You can buy leads, but you can’t buy trust: Aligning partner goals to protect your brand

By John King | 3rd June 2019 Paid Social
John King 19 min read
You can buy leads, but you can't buy trust: Aligning partner goals to protect your brand


Buying leads will undoubtedly help your business grow now, but to achieve longevity and a durable brand, performance marketers and business development managers need to earn customer trust, not buy it.


In its first draft, this blog was centred around ‘trust’ and the development of positive relationships with prospective clients and customers.


In the wake of social media data breaches, shady corporate behaviour and the wholesale selling and sharing of sensitive customer data, a climate of consumer distrust had begun to develop. I re-read it time and again and thought“so what? What does this mean for marketers?”


Disclaimer: This post is heavily geared towards marketing and business development folks in the personal injury sector, but if you depend on any kind of referral partner arrangements to complement your business development efforts, you should hopefully be able to pinch some of these concepts and rework them to fit your business.


As I kept writing and re-iterating, I realised that referral partners have a big role to play in the development of consumer trust too, particularly when they ‘own’ more of the customer journey.


Slowly, my draft on ‘trust’ evolved into a blog on partner alignment.


So here goes.


I’ve worked in professional services marketing for the best part of seven years. During that time, lead generation has been a big part of the overall ‘work’.


It’s difficult to loosen the company purse strings to work on the ‘customer experience’ and ‘brand’ as part of your marketing activity unless you’ve already got a hoard of clients knocking down the door to work with you. Very often you need to set up the ‘lead gen machine’ before you’re given the resources to work on marketing more holistically. I’m sure most people will agree, it’s easier to get ‘finance’ to sign off on bigger marketing budgets when the work is already flowing in, because they can see it’s working


This poses a problem.


To get to this stage, you need to build up the volume of new cases and enquiries to a ‘comfortable’ level; it’s not uncommon then for businesses in this position to buy ‘leads’ from complementary businesses, lead generation agencies, independent SEO masters and social media wizards. Often, these leads are bought at the expense of generating the leads in-house. 99% of the time, these methods get good clients through the door, at a knock-down cost without the lead buyer having to invest anything into developing their own marketing capabilities, digital assets or brand – they just maintain a portfolio of lead generators and referrers, and wine and dine them from time to time.


Job’s a good ‘un.


Or is it?


The experienced marketers and the battle-hardened veterans among you will know that this is not a formula for long-term sustainability; and it also produces an unhealthy dependence; what would you do if your lead generating partners vanished overnight, or gave all of their work to a competitor? It’s a risk management nightmare.


At the same time, we must be pragmatic.


If you can bring in leads and new cases from partners at an agreeable cost with little investment of your own time, you’d be daft not to take advantage of the opportunity.



So where does trust come into it?

If you have an eye on the future, you’ll likely be running some in-house marketing initiatives, building inbound marketing programmes, social media lead generation campaigns and more, which are all connected as part of a journey that often features a tasty looking website, leading to a call from a personable and friendly customer service team.


If we’re looking at your marketing work, as far as the prospect is concerned, the journey up until the point of the first phonecall has likely been consistent, branded in a particular way, and communicated with a specific tone of voice that suits your company identity and proposition.


Before any part of your service is delivered, this initial journey builds a level of trust as everything comes across a professional and ‘legit’.


This may not be true if you rely on others to manage parts of (or all of) this journey, i.e your referral partners.



A climate of distrust

Coined in 2011, Google came up with the concept of the ‘Zero Moment of Truth’ (ZMOT) (you can download the ZMOT eBook here) which ultimately points out that in today’s digital age, the majority of users who shop or engage with a product or service online will usually refer to reviews, word of mouth signals, comparisons and specialized communities to get a ‘true’ view of the product or service in question before they ‘buy’– because most companies couldn’t be trusted to be truly honest about what they claimed to deliver and many still aren’t.


At the time, the ZMOT concept was innovative stuff, but as digital platforms, search engines and social media sites have developed, this is now recognised as the norm and some businesses have taken pains to be more honest about what they intend to deliver in a bid to build consumer trust.


The challenge now is that the platforms that once served as ‘beacons of truth’ have come under fire for being quite the opposite. Once considered as places to get helpful views, opinions and answers to product and service specific questions, many of todays big digital brands and publishers have seen themselves become either instruments of misinformation, or dubious actors playing it fast and loose with your personal data.


A skim of the recent headlines show that Trustpilot is still working hard to combat fake and suppressed reviews on its platform [1], and that a Times investigation claims ‘a third of TripAdvisor reviews are fake as cheats buy five stars’[2] The Drum reports that only 4% of people trust what influencers say online [3],while  Amazon are reportedly eavesdropping on your conversations[4] and I’m sure you’re no stranger to the ongoing turmoil faced by Facebook for, well, just about everything; but they’ve recently said that they expect to pay a fine of up to $5 billion in relation to the Federal Trade Commission’s probe into their data practices [5].


It’s not just that the accuracy of views and reviews alone that are being called into question, but also the very ethics and practices of these organisations.


With so many news stories about how large companies are misusing data, knowingly or unknowingly, is it any surprise that consumer trust is said to be at an all-time low?


For Facebook, user confidence in the company plunged by 66% [6], and only now are we starting to see a publicised attempt on their part to do something about it [7].



A dive in consumer trust is an opportunity

Perhaps your thinking: “That’s all great John, but what does that have to do with referral partners, branding or growth?”


An escalating climate of consumer distrust is an opportunity to position yourself as trustworthy and reliable when the vast majority of your competitors won’t have given it a second thought.


With any luck, you’ll be in the camp of businesses who go out of their way to build trust with their clients and prospects, aiming to deliver a high quality of service time after time to build a solid and lasting reputation. This work never stops, and there’s always room to improve, but now more than ever, businesses who pay serious attention to trust and brand building activities will do particularly well.


When the population at large are jaded by the unscrupulous actions of ‘big business’, any company that can form a positive and trusting relationship with the consumer will stand head and shoulders above the rest.


Sadly, while people may ‘quit’ seemingly unscrupulous companies like Facebook, and then take to Twitter to tell everyone about it, the odds are, they’ll come crawling back because, well, what alternatives do they have?

But when it comes to your business, if you come across as untrustworthy or unreliable, the odds are that there are many similar alternatives out there for your prospects to switch to. Any law firm Compliance Officer or COLP will have seen this first-hand when they get the written requests for case files to be shared with new solicitors as part of a case transfer.


If your business needs to generate leads to maintain a healthy sales pipeline; hoping that customers will return after a bad experience isn’t a luxury you have, which is why developing and maintaining consumer trust is so important, particularly in today’s climate.


Enter the referral partners

This is where things get murky.


If you’re driving business and new enquiries through your own brands, campaigns and marketing, you have a lot of control over that journey, what it looks like, and how that experience ‘feels’. So, when it comes to using these touchpoints to build trust, you’re in the driving seat.


Now, when you have referral arrangements in place, those partners will be remarkably focused on delivering your leads at a very low cost in the greatest volume possible. It’s likely that individually, these partners will have a specific skill, be it SEO, a great network, social media advertising or brilliant PPC skills; but few of them will be trained or experienced in brand building, user experience or the development of trust through communication.


It’s not unusual then for referral partners to focus entirely on the acquisition of new prospects, with little regard for their wider ‘customer journey’. They’re getting a lot of customers on the ‘hook’, but there’s no relationship development or communication taking place to help develop that all important rapport.


Through referral partners, you’re no longer in a position to control the first impression, the journey, or the overall customer experience; losing your ability to begin ‘trust-building’ activities from the beginning.


Therein, we invite the development of a chasm between short-term business growth and business (and brand) longevity.


Major social, publishing and shopping platforms provide unprecedented opportunities to engage and build trust with prospects and past customers alike; opportunities that lead generators, marketing agencies and in-house marketing departments the world over can take advantage of. But those same platforms, technologies and methods can break that trust just as quickly – which is why any business that wants to achieve long-term sustainable growth needs to introduce comprehensive and thoughtful controls to regulate referral partner behavior.



You NEED to manage the client’s first impression

I’m confident that if your business deals with referral partners, particularly in the personal injury sector, you’ll have heard all kinds of horror stories from your customer support teams:


  • Referrers telling clients that they’re entitled to compensation from a government scheme
  • Referrers hounding clients and pressuring them to sign up to things and to take further calls
  • And my favourite, referrers telling clients that the service is free (free and ‘no win, no fee’ are not the same thing)


You may have stories of your own, either in law or in other sectors (do share them with me, it’d make great fodder for a future blog!)


But this behavior, no matter how well intended, seeks only to undermine your brand, your reputation and your business.



You can’t buy trust

Through your own marketing and customer service activity, it’s quite likely that you’re earning that trust; but when you’re buying in the work directly through partners, trust in those cases doesn’t necessarily come as part of the deal.


Chris Daly, Chief Executive of CIM wrote in the most recent edition of Catalyst magazine, that ‘Trust must be earned, and not bought’ – and he went on to explain how a brand must deliver on its values consistently and must place the customer at the heart of everything they do in order to earn that trust.


The implication is that if you’re buying your leads, you’ve got very little control over the prospect’s first impressions, experience and the early development of that trust and that relationship, preventing you from delivering against your values consistently. In fact, early problems begin to surface when those leads are being generated in dubious ways, or where they’re mishandled at the first point of contact.


Naturally, the negative connotations associated with that early ‘bad’ experience are tagged on to your brand and before you know it, you’re carrying the weight of hundreds of one star reviews on Google and Trustpilot, even though the reviewers are actually slating the experience served to them by a totally different party.


You can’t buy trust.



Building trust through goal alignment and collaborative partnerships

If we’re being pragmatic, we’ll still want to keep a portfolio of referral partners on-side; but if we’re looking to the future and we want to improve the overall consumer experience, we need to take pains to manage the first point of client contact.


To seek to ‘control’ this first interaction will put you at odds with referrers, the whole reason you work with them is because they’re able to generate these opportunities where you cannot – so don’t do it. Instead, look to measure and help them manage the performance of these interactions with open and honest reporting, sharing and genuine transparency.


As with any multi-party business challenge, it’s often a problem of alignment which is where the opportunity (and our solution) lies.


Lead generators want to get paid. To do that, they need to harvest consumer data in volume, cheaply and quickly. In most cases, conversion rates from ‘lead’ to ‘paying customer’ will be fairly low, so they compensate with volume. To facilitate this work, many will develop ‘rough and ready’ landing pages for data collection, typo littered social ads that often scream “SCAM”, and a funnel that presses the ‘hard sell’ to get that all important lead – usually with little in the way of follow-up or after care.

I’m being flippant, they’re not usually this bad but you get the point.


In all seriousness though, some law firms have been forced to set up an internal departments dedicated to convincing referrer leads to become proper clients. Often, this is because poor first impressions are made by the referrer. These poor first impressions often stem from dodgey sounding promises, unmet expectations, unnecessary pressure or a lack of professionalism. 


I’m not being judgey, the lead generating methods work, in-house marketers could learn a lot from lead generators. But this activity often lacks the polish and professionalism that a creative marketing team can bring.


I have to concede, not all lead generators are like this. I do know a couple of amazing lead generation agencies that produce better work than many in-house marketing teams, but these are the exception rather than the rule.


Now, looking over to the business buying the resulting leads, what should their motivations be?


For those with big ambitions for their brand and an appetite for long-term growth, customer care should be pretty high on the agenda.


Capgemini back in 2017 found that 8 in 10 consumers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience [8], but in spite of that knowledge, at the time, only 3 in 10 were matching their customer’s expectations. From the first point of contact then, the ‘lead buyer’ should be trying to gauge how the prospect felt about the initial interaction – did they get the information they needed? Did they feel that the data they provided would be secure? Was it an easy and painless process? Etc.


The lead buyer shouldn’t be expecting to proofread and check the work of all referrers, as this undermines the whole point in having referrers on board. But, if the targeting and creative used in the referrer’s marketing campaigns are well put together, the company paying for the leads should be expecting higher conversion rates from lead to paying customer (to save their internal teams the trouble and time of wading through time wasters) and the internal marketing team should be looking to capture every marketing touch point along the customer journey so they can build marketing attribution models to inform future marketing investment, activity and budget setting.


If you’re tracking all this stuff, great, you’re already ahead of 95% of most firms; but if you aren’t, you can begin to appreciate how big this gap may already be. Don’t worry though, if you can see the gap widening, I guarantee most other firms in your industry are in the same position as you are, but only those that recognise it can act.


Ideally, you want engaged clients that are already impressed with your brand before your client service team picks up the phone to make that first call. Referrers want to churn through as many people as possible to get their contact details as cheaply as possible, by any legal means necessary.


These objectives couldn’t be more misaligned if you tried.


I expect some of you will have given this paradox some thought, and others will have implemented some controls of their own to better align these activities.


Often, I see financial penalties applied to lead generation work where low conversion rates are ‘rewarded’ with lower fees; prodding the lead generation partner to develop more comprehensive data capture methods and validation capabilities, which is great. But if we’re examining consumer trust, how does this ‘stick’ approach encourage the lead gen partner to create a positive experience that reflects well on your brand?


Often it doesn’t.


So, enter the carrot.



Measure and reward the trust-building performance of your partners

If your ‘commercials’ can bear the strain, I’d advocate for rewarding lead generation partners for providing a positive early experience. You can make this as complicated as you like, but I find it’s often best to keep it simple to begin with.


One method you could use, would be to put together an NPS survey via the likes of Survey Monkey and to automatically have it emailed out to all new leads you receive from your partners (if your partnership agreement allows for it) – once you have a few hundred responses, you can take that average score as a baseline and look to improve from there. It could look something like this:


A sample of NPS scores from a trust-building project


The idea then is to provide a financial incentive to the lead generation partner to work on improving this score.


Developing a better customer experience may improve ‘trust’, but it could have a detrimental effect on lead volume, consequently reducing the lead generators fees, so you need to make this worth their while if you want to reap the lasting brand benefits.


How you do this is up to you, perhaps they’re rewarded for every point of improvement? Perhaps they get paid a fixed bonus for each week that the score stays above a certain threshold, and more so if it improves?


Be mindful that if you take this approach, you’ll want to pair this NPS score with lead conversion rate figures – if the lead volume stays much the same, the NPS score rises, but the conversion rate declines, could your more dubious partners be flooding you with false leads to manipulate this NPS score? This will need some thought.


When you’ve ironed out an attractive incentive, meet with your partners and share the resulting scores with them and discuss the opportunities on both sides to improve on this. Could you improve the overall look and design of the marketing assets used to generate the lead? Could you be less pushy with the tone of voice? Could follow-up times be improved?


Be mindful that this is an opportunity to provide ideas for both sides, and not to outline expected changes.


If a referrer implements one of your ideas and performance declines, should they be penalized for it? I’d say ‘no’.


With most digital marketing communications, some level of A/B testing is often possible. So, if you have an idea for softening the sales-y approach to improve the overall experience, propose that the partner tests their method against a softer tone of voice in their adverts and reports back on the results.


When some ideas have been bounced around, if your partners agree to try out some new approaches, outline a plan including the tasks and responsibilities on both sides to work towards improving on these NPS scores. Continue to auto-email new leads with your NPS survey and review the results every couple of weeks.


As this activity matures, you’ll start to see that each of your lead generating partners will have particular scores and different performance trajectories. Measure them against one another where it makes sense; for those that do incredibly well, what are they doing differently? Can your business learn from their activity? Can these ‘tips’ be shared with your other lead generators? If these insights can be shared, why not put on a ‘partner day’, where you get all your lead generating partners into a plush conference suite, and get your best ones to present their improvements as a case study?


I can’t guarantee that they’ll all be up for it, some will want to keep their ‘secret sauce’ to themselves. But those partners that show a willingness to get involved are well worth hanging onto, or even hiring.



Keep your partners close, but don’t use them as a crutch in place of having your own marketing capability

Most big businesses have affiliate networks and lead generation partnerships in place, and I can see the appeal, you put out a bounty on the outcome you want, and hordes of internet marketers, serial networkers and consultants will go away and deliver you new business without much in the way of an overhead. But this should never be a substitute for having your own marketing capability.


To bridge the emerging divide between short-term business growth and business (brand) longevity, you should have your own marketing function in place to develop a positive consumer experience and to earn that all important ‘trust’ whether that’s through orchestrating your own marketing activity, or by measuring the effectiveness of that conducted by your partners.


Marty Neumeier, in his book The Brand Gap, suggests that someone within the business takes on the role of ‘brand steward’, going so far as to suggest that there ought to be a Chief Brand Officer or CBO [9]. While I’m not personally convinced this needs its own position in the C-suite, the Chief Marketing Officer or equivalent in your business should certainly be asking themselves at every decision point – “will this help or hurt the brand?”, or if they aren’t, to have a direct report who will.


By developing a brand that focusses on creating a great consumer experience, you stand a chance of worming these values into every crevice of the organization from lead generation right the way up to encouraging word of mouth referrals once the experience has been delivered and ‘lived’.


Perhaps then, you can master the art of buying the opportunity to earn customer trust.



Sources and references:

  • [1] Kelion, L. (2019). Trustpilot tackles business review cheats. Available: Last accessed 31st May 2019.
  • [2] Stockill, T. (2018). ‘A third of TripAdvisor reviews are fake’ as cheats buy five stars. Available: Last accessed 31st May 2019.
  • [3] Stewart, R. (2019). only 4% of people trust what influencers say online. Available: Last accessed 31st May 2019.
  • [4] Day, M. Turner, G. and Drozdiak, N (2019). Amazon Workers Are Listening to What You Tell Alexa. Available: Last accessed 2nd May 2019.
  • [5]Abril, D. (2019). Facebook Says it May Be Fined Up to $5 Billion in FTC Privacy Probe. Available: Last accessed 2nd May 2019.
  • [6] Butow, D. (2018). CONSUMER Trust in Facebook has dropped by 66 percent since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Available: Last accessed 2nd May 2019.
  • [7] Murphy, H. (2019). Mark Zuckerberg unveils plans for Facebook’s future. Available: Last accessed 2nd May 2019.
  • [8] Moore, M. (2017). 8 in 10 Consumers willing to pay more for a better customer experience as big business falls short on expectations. Available: Last accessed 3rd May 2019.
  • [9] Neumeier, M (2005). The Brand Gap. United States of America: New Riders. p142-143.
  • [10] Garcia, K. (2018). Loss of Consumer Trust Can Be Costly. Available: Last accessed 3rd May 2019.
  • [11] Greenlow, M. (2019). The effects of data breaches on consumer trust run deeper than you think. Available: Last accessed 3rd May 2019.
  • [12] Joslin, C. (2019). Facebook Needs Your Trust Almost As Much As It Needs Your Data. Available: Last accessed 2nd May 2019.
  • [13] Print Edition. (2017). The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data. Available: Last accessed 24th April 2019.
  • Image credit: Wil Stewart at Unsplash

John King
John King

Director and Founder at Leahy+King, I'm responsible for project delivery, performance management, analysis and delivering (what I hope) is great client service. When I'm not mucking about with new Facebook advertising features and content analysis, you can find me running and complaining about it loudly on Strava.


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