Brand building in a post-truth world: ‘How I Work’ EP35 with Scott Baradell (Idea Grove)

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Scott Baradell is a writer, entrepreneur, and seasoned c-suite executive with experience in journalism and PR. Scott is the CEO of his agency, Idea Grove, and is the author of “Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.”

How I Work, Episode 35 with Scott Baradell (Idea Grove)

Scott joins Josh Becerra in episode 35 to discuss building brand trust in a world of fake news and gatekeeping. He shares the history of brand trust and gives an in-depth explanation of trust building in a post-truth world. Plus:

  • The three kinds of trust signals: website, inbound, and SEO
  • When spending marketing dollars, go with your research – not your gut
  • The growth system acronym: T.R.U.S.T

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Transcription: How I Work, Episode 35 (Scott Baradell, Idea Grove)

Josh Becerra: Hi everybody, it’s Josh Becerra. Welcome to this next episode of How I Work. I am super excited about my guest today, Scott Baradell, writer and entrepreneur, grew a PR agency called Idea Grove with business. You generated all your business through a popular blog. In 2020, you started a second blog called Trust Signals to provide news, analysis, and practical advice on what it takes to build trust with customers and the public in today’s post-truth world. That’s a big topic. Blog inspired and culminated in a book, Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.

Before Idea Grove, you were the chief communications officer for two different billion-dollar companies, co-founder and CMO of a venture-backed startup, and you are an award-winning journalist. Scott, I’m super excited to be doing this interview with you today.

Scott Baradell: Thank you for having me. I don’t know if I can live up to that bio, but it’s mostly true, but thank you for having me on.

Josh: Yes, for sure. We’re excited to hear what you have to say. Let’s talk a little bit about this idea of trust in the post-truth world. Tell me why you believe that media coverage has become less of a driving force in building brand trust and reputation and then what is that driving force today if it’s not media coverage?

Scott: That’s a very good question. My agency obviously does digital marketing. I know that we’re talking to digital marketers, and we work with SaaS clients. All we do is B2B tech, and SaaS is a decent chunk of that, but my background was as a journalist and then as a PR person. Coming from that background, the origins of PR 100 years ago were really the PR emerging as a junior partner to the news media. There was a guy named Ivy Lee back in the early 20th century, and there were these railroads who were just– They were hated by the public because they would do things like there’d be fatal crashes.

Not only would they not put out a press release, but they would deny it happened. They’d say, “What fatal crash? We don’t know anything about your loved ones, you can’t find anymore.” It was really like that. That was a time before big– That was when industries were becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. In the early 20th century, this progressive movement emerged where people for the first time started saying, “Wait a minute, we should have some say in this. If we don’t like what you’re doing, there’s things like antitrust legislation now where we can break you up, big railroad [crosstalk] or big oil company.”

All of that led to the PR industry emerging. How it emerged was there’s a former journalist named Ivy Lee who said, “You know what? Let me counsel these railroad companies to not be such idiots and to say, “Hey, maybe we should actually do things like– The first time this happened was he did it, bring journalists out to a crash site, actually tell them what happened. He put out something called a declaration of principles where he said, “I’m not an advertising agency. My job is to get you the news and get you the truth.”

The idea was these big media organizations, the small number of media organizations that were known and respected by the public, they were the conduit for those railroad companies building better relationships with the public, having this small number of these big gatekeepers. It was that way for many years since, going into the 70s and 80s, you had Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, [unintelligible 00:03:58] There was a small number of media outlets and gatekeepers. As long as the PR industry could have good relationships with those gatekeepers, that would confer trust on their clients, then that’s all they had to do. Just continue to be the junior partner of the media. [crosstalk]

Josh: That’s why a handful of people had a lot of clout, right?

Scott: Yes.

Josh: There was a lot of trust.

Scott: Yes, well, now what’s happened? Two things have happened. One is there’s no small collection of gatekeepers anymore. It’s very fragmented. There’s so many different sources of information that people can get today. Which ones as a PR piece are most important? Which ones are most important to the audience? They’re going to be different for everyone. Then when you talk about post-truth, the other complicating factor is, you got about half the public that thinks half these sources are lying to you. The other half thinks the others. [crosstalk]

Josh: The others are legit.

Scott: It’s going to be different. It’s a very complex landscape to try to figure out how to make my brand be trusted. I used to just say, “Hey, I get it in The New York Times, then that’s going to be this big boon and people are going to think my company’s a big shot company because I got in The New York Times.” Now, half the people are like, “New York Times, that’s fake news.” Actually, this all started for me 10 years ago, 10 or 11 years ago now where I had an oil and gas client. Of course, I’m in Dallas, Texas, so we have oil and gas clients, although most of my clients are B2B tech.

They were an analyst firm. What they did was– They’re still around, but they would analyze the performance of refineries and things like how are they doing in terms of energy efficiency, things like that, boring stuff, but interesting if you’re covering climate and things like that. A reporter for The New York Times said, “Wow, what you guys are just really fascinating. Can I interview the CEO?” This is huge. I got a reporter for The New York Times that wants to interview the CEO of my client, and I get it all set up. He agrees to do it. He’s excited about it. She’s coming down in person from New York. She books her flight. The day before, he calls me quavering and says, “I can’t do this interview.”

I said, “What are you talking about? Why you can’t do this interview?” Well, I’ve been talking to my clients, the big oil companies, or his clients because they’re an analyst firm that serves the big oil companies. Some of my other senior executives, and they’re saying, “No one trusts New York Times anymore.”

Josh: Yes, that’s fake news.

Scott: They’re not going to be fair to us. I thought about it, and I thought, “No, I’ve got this all set up. There’s very little risk here. It’s a topic that you’ll come out fine on,” but the larger thing that I started thinking about was, “Well, what if audiences in oil and gas don’t really put much weight on a New York Times story, and a story in The Wall Street Journal or someone else means a lot more to them in terms of establishing what you’re trying to achieve.” I honestly had never thought about it before. It was a hard lesson to learn because that reporter never would respond to any email or any contact from me again after that, but I started following this, and it’s only magnified sense.

Josh: It’s interesting. I love that you started with the historical perspective because it is like no trust in companies or brands than PR and news media because of the way it was formulated at the time, and there were just very few gatekeepers, high level, high degree of trust. We get a great deal of trust back into brands and PR and the media. Now we’re just back in the dumps when it comes to trust in brands. What are some of the ways that today’s B2B marketers can inspire trust in this new environment?

Scott: What I did to start thinking about that is I started with something very tangible and simple, and people in B2B SaaS companies that say, sell subscriptions to their services online or have an e-commerce piece of their offering would know what I’m talking about. In e-commerce, there’s something that’s called trust that was been around for a long time. It was an early term in e-commerce trust signals, which was very tangible things like having a better business bureau seal on your site or having a Norton security seal on your site. Those little or a free-shipping or money-back guarantee.

Those little seals or badges are things that were known as trust signals that back in the earliest days of the internet when people were trembling to put their credit card information on a website, it helped reassure them. “Oh, I’ve heard a better business bureau. They’ve been around since 1912.” I guess it’s–

Josh: This has got to be [unintelligible 00:09:07]

Scott: Yes. What’s interesting is those kinds of trust seals are still on all those websites today. They still serve a very important function. I started thinking more broadly in the same way that, say, a Norton security seal or even a Visa logo. “Oh, they accept Visa.” [chuckles] Little things mean a lot to people when they’re trying to decide to make a transaction. Those are what I call website trust signals, but there are other website trust signals that are a little less cut and dry. Like does your copy resonate? Is your navigation simple? If your navigation is confusing, I’m probably subconsciously thinking that when I get on the phone with your customer service, they’re not going to understand what I’m talking about because you didn’t know [crosstalk] how to show me where to go. All of these unconscious signals that your website sends, are not different really from that seal. Then and you go beyond your website, you start thinking about customer reviews, and media coverage, and influencers saying things about junk social media, social proof, all of those things I call them inbound trust signals. Those are little breadcrumbs of trust that bring you to the website. Then behind the scenes is a third trust signal that I call SEO trust signals. Obviously, Google pays attention to all those other things but Google has its own set of things that you can’t really see like your domain age or–

Josh: Load speed.

Scott: Yes, page speed. They’re also looking at things like traffic to your site since they obviously now with Google Analytics they can make all kinds of assessments and they determine basically you build this great website that looks beautiful, but it’s going to be like your having your business dinner in a fancy restaurant but you’re in a booth by the bathroom if you are 10 pages into results. It’s more than traffic coming to your site. It’s wow if Google doesn’t think much of you, maybe you’re not that important. All of that constellation of things I started thinking they’re really all kind of like a piece.

As a digital marketer or as a PR person, maybe what I should start thinking about is my goal is to figure out the right breadcrumbs of trust to bring people to my destination, my website, and they’re going to be different for every brand.

Josh: Which brings me to my next question and I think you hit on this with your story about The New York Times versus The Washington Post. It’s like how is it that then that CEO, and their clients, and their board of directors or whatever did not have faith in that certain source? That certain source of news. How is it that you would say a brand could go about uncovering who their audience considers a legit source of information?

Scott: There’s just no substitute for doing research. We work with a lot of mid-market companies and they’ve got decent marketing budgets a lot of times, but they just don’t want to spend it on research, and it’s like ready-fire aim instead of ready aim fire. I’ll just give you an example. This is something that would’ve been a horrible decision by a brand if the research hadn’t been done up upfront. In a few years ago like 2018 is when Nike did this huge advertising campaign built around Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick, a highly controversial figure and when it came out there’s a boycott Nike hashtag on social. There were people–

Josh: People were burning their shoes I remember that.

Scott: Do you think Nike was worried about it? No, because they had done their research they knew their customer and they knew that choosing sides on this issue knowing who their customer was that it would only build a stronger relationship between their customers and their brand and it worked. They came back to their shareholders and were able to come back and say– Attribute lots of revenues and share price growth to that specific campaign. It’s much better to do your research than to just go with the CEO’s gut. What we find is too many companies still just want to go with the CEO’s gut.

We had a client during COVID that had this really cool application I don’t want to be too specific about it, that– Let’s just say it was very TV friendly, so we felt like we could get TV coverage for it and he said no I I’ll be on the local stations but don’t pitch me to CNN or blah blah blah. That’s all fake news, I just want to be on Fox, Fox Business [unintelligible 00:13:49] Wait a minute, you think that but from what I can tell there’s nothing about your product that would skew it towards Fox’s audience versus CNN’s. Wouldn’t you want to be on both?

That’s why it’s just like what happens is, if you don’t do your research then you make gut calls, and use intuition and things that probably not the best basis for deciding where to put your marketing dollars.

Josh: Amen to that, and there are opportunities to even test some of that messaging with audiences in little ways where you don’t have to make this huge splash. You can figure out how’s this going to resonate and how are people going to react to it. I do think that at least from [unintelligible 00:14:43] standpoint we’re all about experimentation and learning, and so if you can figure out ways to do some of that message testing through digital because you can get to the answer quite a bit faster if you’re willing to set it up correctly and pay for it.

Scott: That’s so true. There’s so many ways that you can test exactly what you’re describing, and then there’s so many listening tools. Obviously, people familiar with social media listening tools and stuff, and they’re available at all different price points, but we found there’s all kinds of things out there now with AI. We found this little company out of England, and what they do is essentially they do not necessarily sentiment analysis so much as just language analysis. They’ll be able to figure out say you versus your competitors looking at Twitter, looking at reviews on review sites, what words are used to characterize you versus a competitor.

Then you can start thinking about, gosh they’re using these words but for some reason, I’m not using those words on my website, maybe I should be using those words. I’ll confess something, one of the things that we found when we did our own analysis is we got lots of good feedback and the word partner came up a lot when people were referring to their relationship with us as an agency. What we found was really interesting is that our competitors way more than us had terms like fun, and like we’re not fun but it made us think about it. It’s like well why is our competitors five times or more likely to have the word fun associated with them? You know what I mean?

This kind of analysis is so helpful, so we are like, should we be doing things to be more fun? It made us be introspective about it. If we hadn’t used that specific I think a normal social listening tool wouldn’t have found it, but this very specific language AI tool did. As you know as we’ve all the discussion about AI lately, new tools are emerging every day which means I don’t have to pay a bunch of money for a focus group or spend a tone of money on quantitative research to really get some good intelligence about what people think about me.

Josh: I’ll tell you what, I’m having a lot of fun with this interview so you’re doing a great job. We are getting short on time so I got one more question, which is I noticed consistent theme in your book around your grow with trust philosophy. Can you explain what that means or how someone would put this into practice?

Scott: What I wanted to do is I list on my website over 100 different trust signals. All these little things like the trust signals and different things. I thought well– I did a webinar for a bank in Texas. They’re actually our bank and asked me to talk to small business owners and stuff.

Josh: [unintelligible 00:17:48] fun to me.

Scott: The question was that’s a lot of different stuff. How do I know what to prioritize, what to do first? I thought the best thing to do was to put it in a system where all of these were organized under solutions, to make it simple I made an acronym TRUST, and the five solutions within TRUST are third-party validation, media coverage, or customer views. Reputation management, that’s protecting your backside. User experience, that’s having a website that resonates with people, that has trust seals, all those things. Search visibility, so you’re not in the booth by the bathroom when on Google.

Then thought leadership because if you don’t have a thought leadership line of communication out there, you end up mostly just talking about yourself and you’re like that person at the party that just talks about themselves and so people just want to go find the bar. Thought leadership gives you that relief [unintelligible 00:18:43] so you can say smart things, but without always talking about yourself. We basically take all the different trust signals, organize in that way, we call it the acronym TRUST and so we tell our businesses that if you’ll use the system you can grow with trust.

Josh: That’s super smart. Just the acronym spells TRUST, we’re talking about trust signals. Scott, this has been amazing interview so everybody needs to go out and buy this book Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World. I really do appreciate your time today, thanks so much.

Scott: This has been fun, thank you so much.

Josh: Thanks, Scott. Bye.

Scott: Bye.

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