Inbound Now #6 - Becoming a Trust Agent with Chris Brogan

Chris Brogan joins us for episode #6 of inbound now!


David: Hey everybody. Welcome to episode number six of Inbound Now. I’m joined here with a very special guest, Mr. Chris Brogan. Chris is the President of Human Business Works, a blogger extraordinaire, co-founder of PodCamp, a New York Times Best Seller and co-author of the book “Trust Agents,” and he’s also on the Advisory Board here at HubSpot. Welcome to the show, Chris.

Chris: Super happy to be here, David. Thanks for having me.

David: Oh, it’s no problem. I wanted to get you on the show. Uh-oh.

Chris: We might have to start again.

David: I can just kind of maybe edit around that. I don’t know. Or just keep it in.

Chris: Keep it in.

David: Yeah, it adds to the human nature of the show. All right, cool. So I wanted to get you on the show today to talk a little bit about what it takes to become a trust agent and then transition into some blogging tips you’ve picked up over the past nine-plus years that you have been blogging and growing your audience and community. Then we’ll take a look into the future. I want to get your opinions on where things are going and what we should be looking out for. Sound cool?

Chris: That sounds perfect.

David: All right. Let’s do it. The book, “Trust Agents,” I read it. It was an awesome book. What exactly is a trust agent and how can a marketer become one?

Chris: The trust agent is the kind of person who, inside an organization, is translating that organization’s presence on the Web, The trust agent is the kind of person who, inside an organization, is translating that organization’s presence on the Web,  how to be human at a distance. The idea is that we have all this marketing speak, PR speak, etc. What a trust agent is, is somebody that you get the feeling that you’re doing business with that company through that person.

The early examples of that were Frank Eliason when he was at Comcast, who has now moved on to Citibank. There is Jenny Cisney from Kodak who is Kodak’s chief blogger. A lot of us in this space, when we think Kodak, we think Jenny. There’s Matt Cutts from Google who’s their search guru. Not many of use have access to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, but we can talk to Matt. Matt can come back and represent and talk about what Google’s doing, even more than say Marissa Mayer who is certainly someone who has a strength and a presence inside Google and who was sort of heading their communications practice. We’ve got somebody like Matt who is more on our level and someone that we can actually talk about. To me, a trust agent is somebody who uses these new web-based tools to connect and build a relationship and really help with the humanizing elements of doing business.

David: Right. You mentioned in the book Dunbar’s number. There are 150 connections you can maintain. You want to be the go-to person where you connect all these different people from different industries. I thought that was a really cool tip.

Chris: Right. At the time of this recording, I just launched a blog post showing my interview with Disney’s CEO Bob Iger. For a guy like me to sit across from the guy who heads Disney, a multi-billion dollar corporation, that makes me part of that 150 because the Disney people trust me enough that they gave me that relationship. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with the head of Humana, which is a health care company down in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll be meeting with their CEO Mike. The idea being that I can be part of that 150. Can you hinge and be the go-to person, be the elbow of every deal in a lot of different communities wherein you still add some kind of value and you still interpret things in a way or help people find the right people? That’s the goal.

David: Awesome. It was a great book. I would recommend it to all the viewers out there to check it out. One of my favorite tips from the book was your idea of having a 12 to 1 sharing ratio where you share 12 times as much other people’s stuff. Where did this come about? Why do you think it’s important that people do it this way?

Chris: Totally made up the number. It just seemed like if I started with some number, people would have a better guideline than “just share more than others.” It gets quoted all the time like it’s Bible now. The idea though is that as marketers came onto these social platforms, most especially Twitter, I just saw them saying, “Me, me, me, me, me, me.” What they don’t understand is that if we were at a cocktail party together, that’s really not how you’re going to meet me. That’s not how you’re going to make a relationship start. You’re going to say things like, “Well, tell me a little bit more about you.” Or, “Oh, my friend David does that. He’s involved in that space.” This is how we make friends and build relationships.

These tools, even though we’re using them for marketing and for business, have to be used in that way. We have to use them to foment a relationship because if we don’t, we’re just e-mail marketing down a different channel and poor e-mail marketing. We’re just smashing our ads against people. There are already existing models for that and they don’t work. Why not try something new? Why not try something that could have a different value proposition?

David: Right. I definitely agree. It was a great book. Everyone should go pick it up. “Trust Agents” co-authored with Julian Smith. I wanted to switch gears a little bit because you’ve probably done thousands of interviews on “Trust Agents” and you’re probably sick and tired of it. I just wanted to keep that short. Let’s switch gears and start talking about blogging.

Chris: Sure.

David: You’re a prolific blogger. You’ve been doing it for nine plus years. Over on your blog,, every single post you put out has hundreds of comments and people retweeting it. How did you foster and grow this?

Chris: I’ve been blogging since 1998, so closer to 11 years. It took me eight years to get my first 100 readers, partly because I was doing it wrong for a long time and partly because I think the space wasn’t ready for people yet. As around, say, 2005 came around and 2006, then my numbers started going up a little bit. I would say that how I do it is I tend to have a few very set rules. Be helpful, give away everything you can, and make sure you put posts together that people feel they can relate to and that have something to add to.

The reason I get a lot of comments is because I don’t write as if I’m the definitive expert. I write as if I have an opinion and I’m looking for other people’s opinions to shore mine up. Forever more, that gives me lots of people saying, “I think you’re full of it and here’s why.” Somebody else will come back and say, “No, that’s right on the money. That’s how it’s worked at my company.” I like both. As long as people have an educated opinion, it’s very useful. Being useful and providing information that’s helpful to people and giving away as much of the secret sauce as I can, I just get more and more people coming back to my site because I’ll share everything.

It’s really funny because I see my detractors using my advice. I see them changing their sites to kind of match what I suggested would be a great idea and then coming back to my site and telling me I’m a piece of poop. But I don’t mind because my detractors aren’t really competitors in my mind. They’re people out there trying to get their own clients. They’re welcome to my clients if they can get them. I would rather compete on my excellence than worry about who’s running in the race beside me. In blogging, that translates to me to writing daily. Not every post is a winner, and not every post is the very best. But I do try to put effort into it every single day, and I try to make every post a winner as best as I can.

David: Right. Another thing you mentioned on your blog, there’s a difference in your mind between having an audience and having a community. It’s the way in which you face the chairs, which I thought was pretty clever. How would you transition? You have an audience of people. How do you foster that community aspect of it?

Chris: You encourage two-way conversations. You encourage people in the comments to interact with each other. You highlight that when it happens. People have written huge comments. I’ve made those into blog posts and said, “A post from the comment section.” Once you get rewarded like that, two things happen. You bring your crowd to look at it, “Hey, Chris blogged a whole post out of my comment.” Then the other is you get that kind of reward, that kind of recognition. So you come and participate more. So I do a lot of things to try to reward participation inside of my community. I try to be the number one commenter on my own blog.

There are two ways to do this. One is bloggers who religiously think you have to comment on every single comment. I think that there’s a benefit because everyone feels heard. There’s a negative that a lot of times you’re just writing, “Hey, thanks.” I try to only add in where there’s a value to add or if I have snarky quote to add.

Being the number one commenter on your blog, though, means that people know that you respect them and that you recognize their time and attention and you given them help. If I fall down anywhere in my efforts to be helpful, that’s the one. I sometimes can’t get to all the comments, but I do my best.

David: Right. You’re only one guy.

Chris: No. According to HubSpot I have clones.

David: Exactly. I saw you walking around the office earlier today. It’s weird that you’re on Skype now. Over your 11 years of experience with blogging and creating content, what were some of the things that you got wrong starting out that you could give advice for people to avoid?

Chris: There is so much. I wrote too much about me. It’s great to add yourself into your post. I do start every post with something personal to connect the storyline to the you. When you write about yourself or your opinions, you, you, you, people just are getting an insight into who you are. When I turned it around and wrote it about them and added my insights but gave them something to do with it all, it changed the landscape. One is don’t write just about you. Write about the space and things that are helpful.

Two is I didn’t write with my reader in mind. I didn’t write with their time frame in mind, etc. I try to keep my posts around 500 words or so unless I have a goal in mind. If I’m going to write something super huge, it’s because I want people to bookmark the heck out of it, which gives me an upping in my social bookmarking rankings. Otherwise, I write really short posts that can be consumed in under three minutes. Then I’m a known good go-to source that gives you very fast-acting information that you can then run off with. I become sort of a, “Well, I’m going to check Chris because he never steers me wrong. It’s really short. I know I’m going to get in and out. Even if I don’t like the piece, it was really short.” I think that’s something that people do wrong. They write these incredible tomes as if someone’s only anxious to read about you.

I think another thing to worry about is “me, too” blogging. If you’re getting your blog topics after reading TechCrunch, then who cares? Everyone else did too. If you are getting your blog ideas from the front of The New York Times, so is everybody else. You’ve really got to cultivate sources way outside the norm and the mainstream. You really have to try to create information that’s your own, not just commentary on other people’s. Otherwise, you’re just a voice adding to the source, unless you can add something of great value. If you’re somebody like Brian Solis and you can take other people’s information and make it into great infographics, bless your heart. If you are somebody who can pull ideas from a lot of different places and synthesize them into something cool, also pretty cool. Most people don’t do that. Most people just reconnect and use other people’s stuff a second time.

David: Right. I see a lot posts that were published a thousand times elsewhere. Even in the social media space, I see that everywhere. Everyone is just republishing without their own opinions and thoughts. I think you’re dead on there like going outside the norm to find those sources. Speaking of blog topics, you recently started a newsletter, right? Basically, it’s a weekly newsletter where you’re feeding out different ideas on what we’ve been talking about. Correct?

Chris: Sure. I give up to 10 solid topics a week, which reminds me I have to send it out this morning. I have 283 active subscribers. They’re all paying $9.97 a month to learn some ideas about blogging. In so doing, I give 10 topics every week, plus I give lots of writing advice around the topics. So I give people ideas on how to grow up their blogging community, how to help with professionalism, how to switch from business to pleasure and back. It’s been pretty good. The responses from people have been really great. It’s funny. On the outside, people who haven’t taken advantage of the course are all up in arms, “I can’t believe he’s selling content, because I’ve never bought a magazine in my life.” But people inside the community are writing lots of good stuff and writing lots of thank you letters. So I’m going to stick with the people who are paying me’s criticisms versus the people who aren’t.

David: Right. You have a sample of the first newsletter on your blog. I checked it out last night. Some of the tips were really good. Bringing people into the story of your company, talking about your next 30 days was one of the examples I thought was pretty good. I’m definitely going to check it out myself. On your blog, another thing you talk about is you’re a big proponent of professional listening. You’re always stressing that marketers should grow bigger ears. How exactly could that be done?

Chris: If you google the phrase “grow bigger ears,” it goes right to a post about it. Beyond that, what I’ll say is that there are pro listening tools and there are some personal listening tools. You can use either. What you’re looking to do is you’re looking to hear what people are saying about your company, about your products, about you, about competitors in the space. You’re looking to turn that into a business value. You’re trying to say, “Does this land in customer service? Does this land in PR? Does this land in product support and marketing? Where do I need to put this information?” It’s not unlike what you do when you take calls in on an 800-number only it’s active listening to the Web as opposed to waiting around for someone to ring your phone.

People use social tools to complain every single day. I can go on Twitter right now and put in the word HubSpot and hopefully you get about 90-something percent praise, but there’s going to be one person saying, “Man, I just can’t figure this out.” What you could do with that is you can drop customer service right on that person’s lap and say, “Wow, I’m really sorry you’re having that trouble. Let’s walk through it together. Here’s my phone number.” That’s the kind of experience that keeps people paying the bill.

I really strongly recommend Rackspace, which is my hosting service for my website. The reason I do is because I can tweet, “Dear Rackspace, My site seems to have gone down. Love, Chris.” Bam, they’ll work on it. It’s like five minutes later the site’s up because they’re listening. To me, active listening, no matter what size business you are, is a business value. It’s more important than just trying to figure out how to grow lists and do paid marketing.

David: If you’re not listening, those issues can blow up way out of proportion. Here at HubSpot, we have Rick Burns. He’s head of our community. When there is a customer or a prospective customer or just someone badmouthing HubSpot, we check the validity of it, if they’re a raving lunatic or what have you. We’ll engage with them and try to solve that problem together instead of letting it fester and grow from there.

Chris: Right. Rick’s a good guy for that too because he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s definitely the kind of person that inspires warmth when you get to know him.

David: Right. All right. What are your thoughts on this new social media site Quora?

Chris: It’s interesting. I think it’s interesting. I think that there’s a lot of action going on in there. I really like Robert Scoble’s recent post about it where he said, yet again, that he might be wrong about it. Anything Robert loves I put on my “going to die soon” list. He’s a great bleeding edge technologist. He really is. He’s got an incredible capacity for falling madly in love with a site that’s going to collapse under the weight of its nerdiness. FriendFeed comes right to mind. Quora is a question and answer site that took everybody by storm. It wasn’t that hard for anyone to change their reaction to what they were going to do with it. is going to offer something similar. Mahalo’s new version is going to offer something similar.

There’s some censorship going on inside of Quora, because it’s not very business owner friendly, that’s going to keep it from being a marketing platform. To the plus, that’s great for trying to cut away from spam and stupid spammy answers. To the minus, the more you keep seeing your responses get deleted and edited, you don’t want to participate. You’re supposedly adding this to your business acumen so you’re not going to keep it up. I would not be surprised to see it come and go like a shot or just fall in its level of interest in the near term.

David: I’m still on the fence about it as well. It’s one of those things. Shiny new object is written all over it. It’s seems like a beefed up LinkedIn Answers. Still waiting to see. I just wanted to get your opinion on it. All right, cool. Who in the social media and marketing space is influential to you? I know a lot of people look up to you, Chris Brogan. Who do you look up to in the space?

Chris: I always keep one eye on what Dan Zarrella is doing. I think that he is the heart and soul of the engine of social technology. I think he’s always going to come at it from the numbers and scientist guy mode. I just added a whole giant scoop of humanity on top of what he does. Then it comes out a little closer to how I would do it. I read a lot of Brian Clark, Copyblogger, so he and I talk quite often about the space. I think as far as the other social media performers, Tamar Weinberg does great stuff. She’s just Tamar on Twitter. Valeria Maltoni, who’s ConversationAge on Twitter for the Conversation Agent, is interesting. Jeremiah Owyang at Altimeter, I keep an eye on him because he looks at the dry analytic side of the space. His reports are very helpful. I guess that’s my barometer set.

David: Cool. With social media and marketing online, where do you see it evolving into 2011 and into the future?

Chris: In 2011, if you’re not doing more with mobile, you have a problem. Meaning if your site isn’t mobile enabled, if you don’t even have a separate fork for how you’re doing sales for mobile, you’re already at a disadvantage. By mobile, I don’t just mean smartphones but I do. I definitely mean tablets as well. I think there’s a lot more people getting into the tablet space. I think that because of ubiquitous 4G broadband, in the U.S. at least, I think that there’s a lot more press to have more location services and more mobile services. I don’t know if that translates to Foursquare. I’m kind of a non-fan of Foursquare. Inc Magazine just ran something fairly recently that was, I thought, pretty interesting about how Foursquare could help small business. So I’ll keep my eyes open. I think really good e-mail marketing is important in 2011. I think people keep thinking that e-mail is dead but it’s not. I would say that, very much against my will, Facebook marketing seems to be very important. I am not a giant Facebook fan, least of all a Facebook for business fan. People just keep making me feel a lot better.

David: Speaking of e-mail marketing, you have a very healthy newsletter list that you’re growing, right?

Chris: Yeah.

David: What do you do to grow that list and keep those readers engaged with your e-mail newsletter?

Chris: One of the tricks is I don’t sell them much of anything. I quite often don’t have anything in particular to sell. I’m just giving them information. The more you don’t ask your list for things, the more they feel like they really actually want to open the mail. Most people’s e-mail marketing is bam, bam, bam. I’m selling you, I’m selling you, I’m selling you. Again, if you did that in person, who’s going to talk to you? No one is going to come up to you, David, if every time you shake their hand you’re saying, “I’d love for you to buy this thing.” That’s how we’re using our e-mail. I think people forget to put human faces on their efforts to market and look at it that way. With my e-mail newsletter, I try to send it out and just give, give, give. Then when I make an ask, it’s a big ask and people go, “I will take action. Chris has given me all this stuff all this time. It seems only fair that I give back.” It’s the Law of Reciprocity which is a basic one. It’s in Cialdini’s “Influence.” It works really well every time.

The other thing is we’re designing e-mails for some reason and use all these service providers that make these incredible web fancy e-mails, but we’re designing for this screen. We’re talking three inches, not a giant HTML. It’s not my 27-inch iMac that I’m talking to you on. You need to make it less HTML. You need to make it a lot briefer. You need to make it one call to action per mail. This is how sites like Groupon are kicking butt right now. Groupon, at the end of the day, is just an e-mail marketing platform. The fact that people are offering them $6 billion and it’s just an e-mail marketing platform teaches you that there’s business value in e-mail marketing.

David: Awesome. Yeah, I would definitely agree. Their valuation seems to rise like every day. It’s pretty interesting to see what’s happening there. Chris, where can people find you online?

Chris: basically. No, if you go to, it’s probably the easiest place to find me. You’ll get involved in all the zany places I work. is plenty fine.

David: All right. Cool. You can tweet at him @ChrisBrogan. He’s very responsive on Twitter which is awesome. Cool. Thanks for coming on the show, Chris. We hope to get you back sometime.

Chris: Very much a pleasure. Thanks for having me.