Public trust is at an all-time low.
Sixty-three percent of people now believe that business leaders intentionally try to mislead them with false or exaggerated statements.
This has major implications for business communications. If you thought your company could dodge the drama with neutrality, think again.
Citizens worldwide want businesses and NGOs to be more transparent. They expect a more positive influence on societies’ ability to engage with each other more honestly and productively.
Research has shown “information quality” to be central to that effort.
But high-quality information is out of reach for disconnected brands that don’t understand their communities. That’s why humanizing your brand is key to building trust with your target audience. Here’s how.
1. Market to people, not search engines
People are sick of robotic, impersonal marketing speak. It’s such a common problem, it’s become cliché. And yet, some companies are still churning out soulless media that does little else than pressure prospects to buy.
I’ve lurked on enough subreddits to know that the average web surfer is jaded. Many now prefer to visit forums and review sections for information instead of reading branded articles. They’d rather post a comment and get a direct answer to their question than skim a blog that’s barely related to their search query.
What’s worse is that many companies are well aware of this—and don’t plan on doing much about it.
For example, John Bonini, Director of Marketing at Databox, recalled a conversation in which a business executive expressed pride in their web content’s quantitative performance but embarrassment about the quality.
This represents a much deeper, widespread problem. Digital marketing has been reduced to little more than a game of numbers. To some, it’s no longer a strategic effort to represent your brand well or connect with would-be consumers.
This attitude forces your prospects to wade through company articles or newsletters that read like they were written by AI. And worse: It shows that you care more about the transaction than the customer relationship. In this case, the last thing they want to see is a disingenuous call to action.
How to re-prioritize people and humanize your marketing
The best way to overcome a lack of meaningful communication in your marketing is to conduct sincere, in-depth research into your target audience. Not a vague overview of demographics and statistics. You need to do everything in your power to get to know the real people that make up your audience.
Start by changing your perspective. See them not as your “target audience” or “prospects,” but as members of a community. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea what they struggle with or where they need help.
Imagine you’re the founder of a small games development studio. You would benefit from attending public events like BlizzCon or E3. Only in these spaces can you really get a sense of your community’s dynamics. You can identify what gets people excited in particular niches, and even identify collective frustrations.
As a game dev, visiting more professional events like the Game Developer Conference introduces opportunities to pinpoint knowledge gaps. This opens new avenues for innovation to better meet your prospects’ needs.
Alternative methods for in-depth target audience research
Studying discussion forums is another great way to plug into your target audience. These platforms are some of my favorite places to talk directly to niche communities and absorb their interpersonal language.
(People tend to be quite candid in online discussions. This allows you to “lift the veil” between the corporate and consumer sides of your industry, in a way methods like focus groups can’t.)
Spending time with your target audience like this helps improve your positioning and allows you to adjust your language to better communicate to your audience.
Plus, being an engaged community member helps to make you more approachable and trustworthy.
Mira Anamae, B2B SaaS email and landing page specialist, agrees:
Unshakeable brand authority is driven by connecting with your target audience and empathizing with them. People only come back to brands they connect with and content that helps them solve their unique problems.
Google Trends isn’t going to tell you what your prospects are asking. Your sales won’t confirm if you’ve met their needs. The only way to learn any of this is to ask and engage with your audience directly and consistently.
2. Prioritize quality of life
Your prospects don’t want to waste their time. Neither should you. That means they’re not looking to dilly-dally on your website. They want real information that doesn’t just answer questions, but improves their quality of life.
Every prospect needs to know the why’s, how’s, and elusive details about your product and brand to feel like their concerns are sufficiently addressed. They need actionable knowledge to feel like they’ve been heard and genuinely supported.
I’ve seen my fair share of corporate content that refuses to “go deep” in their thought leadership. For example, imagine that you own a small nursery. A casual gardener searches “what time of year should I plant tomatoes.”
You focus on such common questions as part of your content marketing campaign, so you use your blog to answer “during the springtime.” Sure, that answers the question, but there’s more to it than that. The reader might also need to know…
- When to start seeds?
- When to transplant starters?
- Does the ideal planting time depend on my Hardiness Zone?
- When’s the best time to plant tomatoes in a container garden?
These are nuanced questions that might come up in conversation with a real person.
For this reason, it’s important to look at your marketing communications and ask,
“Am I responding to data points and search queries or addressing real people’s questions and challenges?”
It’s easy to fall into the former when you’re hyper-focused on stats and well-defined pain points. It’s much harder when you understand the human reasons why the data exists at all.
How to improve your prospect’s quality of life
Enhancing your prospects’ quality of life is a hefty, unending task.
But you’re serious about meeting your target audience’s needs and up for the challenge. 💪🏽
First, you need to know what’s hurting their quality of life to begin with. A study on consumer decision-making highlighted some of the biggest hurdles to good purchasing decisions on the web.
The average online consumer is “time-starved.” The more time it takes to find quality information, the less capacity they have to search for it.
At the same time, “exploratory search,” or aimless browsing, can hurt effective decision-making. It impairs focus and undermines the value of the information acquired.
To offset this cost, it’s best to make your most pertinent brand materials easily accessible. This can take many forms.
You can keep it simple and publish an easy-to-navigate blog. Get a bit more personable by hosting a live, weekly Q&A session a la Google Search Console’s office hours. Or you can build an information hub with a series like You Need A Budget’s product tutorials.
Each of these options helps to shift the burden of time to you from your customer. You’ve already done all the research for them. They just need to engage with you to get it.
Make things easier on your prospects by reducing the amount of effort they need to research your product and company. This effort breaks down into two categories:
- Acquiring information: It takes time to find the right information. So, you need to meet your prospects where they are. This could be in particular forums, social media platforms, or via specific search engine queries. If you want to personalize your brand even more, organize community events to meet in person.
- Processing information: Your readers are not robots. Neither are they a one-size-fits-all “ideal consumer.” Understanding the social, cultural, and industry-specific language they use can make it dramatically easier for them to understand (and align with) your brand’s values and goals.
Offsetting the cognitive burden of engaging with your brand can make that engagement much easier and more appealing.
Although many companies buy into the appeal of “corporate speak,” dry, jargon-y language could be driving potential customers away.
People need prior product knowledge to even initiate online research to make a purchase decision. This means that if I’m deciding to buy a PlayStation 5, I need to know which keywords will get me the most information. This could be anything from the most notable game titles or terms related to the console hardware.
To know these keywords, I need to be familiar with the product and how it works. But what about those who lack that prior knowledge? You need to connect with them in more accessible, high-engagement spaces.
Empower them with the fundamental knowledge they need to get the most out of your brand. Tabling at expos or community events is an excellent method.
On another note: Research-based product information can’t always close a sale alone. Sometimes a human connection is the key to converting a hesitant prospect.
Sharing your own personal anecdotes about the product and company culture or showcasing testimonials are both great ways to center the real-life, human value of your brand.
Talk about the problem, how you discovered or developed the product solution, and how that solution has tangibly improved your life. You don’t always need scientific research to back up your offer (depending on your industry). A relatable story can often be much more persuasive than data-based talking points.
Plus, through your personal narrative, you can really “walk the talk.” Your story should embody:
- Your brand identity
- Your brand ideology
- Your company’s values
- Your company’s objectives
When you do this, prioritize transparency. Be honest about anything that could be perceived as a shortcoming. Demonstrate your sincerity. Above all, respect your prospect as a discerning individual, not just another consumer.
3. Get serious about building trust
Your target audience doesn’t owe you their trust. And incorporating a few “authoritative links” in a well-written article here and there isn’t enough to earn it. You’ve got to really put in the work to build relationships before you start thinking about converting anyone.
This part of brand humanization requires more than superficial virtue-signaling. You need to tap into your prospects’ thinking and find the intricacies of their distrust. Here’s what I mean.
People are more distrustful of each other right now than in almost any other period in modern history. They’ve lost trust in the media, government bodies, and even businesses.
The Pew Research Center found that the general public falls into three trust categories: low, medium, and high. This basically reflects their likelihood to trust or distrust other people or institutions, “low” being the most distrustful.
Only 33% of those in the “low” group believe that businesses will act in the public’s best interest. Forty-six percent of medium trusters and 54% of high trusters agree. This means that companies have their work cut out for them when representing their brands and marketing their solutions. Here’s how you can succeed in this effort.
[T]rust can be broken down into three components: competence, honesty, and benevolence. To trust someone’s competence is simply to believe that the person or entity you deal with has the ability to do the job… Honesty—or integrity—refers to your sense that your… service provider keeps its promises and is not telling lies… Benevolence is the belief that your… provider has your best interests at heart and cares about you as a customer.
– Kent Grayson
How to build trust successfully
Check in with your audience to gauge their trust levels. Ask the hard questions about what makes them cynical and what turns them off. This entails going beyond the typical pain points and digging deep into their individual perspectives and experiences.
I don’t want to sugarcoat it. This can be hard, especially when dealing with marginalized groups. For example, 31% and 41% of white Americans are considered “low” and “medium” trustees. However, 44% and 41% of Black Americans fall into those categories, respectively.
Disparities exist among different education groups, too. While 43% of people with a high school education are considered “low trust,” only 24% of people with a bachelor’s degree qualify as the same.
This means that, in addition to your typical market research, you’ll need to create a dialogue unique to your target audience and its distinct segments. In these conversations, you may have to face some hard-to-hear truths.
Yoga instructors and wellness specialists may need to grapple with perceptions of cultural appropriation of Hinduism. Cannabis business owners might be expected to address social stigmas and the racial disparities associated with cannabis use.
These conversations are uncomfortable.
But they are critical to building a transparent, people-focused brand. The importance is even greater now that 58% of people will only buy from or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values.
Creating inclusive dialogue welcomes your prospects into being active members of your brand community and establishes a framework for transparency. To do this effectively, you’ve got to create an environment founded on the Three Es.
Most consumers primarily engage with brands that align with their worldviews. That said, sensitively navigating potential “trust issues” by prioritizing the Three Es can effectively humanize your brand.
Re-focusing on people over profits
Public trust is broken. Businesses’ hyper-fixation on selling their products without connecting to the humans doing the buying is making things worse.
Getting in touch with the human component of your brand can be tough. It calls for in-depth research into your target audience beyond demographics and market stats, as well as a multifaceted restructuring of your marketing communications.
Still, humanizing your brand is essential to cultivating a thriving community built on trust and ultimately building a socially sustainable company.