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Three Ways to Build Trust With Your Users Online

In her fantastic TED Talk on the subject of “social capital,” leadership guru Margaret Heffernan explains that social capital is, really, just trust. To build trust, an organization needs time. There’s no shortcut. You have to, over time, consistently convey authentic, straightforward, beautiful messages. But once you achieve trust—once you’ve spent the time to develop a candor with your users, especially online—it’s a wildly powerful force.

Here are three ways you can develop trust with your users online:

1. Audit Your Messages

Why? To ensure you’re telling the truth.

Audits are the low-hanging fruit of organizational communications: Inventorying your current public-facing messages, then cutting the ones that stink.

There are long-forgotten corners of your website—pages, sections of pages, etc.—that are saying the wrong thing. The quickest way to build trust with your audience is to eliminate any messages that diminish trust—whether it’s because they’re inaccurate, out-of-date, or contrary to your current goals, etc.

Mighty Insights

Insights, delivered.

Example: On a recent project for a big national association, we began by conducting a (super-detailed) digital content audit. When we combined our human analysis with the association’s Google Analytics account, we discovered a few dozen “orphan” webpages that were drawing a ton of search traffic.

But these popular pages were, largely, wrong. They said the wrong things in clumsy ways. And worse, these pages weren’t connected to the site’s overall architecture. Their traffic came solely from Google searches.

Our design dilemma: Do we delete these popular-but-misleading webpages?

Yes and no. We deleted some pages that were no longer relevant. On other pages—where the SEO-friendly page titles still made sense to the association—we gave the pages a fresh layout, new content, and renewed attention going forward.

In short: Know what you’re saying—everywhere and at all times—so your audience is never confused or irritated. Confusion and frustration diminishes trust.

Dear Professional Communicators,
Please stop with the mealy-mouthed, jargon-filled marketingspeak. You don’t talk like that at home, so don’t at work.” -Every Prospective User Ever

2. Get Specific

Why? To prevent user confusion or misinterpretation.

This isn’t a new complaint. People have found say-nothing copywriting to be annoying for decades. And yet, it festers and continues.

Why? Why do so many nonprofits say the same things about their “impact” and the “community”? Why does University A use the same tired, heard-it-all-before messages to recruit students as University B? And why do government agencies seem to insist on sounding like government agencies?


Organizations, by their nature, must be organized. And to organize a diverse group of people to pursue a singular mission requires plenty of compromise, listening, collaboration, etc.

Mistakenly, many organizations believe that compromise requires a widening of your message. You are afraid of leaving people out of the conversation—which is a laudable moral impulse of many organizations (especially mission-focused orgs). But in your attempt to welcome everyone in—and scrupulously avoid alienating or boring anyone—you make your doorway huge, bland, and ignorable.

Sure, your message could be huge enough to welcome in everyone. But it won’t be interesting enough to keep them around.

The cure: Get specific. Then, get more specific.

Gather your communications team, sit in front of a whiteboard for a couple of hours, and try to describe—in as much detail as you can stomach—all of the things your organization does in the world. Recount stories. Write down names. (There should be plenty of proper nouns on your whiteboard when you’re done.)

By crafting public-facing messages that are detailed, specific stories—filled with real, concrete people, places, and things—you’ll end up doing the opposite of what you fear. Nope, getting specific won’t narrow your message to a niche audience; instead, you’ll give your audience something to hold onto, something real, something relatable. You’ll set yourself apart from the world by planting a flag and saying, “This is exactly what we’re all about.”

In fact, getting specific with your audience—and abandoning tired “lists of features” or “about us” pages—tells them that you are actually doing things. In a world of cynical consumers, showing your work is the quickest way to developing genuine rapport with your audiences.

3. Include (A Ton) of Testimonials

Why? To establish external credibility.

There are two types of credibility: internal and external.

  • Internal credibility is when you say you can be trusted. Most websites are almost exclusively internal claims.
  • External is when someone (or something) else says, “Yep, you can trust that organization!” External credibility takes the form of testimonials, metrics and data, customer reviews, etc.

Of the two, external credibility is more powerful than internal in the same way Godzilla is more powerful than a neck pillow. It’s not even close. Of course your target audiences are going to trust the words of someone with no “skin in the game,” without a personal agenda.

The cure: Solicit, gather, and curate as many testimonials as possible. Then plaster them all over your organization’s landscape. Go overboard with testimonials. If you have three testimonials online today, aim to have six by next month. Then six more the month after that. Put them on your homepage, your subpages, your emails, your brochures, your annual reports, etc.

Thanks to the magical world of digital technology, testimonials can take countless forms. There’s the classic “quote and attribution” model:

They came in and really looked at the whole picture. They offered real solutions to our problems, instead of just slapping a Band-Aid on it.” Jamie Grant, Executive Director of the Long Center (fmr.)

But there’s also video. And video testimonials, done well, can be powerful influencers. The key to the success of a testimonial video lies in its feeling of authenticity.

Grab your smartphone, turn on the video camera, and ask one of your users/donors/students/constituents simply, “Why do you like us?” and then post their 30-second response on your blog, share it in an email, boost it on Facebook and Instagram.

Then do it again:

Summing it Up

Trust is essential. Especially for mission-focused organizations. Without trust, your “target audience” won’t convert into your “audience audience.” And with an increasingly skeptical public, it’s imperative that your organization work diligently to reassure them that yes, you’re worth believing in.

And you can get there, quick, by taking three straightforward steps:

  1. Audit your content, then dump the nonsense
  2. Get specific and detailed
  3. Testimonials, all the time and everywhere

Good luck. And as always, Mighty Citizen is here to help.

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