Trust Agents Change the Game

I just finished reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. It’s a terrific book, and for many people it will end up being essential. While the book looks at how to use the web to build business, it is not a tech book – it is actually one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time. Before I get into why, we should start with Brogan and Smith’s definition of a trust agent:

(Trust Agents) are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business. They’re interested in people (prospective customers, employees, colleagues and more), and they have realized that these tools that enable more unique, robust communication also allow more business opportunities for everyone.

The book is filled with lots of practical advice about how to effectively use the web to build your own profile, and, by extension that of your firm. In many ways it reminds me of Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy in that Brogan and Smith get at general principles that people will be using for many years to come. They go out of their way to try to ensure that the book won’t age by referring to ‘LinkedIn, Twitter and even newer platforms’ a number of times. This is a bit jarring right now just after the book has come out and the things that they are talking about haven’t been replaced yet, but I guess in a few years that will read a bit better. In any case, this illustrates one of the strengths of their book – they are not telling us how to use twitter, they are telling us how to use the tools of the web generically. That’s what makes this a business book, and not a tech book.

One of the things that I like is that they address a number of issues that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and they do it very effectively. For example, their first substantive chapter talks about changing the game. They view interacting online as a game (a great suggestion!), and they say that the way to win is to invent your own game. Instead of trying to be the next Seth Godin, you should invent an entirely new category. This is business model innovation! The general idea is that we need to find an area that no one is playing in yet – and figure out how to dominate that. Here’s the way Godin puts it:

So, you don’t get someone to switch because you’re cheaper than Walmart. You don’t get someone to switch because you serve bigger portions than the big-portion steakhouse down the street. You don’t get someone to switch because your hospital is more famous than the Mayo Clinic.

The chances that you can top a trusted provider on the very thing the provider is trusted for are slim indeed.

Instead, you gain converts by winning at something the existing provider didn’t think was so important.

Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently myself, and I’ve been trying to do some things like this already (for example do a google search for ‘aggregate filter connect’ and see what comes up first…). This shouldn’t be taken to mean that there isn’t anything new in Trust Agents. There definitely is. One great thing about the book is that it has a series of actions that you can (MUST!) take right now, so that you can start implementing the ideas immediately. This is where Trust Agents is actually even a bit better than New Rules – Kelly’s book might have a bit more depth to it, but you have to figure out what it means in action terms yourself. This isn’t bad, but it makes it easier to not act. However, Brogan and Smith tell you what you should be doing right now – and it’s hard not to.

The second half of the book is not quite as clearly thought out as the first, but it ends with an absolutely smashing final chapter that sums everything up. One of the ideas they put forward here is the value of using the ‘Yes, and…’ improv approach to new ideas. The key to that is to take any new idea that comes in front of you, and instead of figuring out the reasons why it won’t work, you say ‘yes, and .’ That’s how improv theatre works, and I think it’s a terrific idea for business too.

In Brogan’s post that introduces the phrase Trust Agents, he lists a bunch of people in big organisations that fill this role. However, I think that a lot of the ideas here actually will be more challenging to implement within larger firms. But if you’re starting your business, working in a startup, or building your personal brand for some reason (and we all should be!), then this book is indispensable. It also illustrates why I’ve been talking recently about how to filter when you’re small. I don’t read every business book that’s popular on amazon (in fact, in many cases popularity is a negative sign for me). But when people that I trust like Roland Harwood of NESTA and Seth Godin recommend a book highly, that is pretty compelling. They are trust agents. We should be too.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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