How Marketers Can Nurture Buyer Trust, and Why That Matters

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B2B buyers are conditioned to view vendor-provided information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and this makes lack of trust an elephant-in-the-room issue for B2B marketers. Lack of trust produces a major drag on marketing performance. If buyers don’t trust what you say, they won’t give you credit for understanding their needs or providing relevant, personalized, and engaging content and experiences. Trust can’t be manufactured, but the right approach to marketing can make trust more likely to develop.

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government, business, non-governmental organizations, and media fell significantly in 2017. Just over half (52%) of Edelman’s survey respondents said they trust business organizations, but even this modest level of trust is tenuous. In 13 of the 28 countries represented in the Edelman study, less than 50% of the survey respondents said they trust business.

Recent research regarding trust in advertising and marketing has produced mixed results, but many studies show that trust is a major issue for marketers. For example, in a 2017 survey by TrustRadius, technology buyers ranked vendor or product websites and vendor collateral (ebooks, case studies, webinars, etc.) as the least helpful and trustworthy sources of information used to support buying decisions.

Lack of trust weakens the impact of all marketing efforts. In recent years, many marketers have been using insights from data to better understand the interests and needs of their buyers. And many have implemented personalization technologies in order to provide content and messaging that are more relevant and engaging for potential buyers. But without buyer trust, these efforts won’t produce the improved performance that marketers are hoping to see.

Trust lies at the heart of every business relationship. Trust can’t be manufactured; it must be earned from potential buyers. But while marketers (or sales professionals for that matter) cannot unilaterally create buyer trust, they can take steps to create an environment that makes potential buyers more likely to extend their trust. The starting point is to understand the factors that lead to trust, and the process by which trust develops.

The Foundation of Trust

In a business context, the decision to trust a prospective vendor depends on the buyer’s perceptions about three factors:

  • Ability – Does the company possess the requisite knowledge, skill, and competence to perform in a way that will meet my expectations?
  • Integrity – Will the company fulfill its promises? Will the company’s actions match its words and claims? Does the company adhere to principles that I find acceptable?
  • Benevolence – Will the company be sufficiently concerned about my (and my organization’s) welfare to put our interests above (or at least on par with) its own?
Perceptions regarding ability and integrity have the greatest influence on the willingness to trust in the early stages of a relationship, simply because it takes a potential buyer longer to assess the benevolence of a prospective vendor.
How Trust Develops
Most leading authorities contend that trust develops in stages. In a 2003 essay, Professors Roy J. Lewicki and Edward C. Tomlinson identified two distinct stages of trust development.
Calculus-Based Trust – In the early stages of a relationship, trust is primarily a cognitively-driven phenomenon. We carefully calculate how another person (or a company) is likely to behave in a given situation, and we extend our trust only to the extent necessary to achieve a desired outcome. Calculus-Based Trust is tentative and fragile, and it is usually based on our assessment of a person’s (or a company’s) predictability and reliability.
Identification-Based Trust – As a relationship evolves through repeated interactions, the parties may learn that they share certain values and goals. When that happens, trust can grow to a higher and qualitatively different level – what Lewicki and Tomlinson call Identification-Based Trust. Unlike Calculus-Based Trust, Identification-Based Trust is primarily an emotion-driven phenomenon, which makes it more durable and less susceptible to disruption than Calculus-Based Trust.
How Marketers Can Nurture Trust
So given what we know about the factors that lead to trust, and the process of trust development, the next questions is:  What can marketers do to earn the trust of potential buyers? There are, in fact, several steps that marketers can take to nurture trust, but here are two of the most important.
Make Content and Messaging Authoritative – Buyers are more likely to see marketing content and messaging as trustworthy if it is authoritative. Therefore, marketers should avoid making unsubstantiated claims and assertions. As I’ve written before, marketing content resources and messages don’t need to read or sound like an academic journal, but the main points should be supported by sound evidence, preferably from sources that are recognized as reputable and credible.
Avoid “Marketing Speak” – Buyers are also more likely to view marketing content and messaging as trustworthy if it doesn’t contain a lot of marketing speak. It’s difficult to define marketing speak in a precise and comprehensive way, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And so will most B2B buyers. 
Marketing speak can involve the use of buzzwords and over-the-top or overly-simplistic claims, but it also exists when the overall tone of marketing content or messaging is too promotional. I use a simple test to avoid this particular strain of marketing speak. When I finish a content resource, I ask myself this question:  If an independent and respected journalist were writing an article about this topic, would the tone of the article be similar to my resource?

Image courtesy of Terry Johnston via Flickr CC.

1 COMMENT

  1. I agree with you that our potential clients will more likely see marketing content and messaging as trustworthy if it is authoritative. When I was starting out and people didn’t know about me, I made sure to help people who had authority in all ways possible so they can pass my message and help me the other way around 🙂 All of us have to start somewhere, right?

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