Building trust with customers can be challenging – that’s especially true online, and it’s especially true if you are trying to launch a new venture that doesn’t have an existing track record of success. If you’re trying to get your Internet-based side venture off the ground, how can you build trust right away?
In the course of researching my new book Entrepreneurial You, I discovered three strategies that allowed leading online marketers to build trusting, respect-based relationships with their customers. I was intrigued by these stories because Internet marketers are often derided by critics due to some practitioners’ scammy tactics. But the professionals I spoke with had learned to differentiate themselves from the snake oil salesmen, and establish the credibility necessary to build online businesses that endured. Their lessons can provide a useful framework for anyone trying to launch an Internet-based side hustle, and gain credibility — and earn real money — from it.
Embrace transparency. When Pat Flynn, who now runs a successful blog and podcast called Smart Passive Income, first started researching internet marketing, he told me, “I felt kind of disgusted by being on the other end of their emails. I felt like everybody was holding back some information; they wanted me to pay money to get the rest of it.” Unlike the hucksters he initially encountered, Flynn vowed to share everything he knew with his readers, without holding back the essential parts for paying customers.
Positing himself as the “crash-test dummy of internet marketing,” Flynn reveals in detail both his hits and misses. He pioneered the now-popular concept of publishing monthly income reports detailing his revenue and expenses, because “in order for me to really show people that this stuff actually worked, I needed to show people how much money I was making.” (He earned over $167,000 in December 2017 alone.)
That level of transparency has created a huge level of trust with his audience. When he surveyed his audience after the launch of his first product — a study guide for a green building exam, which bundled together in an easy-to-read form material that he was already sharing for free online — he discovered that “about 25% of the people who responded back told me they had already taken and passed the exam, but [buying the guide] was the first opportunity for them to pay me back for that information.” When customers are buying products they don’t need in order to thank you, that’s a powerful relationship.
Connect with those they already trust. Another way to build trust quickly with customers is to connect with, and win endorsements from, people they already respect. That was Derek Halpern’s strategy. In 2006, he launched a successful celebrity gossip site, but the field wasn’t his passion. So five years later, he built something he truly cared about: Social Triggers, a website devoted to marketing and psychology. He was a complete unknown, however, in both of those fields, so he had to find a way to be taken seriously. Halpern drew upon the online marketing experience he’d accrued in running his gossip site and reached out to prominent business bloggers who were already big names in the niche he now sought to inhabit.
“I approached people who ran blogs that had the audience I wanted to reach, and said, ‘Hey, you’re losing out on some conversions [of site visitors into subscribers]. I think I can help.’” Halpern then asked for a fifteen-minute video call in which he would offer the bloggers some free website-marketing advice. “I told them to record the video. If my advice worked for them, I asked them to post the video.” By essentially offering free consulting, Halpern got the chance to get his message out to the bloggers’ large audiences. The videos were a hit, both with the bloggers and their audiences.
Halpern was immediately branded as an expert, because he was not only shown associating with prominent figures, but they were listening to him and deferring to his recommendations. Within three months, he had garnered more than ten thousand email subscribers, who were driven to his site almost exclusively by the videos. “I’m still reaping the benefits from those videos,” he said. “I still get traffic.”
Co-create your products and services. Danny Iny, a Montreal-based online entrepreneur, launched his first online course in 2010 — and sold a depressing one copy. Vowing never to let that happen again, he developed an innovation that’s become standard in the online course development world: launching small pilot offerings first. For the new course he hoped to develop, Iny sent an email out to his list of a few thousand people, offering fifty slots in a pilot program. They could enter the course at a reduced price and receive more personal access to him, in exchange for providing detailed feedback as he developed the material in real time. “In hindsight, this actually is really brilliant marketing, but it’s not because I was cooking up a brilliant idea,” Iny says. “It was just trying to hedge my bets, so if nobody bought, I could walk away from it.”
The pilot for the new course, which had arisen from customer requests, sold out. And because he had such a close view on where participants were getting stuck, and which material they wanted more or less of, he felt confident that when he launched it more broadly, it would resonate with a wider audience. The course became a hit.
Online marketing is sometimes stereotyped as the land of get-rich-quick scams and Viagra hawkers. But those, of course, are the outliers. Their presence often obscures the smart innovations that many savvy online entrepreneurs have introduced, and which can have applications for any business — online or off — seeking to build trusting relationships with customers today.