How to Build Credibility on the Web

There are literally millions of voices on the Internet. Blogs, Social networks, micromessaging services like Twitter, instant messaging services, email, wikis, forums, and dozens of technologies I haven’t even heard of – and dozens more to come – give us all an unprecedented ability to be heard.

But with all those voices clamoring for attention, how do you stand out from the crowd? More importantly, once you get someone’s attention, how can you keep it? How can you show that it is your voice, out of the jabbering multitude, that’s worth listening to?

In short, how do you appear credible online? A panel at BlogWorld Expo set out to explore the issue of credibility online, and the panelists – Daniel Gray, Scott Monty, Michelle Naranjo, Joe Neuberger, and Muhammad Saleem – had some mighty interesting things to say. While their comments were directed solely at blogging, the principles they enumerated can apply more broadly to the issue of credibility on the Internet in general.

The same accessibility that makes the Internet such a great medium makes credibility hard to establish. Where it used to be that anyone who wanted to do business with you needed at least enough capital to establish an office, print stationery, and put a listing in the Yellow Pages, nowadays you can set up shop on the Internet for free – there’s almost no barrier to entry, or to deception. In 20 minutes I could set myself up as, say, a legal consultant, an aerospace technologist, or an environmental lobbyist – regardless of whether I was actually working as any of those things or not.

In time, all but the most skilled con artists will have a hard time keeping up the illusion that they are competent experts, but how do you get people’s attention long enough to prove that you are what you claim to be? Here are a few ideas, some abstracted from the discussion at BlogWorld, and some from my own experience and study.

1. Hold to the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

The trouble with lying is that it takes a lot of work to maintain consistency. This goes well beyond the old maxim about needing to remember which lies you told to whom; deceptions, even small ones, need to be internally consistent or, sooner or later, your story starts to unravel.

The truth, on the other hand, is internally consistent by definition – it really did happen that way! When you’re being honest, it shows – you’re spending your energy on connecting warmly with your audience, rather than on keeping up false appearances.

2. Work your profile.

People are credible; faceless voices are not. Make sure you fill out profiles on all the services you use (an “About Me” page on your blog performs the same function). Put some thought into your profile – you want whoever reads it to understand not just where you live and whether you’re single, but what makes you a person worth paying attention to.

Unless you have a pressing reason not to, it’s always a good idea to include a picture of yourself whenever possible. People connect with faces – most of us remember faces much better than we do names. Allowing people to see your face gives them a real person to relate to. There’s a reason we speak disparagingly of “faceless corporations”…

3. Consistency

A large archive of consistent activity on any blog network, or service will go a long way towards easing any doubts about you. People trying to pull a “fast one” rarely put three years into blogging, or send a thousand tweets, or submit a hundred stories to Digg (this last example is false, but in an interesting way: some scammers actually do submit lots of stories to Digg before submitting their own, simply because they understand well the air of credibility a long-term investment lends them).

Being consistent also means avoiding behaviors that contradict your core principles. While you might change the candidate you endorse on your local politics blog as new facts emerge without damaging your credibility, a more serious contradiction like running ads for pornography on your church website would be irredeemable. Make sure you keep an eye on what’s done with your content, wherever it’s posted, so that you don’t end up inadvertently associating your work with material that contradicts it.

4. Stay above the fray.

This doesn’t mean avoid controversy – in fact, taking strong stands that accord with your core principles will usually help your credibility. But defend your stands with tact and dignity – don’t stoop to personal attacks and mudslinging, which send a clear message that your position isn’t defensible on its own merits.

This can be especially difficult when you face personal attacks, and if you spend any time online, you will. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least a day before responding to any harsh criticism; responding in the heat of the moment leaves you far too vulnerable to saying things you’ll regret later or that will make you look bad.

5. Be persistent.

If you have something to say, and you want others to hear it, don’t give up. Persistence shows more than just a strong will, it shows that what you’re saying is truly important – important enough for you to commit your efforts to it until it is heard, despite your setbacks. If you want proof, watch any Hollywood biopic or TV biography show – the stories we’re most interested in are the people who succeeded “despite terrible odds”, to the point that screenwriters and TV directors will invent conflicts if real life doesn’t prove challenging enough.

6. Be everywhere you need to be.

Figure out where the people you need to reach congregate, and make sure that you’re in the same places. Don’t spam, of course – instant lost credibility, that is – but make yourself visible to the people whose attention matters most to you. That might mean joining forums, commenting on blogs, participating in social networks, submitting to social media sites, signing up for a flickr group, or whatever else it will take to get seen by your prospective audience.

7. Build a network of trust.

On the Internet as much as anywhere else, credibility is established as much by who you know as by what you know. Build strong relationships with other credible people in your field, whether they are producers, fans, customers, reporters, or whomever. This is the basic principle underlying Google: if lots of people trust a site (as expressed by linking to it) then Google assumes that site is a good source, and the more trustworthy the sites linking to that site are (as expressed by the number of sites linking to them), the more credible the site is considered to be.  Surround yourself with the people you trust the most.

8. Be available.

Nothing undermines credibility faster than someone failing to respond when needed. Make a point of responding as quickly as possible to anyone who expresses interest in what you’re saying – whether that’s by commenting on your blog, responding to your forum post, replying to your tweet, or however else they choose to contact you. Answer questions quickly and to the best of your abilities – one impressed contact can easily multiply into tens or hundreds of new followers/readers/fans/etc. as word spreads of your expertise.

9. Feature your hits.

This applies most to bloggers,although if you can figure out how to apply the same principle to your other online activities, all the better. As you build up an archive of really strong content, make sure that you pull it up and re-present it from time to time. Keep a list of your top 5 or 10 posts on your front page, and backlink to old posts when you write new ones. Make it as easy as possible for people to see that you’ve been creating consistently high-quality content for a long time.

10. Participate.

After his presentation at BlogWorld Expo, Muhammad Saleem tweeted, “You’re not living in a vacuum. It’s the ‘participatory web’. Participate.”

What separates spammers from credible people is that spam is a one-off affair (even if they flood a service with thousands of messages). Spam isn’t participation. Real participation is sustained and engaged, creating relationships that endure beyond any specific exchange. If you pop into a forum and dump links to your site in 20 threads, or post your stories to a social media site without ever posting anything else, you look untrustworthy: how can anyone tell you know what you’re talking about if you never display it?

11. Be right – or wrong in interesting ways.

Credibility is all about people relying on you to provide the information that they need, so it’s important to provide correct information. At least for the most part – being wrong in ways that provoke thought, force a reassessment of a situation, or force people to strengthen their own arguments can be just as valuable, or even more valuable, as being right.

12. Pay attention.

Know what’s going on in your field, and express it. Notice when changes are afoot, and show people how to deal with them.

Pay special attention to the needs of your audience. If they are growing, make sure you grow with them. If they express dissatisfaction, fix the source of their concerns. You can be the most knowledgeable person in your field and come across as a mere newbie if you respond to the questions you think people should be asking instead of the ones they actually are asking.

13. Act with professionalism.

There’s plenty of room for random wackiness in every field, but be sure to balance your wackiness with the needs of your audience. Tweets that attack your competitors, flame wars on your favorite forums, email newsletters packed with typos, and all manner of personal foibles can quickly undermine your credibility – even if they’re unrelated to whatever your area of expertise is. A typo in a blog post headline shouldn’t matter – but it does. (Note: having said that, I’ve virtually guaranteed that there will be at least one typo in this post that I don’t catch when I proofread. C’est la vie!)

14. Control your business.

Establish your limits early on and let others decide whether they fit into your limits, not the other way around – don’t try to be all things to all people. Say “no” to favors that don’t fit your purposes, set your rates (for ads, client work, consulting, or whatever) and don’t alter them, avoid softening your positions just to appease your naysayers (that is, in the absence of an honest reappraisal of your position). Don’t alter your path in response to every changing trend or dose of criticism – stick to your guns, especially where your core principles are concerned. People whose opinions change with the tides come across as thought followers, not thought leaders – and followers aren’t credible.

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