2020 saw more digital marketing than any year before.

It goes without saying that the COVID pandemic has affected how people work and businesses operate.

In only a matter of weeks, many companies lost a pair of their most effective new business tools—the tradeshow and the in-person meeting. Without the ability to have those face-to-face conversations, these companies were forced to pivot.

Those tradeshow presentations suddenly became webinars. Those questions that salespeople usually answered across a conference room table became the subject of a new series of blog posts. Social posts and digital advertising instantly doubled.

All of this worked to create a whole lot of noise, but I wonder if it actually created much value for the people doing it. I’d be willing to bet not, or at least not as much as they’d hoped.

And why is that?

It’s because for too long marketing has been focused on the wrong things. We live in an ROI-obsessed world where attribution is king. If we can’t directly tie a result to an effort, then did it even happen? For too many companies, without that short-term result, an initiative likely didn’t matter.

But that’s the wrong way to look at marketing. Instead of trying to tie dollars spent immediately to dollars earned, we should be focusing on something that has longer-term value. We need to focus on building trust with our prospects because trust is how you turn those prospects into customers.

Trust. That was always the goal of marketing anyway, right? If so, then how do we get back to that being our focus?

At my agency, we’ve put together what I call a “Grow With TRUST” framework -- where we try to take into account the many trust signals that build relationships between brands and buyers and then put those first in our campaigns for clients.

Create Trust with Thought Leadership That Puts Quality First

Thought leadership plays a central role in this trust-building framework. This is true even though marketers currently face a “content glut” and worry about their content being seen at all. The reality of a glut doesn’t mean you should stop creating content; it simply means you must work harder to make your content stand out.

Thought leadership marketing content has the opportunity to be highly effective in sales in 2021. Here are some numbers from a recent survey from Edelman to prove the point:

  • Nearly 50% of decision-makers spend an hour or more each week consuming thought leadership content. They are looking for insights.
  • 89% of them say that thought leadership affects their perception of an organization.
  • Nearly 50% say that thought leadership impacts their buying decisions.

However, there is another number from that survey that should give every brand marketer pause:

  • Only 15% consider the thought leadership they are consuming to be of high quality.

What does all of this mean? That maybe we haven’t been producing too much content. Maybe it only looks like a glut from our side of the table.

Business leaders are still making time to read thought leadership content. They want it. They look for it. But maybe those diminishing returns that so many marketers are complaining about are simply the result of content that isn’t particularly inspired or even helpful. Most of it’s pretty bad, in fact.

Content has always been about a transaction. The person consuming the content agrees to give you their time, and, in exchange, you agree to give them something worthy of that time.

Too many of us have forgotten the second half of that equation. Part of it is that in our rush to create more and more content, we go for the pieces we can create quickly. We set up strawmen that our products—or barely disguised descriptions of our products—can knockdown.

All of this is essentially product collateral, but we give it a clever headline and snappy opening paragraph and sell it as thought leadership. But it’s not, and anyone reading it will recognize that once they get to the end (if they get to the end).

This is all content that’s created to convert, not build trust. It’s expedient, not inspired. This is why it generates crappy leads that salespeople rightly complain about, rather than initiating a relationship that a good salesperson can build upon, then take across the finish line.

Focus on high-quality content that is worthy of your audience’s time. Don’t leave them feeling cheated, like they’ve wasted their time with your content. You want them consuming one piece and then consuming another. You want to become a trusted source of information.

Consider that second stat I shared earlier. Nearly 90% of decision-makers say thought leadership affects their perception of a business. That can be good. Or, if you give them low-quality content too many times, it can be very bad.

Skip the Pyrotechnics in Favor of Trust-Centered Web Design

Another pillar in our framework is what I call “trust-centered web design.”

We’ve all seen those websites that wow us. We visit them for the first time, and we get those sudden pangs of jealousy. We wished this was ours. It’s just so sparkly, so beautiful.

But we’ve also all had that letdown when it comes to actually using the site. The navigation is clunky or hard to understand. (Wait, I’m supposed to click there? Wait, no. OK. There?) Or, maybe worst of all, we are so assaulted by popups and slide-over forms that even when we are starting to get into the site, the experience is so thoroughly interrupted that it’s now impossible to get back into it.

The problem is that the website has been created to attract attention, not build a relationship. So, how do you make a site that does that? In addition to the traditional UX best practices, here are a few specific ideas that we recommend:

  • Lean into personalization. As more companies begin to experiment with or rely on personalized marketing strategies like ABM, prospective customers are going to expect that personalized experience no matter where they interact with you, from their initial visit to your website all the way through the sales process. That means you need to be using personalization tokens in your emails. You should be creating highly targeted segmentation inside your marketing automation platform. And you need to be implementing smart content across your site so the experience of returning to your site can feel as personal as possible.
  • Abandon gated content. Want to tell a visitor to your site that they can trust you? Get rid of the gates you’re putting up in front of your content. This might be a hard sell within your organization -- particularly if the sales and marketing teams are desperate for contacts and leads -- but ungating content signals that you’re truly interested in establishing a relationship with someone based on being of value to them. Ungating content will get more eyes on your content initially, and, if your site is tracking visitors, you are still able to retarget and nurture those prospects.
  • Validate your website with trust badges. We’ve all seen trust badges on most of the sites we visit. These are the small icons that make us comfortable completing a transaction on a given site. Or it’s the logo of a professional organization on a company website that reassures us that employees are properly trained or certified. All of these work to build trust with prospective customers. For e-commerce sites, trust badges are most visible during the checkout process, but many sites today use them on their homepage, product pages, and “About Us” pages.

There’s speculation in the tech world that the pandemic accelerated a lot of change that was already coming. Many of the estimates are a bit staggering; some experts believe we saw three to five years of technological transformation in a matter of months.

I don’t think the tech world was the only one that hit the fast-forward button. I’d argue that the marketing world has, too -- and those making the leap must embrace a trust-centered approach.