If you’re a founder who closed a twenty million dollar Series A, or bootstrapped startup founder, or an entrepreneurial thinker at an inventive company, you have the same challenge: people who may benefit from your great idea don’t listen and don’t care. Using trust channels is how you amplify your message in the era of data, AI, and media overload.
Many people attempt to amplify their message or try to build a following from scratch—one person at a time. They assume great ideas speak for themselves and draw people like a subconscious magnet. They believe in The Mousetrap Myth, coined by David Burkus. Those who have been down the road, however know the truth: great ideas don’t matter. Relationships and trust matter.
I work with founders often. Some are small, some raised 20M Series A rounds, and others have had half-billion exists. More than most, all struggle with this phenomenon. I call this the founder baby bias because it reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s routinely pestered to a friend’s new baby. He finally relents and is horrified at how ugly the baby is. But to the parents, their baby is beautiful, unique, and one-of-a-kind. Even with cute babies, to most people, it’s just a baby. They’ve seen thousands, and they will see thousands more.
Big idea folks have an affinity to our own idea. They know the work that has gone into creating the idea and what makes it unique. That’s to be expected, but the world doesn’t care. Getting the word out is far harder. There’s more noise. And there’s less trust.
The State of Trust
Media trust is hitting record lows, and viewership for national shows is down significantly. Social media is regarded as a lost cause. Disinformation is everywhere, videos can be a deep faked, and even full Joe Rogan podcast interviews can be AI-generated. Soon, political candidates will flood the internet with fake damaging content to hide real damaging content—the process of content obfuscation. Despite facing record loneliness, dating apps are stalling out. It’s clear people are circling the intellectual wagons and tightening their sources for information.
The only hope for you to get an idea into the right minds and hearts in the 2030s and beyond is to use trust channels. Trust channels are how low-level employees get the CEO’s ear, how startups get press coverage in trustworthy publications, and how potential employees will get the hot new job.
I’ll get specific on trust channel examples in a second but consider arriving at a cocktail party, and the host of the party immediately embraces you and tells everyone in the room, “You all have to meet Justin; he’s the best communications guy I know!” At that moment, I gained instant trust and credibility that otherwise may have taken years to build trust with that same group. She was my trust channel into that particular group.
In its simplest form, this is what trust channels are all about. By respecting and using trust channels, you and your idea gain instant credibility and adoption with key groups. Without trust channels, your idea dies.
Consider the Wright Brothers. When human flight was achieved, any reasonable person would assume wall-to-wall media coverage would accompany the event or at least promptly after. Orville and Wilbur should have been doing non-stop interviews. You’d expect endless discussion on the train. But not until three years later did The New York Times write a single word about it.
Almost the entire world as of 1908, nearly 5 years later, had no idea human flight had been achieved or was possible, according to a brief anecdote by Rita McGrath in her book Seeing Around Corners. Meanwhile in 1907, a July 7th sermon from Rev. Father Michael G. Esper in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church about teddy bears damaging the future of the human race made national news in 24 hours.
Having the best idea in the world doesn’t matter. What matters is how you communicate that idea.
What are some examples of trust channels?
Trust channels are unlimited and growing daily as our world learns new methods of communication. Some channels are obvious, depending on the audience you want to connect with. As of June 2022, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has built a trust channel of over 3.7 million subscribers. For this reason, PR people have historically relied on media as a trust channel. But times have changed.
Another trust channel that perhaps isn’t top of mine is Marques Brownlee. Better known as MKBHD on YouTube, Brownlee has amassed over 16.8 million subscribers absolutely crushing WSJ. Brownlee has only developed a small trust channel compared to Jimmy Donaldson, known by his channel name Mr. Beast. The King of YouTube has 139M subscribers as of writing this.
Trust channels aren’t just limited to online media or news however. They can be events like SXSW. The event brought together 270,000 people during their 2022 hybrid event.
Podcasts like The Psychology Podcast are significant trust channels. According to data analytics company SEM Rush, 20% of people say they’ve bought something because their favorite host endorsed it.
Surprisingly radio is still an effective trust channel as well. According to NPR and Edison Research, “Almost half of all AM/FM radio listeners (46%) say they have considered a new company, product, or service after hearing an ad on the radio.” It’s worth noting radio reaches 82% of the population, making it an often overlooked but still significant trust channel. I should know; I had a live show on WHO Radio and iHeart Radio for three years and hosted 6 Presidential Candidates in the studio also interviewing celebrities like Mike Rowe and Pauly Shore.
Trust channels aren’t limited to media, magazines, TV, and digital streaming shows. Your local VFW Post, Bar tenders, Book clubs, authors, and perhaps even your local Kiwanis group are effective trust channels.
When promoting a podcast for my home state of Iowa, the most effective strategy was simply hitting local events as a speaker and maximizing face-to-face interactions. At one event, attended by only 10 people (there was a severe ice storm) I still received 200 web hits and a 2000% conversion rate. When compared to the 0.3% – 0.5% conversion rate of a targeted Google AdWords campaign, it was an effective trust channel but often overlooked.
Trust channels can also be locations, towns, or countries. If you ever meet someone from your hometown or country while traveling, you immediately trust them more than those around you. Geography certainly plays a role in forming trust channels. This is one reason Axios is growing so rapidly across the country.
As larger newspapers continue to suffer subscriber decreases, Axios hit their one-millionth subscriber by focusing on local content. Similarly, savvy brands are abandoning national influencers (or nonfluencers) in favor of local “influencers” with much smaller followings but strong high-trust networks. Social media marketing company, Hummingbirds, just raised $1M to build this very model.
Startup Clayton Farms, a purveyor of chemical-free greens, utilizes a local in-person trust channel approach as well. You’d think a tech company would focus on digital growth means, but instead, they door-knock new markets when they build a new greenhouse in that region. CEO Clayton Mooney credits these in-person efforts for their rapid growth.
The trick, then is this: how does an entrepreneur or founder know which trust channel to utilize?
How do you identify trust channels?
When you understand how trust channels work and how many there are, it’s overwhelming at first. There is no set channel map for each person, but there is a process to find ideal trust channels that reach those you want to influence.
The person you aim to influence may be the CEO of the company you work, a new group of customers, investors, or even your own neighborhood for a new block improvement project that includes tax incentives for repairs.
In one case, a startup hired me to get press for them for the sole purpose of attracting certain investors. After achieving a big hit for them in The Wall Street Journal, they sent the article to interested investors and investors who had passed. Because WSJ was a notable trust channel, they came to the table.
As a person with a big idea, determining the proper trust channels starts with identifying your ideal customer, clarifying your message, identifying their influencing forces, and finally trading something of value to the influencing force to earn trust quickly. If it seems like no one does this, you’re correct.
Identify The Customer
Finding trust channels requires an intimate understanding of your customer. This sounds obvious but most leaders skip this part. This results in ballooning marketing costs with no insight into what worked and what failed. Sometimes you break through and don’t know why; therefore, it’s not repeatable. What a waste of valuable time and resources!
For entrepreneurs and founders, customers are diverse. Yes, your audience could be users and customers, but your audience could also be investors, vendors, VCs, or collaborators. If you don’t take time to understand the audience for your idea, you cannot reach them. It’s simple.
Identifying your customer requires thorough research and a serious look at who your idea truly benefits.
For founders, CMOs, and entrepreneurs, this includes thoroughly researching your audience and customer. Spend as much face time with your customer as possible. The goal is to understand what drives them. Matthew May is a champion for Toyota design thinking principles, one of which being Genchi Genbutsu, or “go look, go see.” in English.
In his newest book, What A Unicorn Knows, May recounts the story of Toyota breaking into the US Market with their new Lexus Brand. Their successful launch into the US market directly resulted from their “go look, go see” efforts. They sent a team to live in the USA amongst wealthy Americans, who drove luxury cars, lived in luxury properties, ate at luxury restaurants, and spent time at luxury venues.
To dial in and understand your audience, you must know what they value. David Allison has a free tool in his newest book, The Death of Demographics, that will expedite your process and save you time and money. You can potentially execute a full valuegraphics assessment.
Getting adoption for your ideas through trust channels is relevant for entrepreneurial thinkers in corporate jobs as well. In these cases, your customer may be your boss or colleague, but it could be the VP or company CEO. Many brilliant ideas have failed because someone with a big idea completely failed to identify the customer or audience that can best adopt their idea.
While working for a manufacturing company in my twenties, I quickly became frustrated with my VP because I thought he was continually shutting down my ideas. Even after a well-received conversation, my ideas would die. I would later learn I had misidentified my audience: the VP was on my side, but the CEO was not. Not until I got him to the table was my idea adopted (and it took a few years.)
Internally, it’s wise to spend time learning how decisions are made in your division or company before seeking to amplify your ideas. It may be wise to ask your boss or VP “Who else do we need to loop in to see if this idea has merit?”
Focus Your Message
Incredible ideas die when the person with the big idea fails to communicate clearly. Every day brilliant contributions are ignored because the person seeking to amplify their idea didn’t take a moment to consider the audience and messaging they would immediately embrace and relate to.
That starts with developing an iron-clad vision and vision.
For my clients, I explain a vision is the change you want to see in the world without you in it. And what is a mission? A mission is how you will effectuate that change. Startups and large corporations alike all struggle with this step. It is difficult to truly focus your message on your ideal customer and audience.
But it’s vital.
When all stakeholders, including leadership, employees, customers, investors, and coworkers, can understand and communicate your vision and mission, messaging becomes effortless. There are no questions regarding what you stand for and the goals you envision for the company. Vendors communicate your value to other vendors. Employees communicate your value to their network. And best of all, customers can communicate with customers by spreading your message.
Less time is spent and wasted on poor suggestions for new products or new marketing strategies. No time is lost in miscommunication about your product or service. All communication energy is focused on your objective.
You can visually picture this as the difference between 260 toothpicks and a single arrow. Both have approximately the same mass, weighing approximately 26 grams. Despite this, the arrow will travel further and sink deeper into a target because the total weight is focused on a specific point. Even if you triple the mass of the toothpicks and find a clever way to launch them, they won’t leave a mark.
A focused message puts the entire mass of company ideas, investments, and personnel on a single focused point.
Identify All Trust Channels
Trust channels are the most direct path to amplifying your message to the key group you seek to impact with your idea and message. Depending on your idea and particular goals, your customer’s trust channels are a wide spectrum.
As previously stated, some trust channels are obvious, like The Wall Street Journal or Wired Magazine. But others aren’t so obvious. If you want to reach a particular community, for example, the most direct trust channel may be an association President. Sometimes, the most valuable trust channel may be the town bartender, hairdresser or barber.
Stephen Thomas, Ph.D., professor in UMD’s School of Public Health has certainly considered this: Dr. Thomas has formed a national network of barbershops and local clinics as a critical trust channel for getting health information to the black community. The Health Advocates In-Reach and Research (HAIR) program was developed because research shows partnering with barbershops is an effective way to improve the health of black men.
Consider the powerful trust shared between a barber, hair stylist, chiropractor, or massage therapist and their clientele. According to Dr. Seth Meyers, in a column for Psychology Today, he likens the relationship to that of a therapist. Clearly, Dr. Thomas’ HAIR approach is a critical and yet often overlooked trust channel.
The more time you spend with your target, customer, or person you want to adopt your idea, the more obvious it will become what trust channels are ideal.
As I complained to my wife on challenges relating to a client project recently, she said something that caught my ear, “this solution seems like something I should have heard about.” Her response was a gut check. She was inside the target group for a client I was working on. After spending 5 minutes asking questions, an array of 5 critical trust channels became immediately obvious. 2 channels opened the breakthrough I needed.
The more time you spend with your audience or target, the more obvious it becomes what trust channels are best to reach them.
Identifying Trust Channels: Simplified
In the case of an entrepreneur or founder, the fastest way to identify key trust channels is to simply ask customers. Create a list of your most profitable and best customers, then send out a survey offering incentives like a $200 gift card.
It’s important to ask questions that help your audience think. Here are some starter questions, but I have a constantly evolving list you can access for free.
- What top 5 YouTube channels are your subscribed to right now?
- What top 5 podcasts are you subscribed to right now?
- Who are the people you trust most on Twitter? Instagram? LinkedIn?
- Which professional groups do you get value out of?
A tech client of mine did this very exercise for their dev community. We expected to see many tech-focused publications and developer communities in their trust channels. While some did pop up on the list, we were stunned many were subscribers of The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. We overlooked those initially.
Taking time to identify trust channels is key. Assumptions can be costly.
Visually, it helps to create a spider diagram or mind map with the word “Customer” on a piece of paper, mapping out as many customer trust channels as possible. These trust channels are what you need to utilize to amplify your message and earn instant credibility with that customer.
This process of identifying trust channels is repeatable for any organization of any size. This process is repeatable for someone who wants to influence upper management in an organization, even for a lowly intern with zero influence. Trust channels can be mapped out for CEOs or VPs you seek to influence.
What sources does your CEO use to vet information? Does he or she have a board? Do they read certain publications? I vividly remember one case where I sticky-noted an article in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of bold leaders trying experiments, writing, “this article made me think of our company.” A few weeks later, I pitched an experimental project, and the CEO quickly accepted my suggestion because a key trust channel informed his decision.
Trade value with influencing forces
When you are amplified in a trust channel, your idea, brand, and message share in that trust. Depending on the endorsement, trust transfers quickly. If you’ve ever seen two members from the same US military branch meet for the first time, there is an immediate trust transfer.
Once you find the critical trust channels to get your message out, some may be simple to utilize. The President of your neighborhood association may require only a phone call to advise her about a new street beautification process. Trust is already built in this case. If you are simply aware of the channel, it’s a straightforward ask. You are surrounded by easy trust channel entry points at this very moment.
Some channels are a bit more difficult to wrangle.
Building trust with the people who control the channels can be difficult, costly, or time-consuming. Journalists, editors of respected publications, YouTubers, bartenders, journalists, or even Kiwanis boards—any person for that matter—will not always trust you immediately.
It’s best to have common connections introduce you or build that relationship over time. If your idea is on a timeline, however, utilizing a trust channel comes with an exchange of value. In reality, this process dates back thousands of years. In 900-1650 A.D., for example, the Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians would often exchange gifts as an immediate show of trust. Failure to do this could mean death for an outsider. Today, you won’t die, but if you fail to properly exchange value with an influencing force, your greatest idea will most certainly die.
If your required trust channel is a newspaper, the influencing force of that channel would be a reporter or editor. Trading value, in that case, would be bringing them a great story their readers will click. I’ve sent journalists great stories that didn’t represent any client of mine, for the single purpose of building trust.
Journalists are judged by how many readers engage with their work. If a founder or local business owner brings them a story that accomplishes this goal, trust is instantly earned in this exchange, and follow-up stories become easier. The journalist drove engagement, and the business owner gained exposure.
In the earlier case of HAIR, the value exchange was altruistic. Because barbers have relationships with their clientele similar to that of a therapist, they naturally want to see them healthy. Dr. Thomas traded value in the form of information to barbers. In exchange, his objective of reaching the black community with critical health information was realized.
When utilizing a trust channel, the idea-person must ask what value the influencing force of a particular trust channel needs. If there’s no value exchange to be had, the trust channel remains closed in the same way a door is slammed in the face of political opposition or a religious group you may have had a bad experience with.
Podcasts are a rapidly growing trust channel. When a host spends a lot of time in a consumer’s ear, a strong trust bond is created. How would one trade value with such an influencing force as a podcaster?
As an active podcaster for eight years and live radio host for three, the pressure to continually find new show ideas never ends. When a host experiences the triumph of completing a new show, the pressure of finding next week’s show content begins. If you can bring a host a unique idea and a guest who can communicate, your idea will likely gain exposure. I use the FART method as my method of choice to pitch great ideas.
Solve a problem for an influencing force, and they will immediately partner up.
This is the exact strategy I used to create a relationship, and critical trust channel, with Paul Allen. Allen founded Ancestry.com, and I had the opportunity to meet and interview him on my show through another trust channel and friend, Jeff Garrison of Results on Purpose. (Who is my business coach today.)
I knew of Allen’s desire to grow the brand of his new company Soar.com. Because he was familiar with how I ran a podcast, I reached out and offered to create a podcast for his company. Because he was in startup mode, I offered to do it for equity. He was excited and agreed. The result was a podcast series called The AI To Uplift Humanity Podcast.
As a result of that decision, he became not only a trusted friend, but a key trust channel that led me to a new opportunity as the anchor for the Global Peter Drucker Forum, hosted annually in Vienna—arguably the most respected management and leadership conference in the world.
If you have a great idea as an employee, founder, author, or even neighborhood advocate, I have some great news: your ideas can be amplified, and you have control over the process. Identify the “customer” you seek to influence, solidify your message, identify their trust channels, and trade value with the influencing forces of that channel.
Today there are dozens, if not, thousands of better ideas. But ideas don’t make you special; action does. In the age of AI, misinformation, content obfuscation, shrinking trust, and new media, the ability to communicate your idea and bring value to your audience is what matters most. And you can do that starting today.