Are you a good human?

Authors Chris Brogan and Julien Smith were early adopters of social media. The pair has roots in the online world that date back to the days of bulletin board systems in the early 1990s. In their recent book, “Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust,” Brogan and Smith provide a captivating look at one of the Web’s greatest paradoxes. Online customers are the most accessible, yet they’re also the most distrustful of a company’s message. Breaking down that barrier of cynicism takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but the rewards of doing so can be great. In this interview with Smart Business, Brogan discusses the importance of making your company’s online interactions a little more human.

A lot of executives want a quick payoff when it comes to social media. Why is having an informed strategy so important?

What we’re finding is that the education has to go on first by understanding that technology is a two-way street. These tools really aren’t as much a new way to communicate a message as they are a new way to listen and then build a conversation and build some rapport. The first step in any of these new social media platforms is to learn how to listen and to understand who’s there that represents your organization, then learn who’s there that represents your would-be buyer and finally understand what these people are looking for in terms of interaction. Only then can you start working on a way to deliver that interaction in a way that’s beneficial to the audience that’s there.

You’ve maintained that social media is just a set of tools and that the real challenge is being human. What makes an online citizen a good human?

We think it deals with understanding the needs and interests of the other person first before you ask them for anything. We think the tools aren’t exactly the tricky part. We think it’s the shift in understanding [the process of] going from simply selling to customers to creating relationships that yield something. We buy from people we like, and that seems to be the opportunity with these kinds of tools. We can build relationships with our buyers. This isn’t a lot of soft-shoe stuff. This is companies like Jet Blue, Comcast, Home Depot and Disney. There are all kinds of major retail and B2B executives who are learning that the social media channel is not to be overlooked and learning that there’s business opportunity there.

You talk in the book about becoming ‘one of us.’ How can a company do this if there is an established negative online reputation against the company?

It’s absolutely possible. I think with the situation that’s befallen Toyota recently with their recalls, there’s a huge opportunity for them to be face-to-face with the people who are Toyota drivers and explain to them how the company is going to rebuild trust. There’s a lot of opportunity to use the online channel to do that because it’s very much two-way. It’s much more scalable than phone calls and letters. You can really address and field a lot more people via the Web and more people can see the outcome of the two-way conversation if it’s done live using a social media experience.

You personally contact a lot of bloggers and Twitter users. How much effort does it really take to be a trust agent?

It’s certainly not something that you can just throw an hour at every day or every other day and hope that you’re going to get something out of it. The more time we put into social networks, the more time we put into responding and being a two-way street, we’re getting a yield, we’re getting a direct response back. We say that a minimum should probably be something like two hours per day. If that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that this effort is actually yielding revenue and value. We’re putting time and money somewhere where we’re actually seeing a result.