. But for a lot of people it’s not.
Brogan and Smith’s message, loud and clear, is this: online communication tools are simply an easy and inexpensive way to connect with people – either to build new relationships or, ideally, to further develop those that you’ve established offline. Just like any human interaction, all social media presences need to be guided by integrity, honesty and purpose, leading towards establishing a level of trust. I repeat – the specific tool doesn’t matter. All successful relationships online (and off) are about trust. Once you realize that, and handle yourself accordingly, there are some pretty neat things you can do to harness the Web fairly simply.
Listen Twice, Speak Once
“The thing is, everyone is not your customer, and everyone isn’t the audience you want to influence, which is the difference between a trust agent and a ‘brand evangelist.'”
Trust Agents, page 112
Imagine you’re going to a networking event. Armed with your business cards and elevator pitch, you jump into the room and before even shaking hands you start handing out cards, blabbering on about your products and your company, completely ignoring the actual people you’re trying to sell to. can you imagine how effective this approach would be?
Online interactions are no different. Or rather, there is one key differentiator – people aren’t picking up your body language, tone or other non verbal cues. All they have to go on are your words. So be precise and be careful with those words. Better yet, don’t use any at all. At least not at first. Listen to the conversations going on – whether the conversation is in a LinkedIn group, a Facebook fan page or on a blog. Again, the vehicle doesn’t matter. Every conversation (in type or otherwise) is a give and take. It’s about listening, truly hearing, and then providing value. This doesn’t suddenly change when you go online. People aren’t suddenly receptive to your canned, one directional sales pitch just because they can’t see your lips moving. The lesson here is simple – think of every new blog you’re visiting, or online group you’re entering as a party where you don’t know anyone. Introduce yourself, listen, and look for opportunities to build real connections. Be human first. The business will follow.
Create Idea Handles
“In building armies, and giving your ideas handles such that people can execute in alignment with your shared beliefs, there’s extra power that trust agents can use: scalability.”
Trust Agents, page 235
The true value of the Web is that transcends time and space. For the first time ever you have the ability to connect with like-minded people around the globe in real time, virtually for free. While this is great in a social capacity, it also has incredible potential in the business sector. Precisely because communication online is free, people will (and do) regularly promote projects, passions and products that they believe in. You, as a trusted member of the digital world (provided you handle yourself with integrity, and build real connections) have the ability to harness that stream of communication to promote your projects, passions and products, you just need to think about it in a new way. You need to give your ideas handles. You need to make it easy for like-minded tribe members to pick your idea up, and carry it with them in their online travels. Make an idea easy to share (repost, retweet, etc.) and your idea will spread at a rate previously unbelievable. It happens every day with other people’s ideas, why can’t it happen with yours? As a starting point, try to think of a way to express your idea, purpose and desired action in 140 characters or less. If you can manage that, your message can be spread on virtually every social network in existence.
Trust Agents is a great book, surprisingly simple to digest (considering the tech-expert status of the authors), and full of brilliant, applicable tips on how to harness the web to accomplish your goals. More than anything though, reading its 260 pages gives one reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The web isn’t that complicated. Really. The tools for expressing oneself and connecting may have changed (and continue to change), but the qualities of successful people are eternal; treat people with respect, ask questions before you ask for favors, and have integrity in everything you do. If there’s one thing that’s universal about online discussion it’s that they amplify and solidify the traits the communicator already has. If you’re a good person, who is fair and compassionate with others, is passionate about their work, and has a clear sense of where they’re going, the Web is your friend. Just don’t forget that it’s there to work for you, and not the other way around.