Attention vs.Trust: Which Should Content Marketers Prioritize?


If you had to pick the impact your content on a potential customer, would you choose:

  • Deeper trust but quickly fading attention and recall or
  • Fixed attention and great recall but minimal, if any, trust?

Now, I know you want both, but in this exercise, you can have only one.

You may say you can’t have one without the other. You might argue, “If I don’t trust it, I’m not going to pay attention, and I’m not paying attention if it’s something I don’t trust.”

Yet, you do both independently all the time.

In 2019, as part of Edelman’s yearly research on trust, it found only one in three (34%) consumers say they trust most of the brands they buy or use. In other words, people always buy stuff from brands they don’t trust. This finding amazes me because of how important trust is to the modern purchasing decision.

It starts to make sense when you think about it. I can tell you about the last email I received from a credit card company that I use. It was this morning. I read the email and scoffed at their attempt to upsell me a new type of card. The brand had my attention, and I recalled the message, but I didn’t care or trust enough to even think about acting on the offer. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop using the credit card.

In comparison, I do my banking with USAA. I deeply trust that brand, but I can’t tell you the last marketing email I received from them. When I searched to find out, I realized I get one just about every day. I just don’t remember.

“May I have your attention?” and “Do I have your trust?” are two different questions — and yet many marketers still conflate and correlate one with the other.

More engagement is not deeper trust

When you grab a consumer’s attention, you tend to measure that time as a proxy for trust. The more time spent with the content, the deeper the trust in the content or brand. Of course, that just isn’t true. In fact, researchers have found as “trust increases, attention decreases (in proportion).”

It makes perfect sense. As people feel more safe and secure in a probable outcome, they need to pay less attention to the actual material. Their guard goes down, and their openness to the new or uncertain thing goes up. Think about when your best friend suggests something new, you immediately say to yourself, “Yes, I trust you implicitly,” without asking for justification or reasons to believe.

Author Stephen Covey calls that concept The Speed of Trust in his book of the same name. As he writes:

(N)othing is as fast as the speed of trust … In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.

The speed of trust in deepening and widening relationships with customers is incredibly important. It’s precious and can be broken quickly. As marketers, you must focus on making every communication trustworthy, many times to the sacrifice of garnering attention.

One quick example. I commonly see ads and content on social media for competing products of a website I just visited. The headline commonly contains some eye-popping statistic inches away from being a lie. It gets my attention. But as soon as I read it, I mistrust the content. I might even click on the link to see how ridiculous it is. And, funny enough, I might even share it with a friend with a note saying, “Look how ridiculous this is.” Put simply, the content got my attention but spoiled it by failing to develop a moment of trust and truth.

What are moments of truth?

You may have heard about the moments of truth in the buying process. Made famous by P&G in the early 2000s, moments of truth represent the times when customers make an important determination:

  • First moment — the customer is confronted with the choice of which product to purchase
  • Second moment — the customer uses the product and has a good or bad experience
  • Third moment — the customer makes the choice to provide feedback/reaction about the experience.

Around 2011, Google introduced the zero moment of truth — when a person grabs a laptop, mobile phone, or other device to learn about a product or service they’re considering trying or buying.

These moment frameworks help you think about messaging. However, no single moment of truth exists for any of those human-made purchasing decisions. Depending upon the context of the consumer’s question and the desired product or service, hundreds or thousands of moments of trust influence how (or if) there is a single moment of truth.

To satisfy any moment of truth, marketers attempt to target messaging in earned, owned, and paid media to raise awareness of a provocative question (e.g., How do you get your shirts so clean?) or answer the consumer’s known question (e.g., I get my clothes clean by washing them in XYZ soap).

But the consumer’s level of acceptance — or skepticism — to the question and the answer depends on their level of trust in the brand. And trust is cumulative, not based on any one moment.

Bankable trust through content

Trust is your goal as a content marketer. Wherever the moment of truth falls on the customer journey, you want the fastest and deepest acceptance of your proposition. Your main job for your business is to spend less on attention and receive more intuitive action that may occur far away from the content you create for that moment of truth.

Think about it. Why have marketers historically advertised in one publication over another? The simple but incomplete answer is that’s where the target audience is. But the more important reason a marketer chooses one media brand over another is because of the trust their audience places in that media brand. You want some of that same halo around your brand.

You now live in a world where you cannot only create that trust yourself but also where you must create that trust. Edelman’s Trust Barometer research demonstrates that media brands are more distrustful than marketing. To varying degrees, you can no longer depend on the media to create that familiarity and trust for your brand.

Every digital experience you create should not only reflect your focus on winning a moment of truth — where the customer is paying attention — but in deepening the trust gained (or regained) in every step that precedes or follows it.

How do you do that?

3 elements of trust in delivered content

You can look to three elements in an approach to build this trust and familiarity with your audiences:

1. Risk appropriate

Trust is proportional to the risk taken. You should gauge what you ask in relation to the perceived risk the audience could have.

A classic example of this is the decision to gate white papers in a resource center. Attention is high (the visitor wants the asset), but trust is low (the visitor is unsure of what the source will do with their information). The perceived risk leads the visitor to provide bad data.

But if you provide trust elsewhere (e.g., make enough thought leadership ungated elsewhere), the visitor is less unsure of the value they will get in exchange for their information — it becomes an easier decision for them.

We worked with a software company that changed its white paper program after assessing that perceived risk. It made abstracts of the white papers accessible to all. Then, the company implemented a progressive profiling model to ask for information only when needed. At each stage, the company explained why the information was needed and what would happen with it.

Here’s the kicker. Conversions went down by 25%, but the quality and quantity of data within registrations went up by 50% — and the level of trust among its resource center subscribers was high.

2. Recurrence

A big attribute of building trust is creating consistently valuable experiences. It’s not only about developing extraordinary things that are valuable but about the little things that frequently deliver value. You must be familiar to your targeted audience if you want its trust.

In psychology, this is known as the exposure effect. Researchers have found experiment subjects had more trust in people they saw walking down the street than those they didn’t see.

Content marketing is a huge tool in the exposure effect. In one measured example, consumers read a piece of educational content provided by a brand. They were asked about their level of trust in the brand immediately after reading it and one week later. Interestingly, the number of customers who identified the brand as trustworthy seven days later jumped 14% — 9 percentage points greater than their immediate conclusion.

3. Cumulative

Trust is cumulative. It cannot be “built.” Trust deepens only by being continuously trustworthy. The road can be long, depending on the level of trust needed to get all the way to a purchase. Unfortunately, no matter how long the road is, trust can be wiped out at a moment’s notice.

You must move from a touchpoint to a journey mindset.

In a customer-touchpoint mindset, the marketer seeks to satisfy the audience in each interaction with the brand’s content. While this may hold the customer’s attention, each touchpoint does little to deepen trust. To elicit deeper trust, each experience must, ironically, be optimized to be trustworthy — whether or not it garners more attention than the preceding or subsequent experience.

A great example of this is my earlier USAA. I may not recall the email from USAA asking if I needed something from them. However, if I needed something, my trust in the brand means I would be more likely to act on that something with them and move to the next stage of the journey.

A blessing and a curse

So, if you had to answer the impact question I posed at the beginning, I now suspect you would pick trust as the more important objective.

However, I understand that, as marketers, you ideally need to try and do both: Grab someone’s attention with something that demonstrates our trustworthiness. But I want you to think about the many tradeoffs made when you decide how to present your ideas to your audiences. Weighing your content one way or the other is one of the bigger debates I see among marketing teams.

Content marketing is so often measured on the classic attention-grabbing, conversion-focused metrics. You can lose sight of the content’s value in establishing trust that may influence but not necessarily direct audiences to more trusted decision-making.

In other words, that amazing article you wrote demonstrating leadership, delivering extraordinary value, and deepening trust in your brand may be relatively forgotten months later. But months later, when that customer sees an ad for your company and is ready to buy, that influence remains.

It’s an incredibly hard thing to show on a spreadsheet. But it’s still extraordinarily valuable. You can measure its value, but I understand it can be a battle. Still, I say fight on. It’s worth it.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute


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  1. I don’t think the title of your article matches the content lol. Just kidding, mainly because I had some doubts after reading the article.

  2. Thank you for your sharing. I am worried that I lack creative ideas. It is your article that makes me full of hope. Thank you. But, I have a question, can you help me?

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