8 min read

The Communications Protocol and Trust theory: Building long-term value in your business.

To build long-term value through communications, businesses must define a structure of protocols aimed at delivering long-term trust with its audience.


Hey. It's Wil.

I write about the intersection of communications and technology, especially for those looking to build new ways to communicate with their B2B clients. Thanks for being here.

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After a visit to our state's capital last Wednesday, I took a few extra days off around the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Since we didn't travel during the holidays and I hadn't had a chance to take a break in a few months, I thought this would be a good time to catch up some reading and thinking.

And that reading and thinking was focused on longevity. Whether through conceptual ideas like the Lindy Effect or Meta's struggles with its value or today's ongoing discussions about the future of the web, I kept coming back to two topics:

  • Protocols
  • Trust

A few definitions to help guide this discussion...

  • Protocol: A system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations
  • Trust: Belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.

Protocols

When it comes to business communications and technology, we likely have a more specific and technical definition of protocols like IP, SMTP and TCP. These are internet or networking protocols that define how communications are created, sent, delivered and consumed.

If we expand this technology protocol definition to a more general use of communications, we can start to define a framework for our own business messaging.

I generally like to think of things in threes, including how a business communications protocol might include the following three ingredients:

  1. Audience
  2. Message
  3. Outcome

In other words, if a business wants to communicate something, these three ingredients must be included. All three aren't needed for us to successfully communicate, however all three must be included in our thinking.

For instance, maybe we don't know the message quite yet, however we know who we want to get the message in front of (the audience) and we know what we want that audience to do with that message (the outcome). That gives us enough ingredients to deliver a compelling message.

The same goes if we haven't defined the audience or the outcome yet the other two ingredients are defined.

Mix and match as needed.

This give us the groundwork of a communications protocol. If we don't have two of three ingredients, there likely is no message to communicate. We're simply adding noise to an already noisy environment.

If we think about this approach in the long-term, the businesses we represent can look back over time with faith and comfort that our messaging was focused on consistently delivering value for our audience.

And that consistency builds itself into trust.

Trust

This is the more tricky part of the two. Let's look back at the definition of trust:

Belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.

That can be a very subjective definition. One person's belief is certainly different than another's.

Yet, from a business perspective, this 'one person' is our audience. Our prospect. Our client.

And while it will be much more difficult to earn the trust of someone who has our opposite beliefs, there are many others that do share our beliefs.

This audience that shares in our beliefs can be considered our target audience. Our niche. Our 1,000 true fans.

That doesn't make it any less difficult to build trust with those who believe in us. In fact, it might even make it more diffciult.

Given the belief of these 1,000 true fans, any early slip up without the proper communications protocol in place can damage our mission, our brand and our effort in both the short-term and long-term.

A February 2019 HBR article titled The 3 Elements of Trust describes consistency as a key foundation to trust:

The final element of trust is the extent to which leaders walk their talk and do what they say they will do.

While this article might explain trust in the eyes of the individual leader, these principles can be found in trustworthy organizations, too.

The Communications Protocol and Trust theory

These two topics–protocols and trust–together can be referenced as the Communications Protocol and Trust theory:

To build long-term value through communications, businesses must define a structure of protocols aimed at delivering long-term trust with its audience.

How does this theory relate to business communications and technology?

Let's start with the Lindy Law:

The origin of the term can be traced to Albert Goldman and a 1964 article he had written in The New Republic titled "Lindy's Law".[6] The term Lindy refers to Lindy's delicatessen in New York, where comedians "foregather every night at Lindy's, where ... they conduct post-mortems on recent show business 'action'". In this article, Goldman describes a folkloric belief among New York City media observers that the amount of material comedians have is constant, and therefore, the frequency of output predicts how long their series will last...

In more current times, the Lindy Effect resembles:

Lindy is not Luddism: Mr. Skallas is an avid social media user, after all. Rather, he scours the ancient world for applicable nuggets of what he calls “useful tradition,” using the Lindy Effect’s heuristic of older is better as a “bulwark against consumerism,” to sift through the “tons of products coming out every day.”

The thought is to look back on those items that have lasted for more than 500 years (400 years in the case of coffee) to better understand what the future looks like. If it's lasted for more than 500 years, it must be closer to being true over the next 500 years.

Instead of thinking about web3 and NFTs and the blockchain in today's or tomorrow's terms, what if we based all that thinking and discussion on how we arrived here? Over the last 500 years?

Let's take Meta Platforms, Inc. as an example.

Originally beginning as TheFacebook, Inc. in 2004, Meta's focus was:

Thefacebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges.

If we apply the Communications Protocol and Trust theory to its original focus, we start to see their messaging protocol ingredients being put into place:

  • Audience: Colleges and their constituents
  • Message: TBD
  • Outcome: Connecting people

That missing message ingredient has become their achilles heel over the last decade. The company has gone from positioning itself as an online directory that connects people to being described as:

Facebook has long had a wildly antagonistic relationship with both the influencers and media companies that rely on it, constantly shifting the ground beneath their feet to stay ahead of the unfathomable amount of content spam that builds up around any meme or trend.

The company's messaging protocol foundation has cracked under time and pressure. There is no Lindy Effect.

  • Audience: No longer just colleges and their constituents
  • Message: Still TBD; Their We run ads comment further confuses their message
  • Outcome: Connecting people remains a Lindy Effect in communications

Without the proper communications protocols in place, Meta has and will continue to struggle with consumer and business trust.

How do businesses better communicate with their audiences?

I think a lot about this tweet:

If we take people, or our audience, as the main focus of our communications, then the rest falls into place. Both in the near-term and in the longer-term.

The Economist is an example of an organization applying and adjusting the Communications Protocol and Trust theory over nearly two centuries.

This tweet thread does a great job of highlighting this impact:

The Economist built its reputation on balanced, factual reporting, and importantly: volume.

The print edition goes out weekly, and each issue contains ~75 articles.

With so much to read, subscribers regularly ended up with stacks of unread issues on the coffee table.

The thread continues to provide examples of how The Economist turned their weekly print edition with ~75 articles into a daily 10-minute read on a digital platform, while continuing to stay true to its 'factual reporting' promise.

The Economist's Communications Protocol and Trust theory in action:

  • Protocol: A digital version consisting of no more than 10 minutes worth of the the top articles published by The Economist
  • Trust: Weekly print articles + daily 10-minute reads within the organizaton's mobile app

These decisions, in the near-term and especially for the long-term, aren't easy.

Take a recent thread from Aaron Levie with Box. He starts off with this:

We've likely all experienced this within our business.

Internal discussions and decisions based on how near-term opportunities align with our longer-term goals.

I remember a time with Atlassian when we hadn't made the shift to the cloud yet. There were lots of discussions about control, security, experience, etc. and what that shift would do to how we communicate these discussions to our audiences–both internal and external.

While the rest is (a very successful) history, putting the audience first and relating back to a fundamental framework of building long-term trust made the decision a little easier.


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