Trust Agents

Disoriented? Intrigued? You’ve just gatejumped.

As soon as you read this URL in the International Journal of Advertising, and typed it into your web browser, you participated in the fundamental principle behind Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents: changing the game.

I’ve hacked the rules of the Journal – an offline, ‘old media’ publication - to , as the tagline of the book puts it "build influence, improve reputation and earn trust".

By self-hosting it on my own blog, I gain traffic and visibility and, most importantly, social capital, by linking to the individuals involved, encouraging public discourse and giving my opinions permanent and spreadable value.

You get instant access to the individuals and concepts I mention (through links), a chance to contribute to the debate, and, through the other content on my blog, a much richer sense of the person whose opinion you are being asked to ‘trust’ for this review.

The Journal gets much wider visibility with a new audience, a bunch of click-throughs, and hopefully a good dollop of kudos for doing something different.

In accordance with the Trust Agent philosophy that "the whole web is one gigantic lever", I’ve leveraged my own knowledge of social media, and my online network, to change the game of traditional review writing and make it more fun and more profitable for us all.

Welcome to the 'trust agent' way.

This book aims to transform us all into exemplary digital natives, both fluent in the quick wins and cultural quirks of the new social playground, and yet also full of the integrity, passion and honesty that will make those interactions bear fruit. If you're annoyed that you've been dragged online from the comfy paper-and-ink environs of the Journal, this probably isn't the book for you. Trust Agents demands that readers dive out into the virtual space themselves and play with the latest tools and platforms until they know them well enough to exploit - and even subvert - them.

It's highly practical, but don't expect some tech-heavy web primer. The real strength of the book is it's focus on people rather than tools, by observing how and why people connect and consume online and describing techniques to mirror and propagate that behaviour. Whether we're being told how to create strategic blog posts, use our LinkedIn profiles properly, or get the most from a face to face meetup, the underlying lesson here is that "social benefit occurs as a by-product of being a good citizen".

It is essentially a guide on how to become a "good citizen" of the brave new world of the two-way web, not just in our technology and business best practices, but in our personal ethics and conduct, too.

Of course, this is a business book, and trust agents see doing good as an investment which will reap financial rewards, not just a touchy-feely philosophy. Social connectivity has long been central to business success, although thanks to social media the stakes have been massively raised, and the blurring of the boundaries between our personal and professional selves can feel increasing uncomfortable.

Indeed, this fragile equilibrium between being genuine social animals and relentless business beasts teeters back and forth throughout the book. It feels especially precarious when the authors justify their harder-headed manipulations of relationships and communities for business ends with mawkish, chummy reminders - “people are real, have real feelings, and always deserve respect… but hey, you already knew that”.

But this inherent clash between the cosy concept of ‘trust’ and the aggressive one of ‘agency’ is in fact one of the most fascinating and valuable issues the book throws up. We can all relate to it, whether we make our friends and do our deals on Facebook or in the boardroom. We are simultaneously self-interested and desperate to authentically connect, and Trust Agents bravely admits this tension and shows how social media strategies can help us combine the two.

Despite the authors' protestations, this is essentially a ‘revenge of the geeks’ philosophy. Based on the principles behind gaming, hacking and subversion of authority by the little guy, it is a self-help manual that idolises outsiders who have learned to use their unconventional perspective as a route to mainstream success.

Trust agent icons include Gary VaynerchukRobert ScobleFrank Elliason and Daniela Barbosa, who have respectively subverted the typically dry and jargon-ridden fields of wine criticism, corporate blogging, customer service and B2B, and they all combine early adopter tech-savviness with an outstanding ability to communicate as passionate, grounded human beings. They are living proof that Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage ‘the medium is the message’ has evolved into ‘the marketer is the message' - or, as the book puts it, "I am the path."

As direct intermediaries between the brand and the consumer, the marketers have become the media: their personalities, business and networking nous now generate the attention and influence once afforded to a radio broadcast or TV ad.

As each of the six central chapters work through the main characteristics a successful trust agent must possess – standing out, belonging, leverage, access, understanding and mass – it becomes clear that ‘soft skills’ have hard currency in marketing 2.0. This is going to be a difficult transition for some. Brogan has said in the past that every employee is now consumer facing, and this will be a world unkind to those less socially eloquent or working in organisations with a rigid hierarchy.

The section on 'standing tall' within an organisation describes the shift rather brutally: "if you'e thinking somewhere in your head that you need permission to learn to how to start building the ability to leverage the resources for your corporation, hand this book to someone else. You've already lost the game."

As this passage indicates, Trust Agents' writing is inelegant; but then the blunt, colloquial, we’re-all-buddies-here tone has become the accepted style for the genre. Sometimes it works, sometimes less so. The familiarity especially grates in the introduction, where the authors make a number of broad-strokes assumptions about who their readers are and why we’re reading the book. The assumptions may be true, but it makes us feel pigeonholed and patronised; it’s a surprisingly clumsy and arrogant way of opening a relationship from two self-professed 'human artists'.

However, this is at heart an undeniably inspiring guide from men who are proof that their system works. Trust Agents deploys all the ‘trust agent moves’ it's authors advocate, such as cute personal anecdotes, reliable facts, eclectic human case studies, praise of competitors, and simple lists of actions and exercises, which all help to create a sense of an authentic and desirable path. This is no theoretical textbook but a practical embodiment of the tactics it promotes, and Brogan and Smith's experience and enthusiasm make it an easy and rousing read.

So start becoming a trust agent yourself and build some social capital right now - add your comments below and let us hear what you think.