Building Audience Trust through Transparency and Honesty with Carmen Guillen

It’s almost cliché now to talk about how trust in the media has fallen to new lows.

We all know it. We all try to do what we can to build an honest and trusting relationship with our audience.

It’s hard to know the exact steps to take though to make it happen.

Communication is the key, and who better to take advice from than a professional communicator?

Carmen Guillen is editor in chief of Unfold Magazine, a digital publication for professional communicators.

She recently sat down for a great interview packed full of insight on the Digital Media Growth Podcast.

If you want some solid advice on how to foster a deep and trusting relationship with your readers, keep reading!

You’ll learn about:

  • How to build a thought leadership brand
  • How a thriving events business and community can grow around a publication
  • The ingredients of a great newsletter (and some cool newsletter recommendations too!)
  • Trust and transparency in modern communication
  • The latest developments in the interplay between tech and publishing
  • The “slow movement” and how it could change media
  • Much, much more

Enjoy!

Can you tell us about who you are and what you do?

I am editor in chief for a magazine called “Unfold”. Unfold is an online magazine for people who work in PR and communications.

I work for a tech company and we work with a lot of comms departments in different brands and they all had an interest in what’s going on in the industry.

They’re all really excited about everything that’s going on, but there wasn’t really a place where we could pool all of our knowledge.

So we started the magazine about six months ago and it has really taken off. We’ve made a little community out of it so that’s where I spend most of my time at work now.

Q: What’s your overall mission for your publishing efforts?

It’s quite interesting because I didn’t have a background in tech. I used to work for NGOs. When I started I was really overwhelmed at how far things had progressed and I realized that it’s impossible for any one person to keep up with the scale of change.

With this project I just wanted to create part of the sharing economy where we shared resources and knowledge as professionals so we could keep on top of all of these changes that are happening — because everyone has their niche, right? Everyone has something that they’re really, really good at.

It’s been a really great insight into what’s going on and we’re helping each other to understand how things are changing because it directly affects us in our work.

AI and different social media platforms are really changing the face of communication. So it was to keep on top of the change mostly and to create a community that was specifically for people that work in PR and comms.

Q: You said a community has developed, what does that community look like? Does it take the form of some kind of membership that you have or are there any specific groups for your community? 

We started doing some events to go along with the release of different issues, and because we’re based in Amsterdam, of course, we did them on a boat. So we’ve had the three different boat events. We’ll have a speaker who will briefly speak about one of the articles and then we’ll just pose a question to the community there so we can talk about it.

The other side is the magazine itself. So people are writing in and submitting the topics or things that they really want to share with their peers that they’re passionate about.

We also have a newsletter where I share things that I’m reading or that people have sent to me. People really are interested in sparking discussion and talking about these kinds of things because it’s exciting but it’s also scary because so much is changing. It’s hard to know which direction to look in.

How did you approach building your initial audience, your initial traffic and getting that initial traction when you first made the decision to launch the brand?

We were lucky because this is a thought leadership platform that’s built on my company. I work for a company called PR.Co and we build PR software and newsrooms for different brands. So we already had a mailing list of different comms departments and we just asked them if they were interested in learning more about the topic. Most of them were.

So we had a core base that were interested and from then on that it’s been mostly word-of-mouth. It’s never easy in the beginning to build an audience.

Online promotion is sometimes like shooting in the dark, but I tend to go for other communities because they’re an easier way to reach your niche. So I love LinkedIn groups, I love Reddit and stuff like that for meeting other like-minded people.

Were the events pre-existing or did they directly grow out of Unfold itself?

They grew out of Unfold itself. Our parent company is The Next Web who are a tech magazine and they had their annual conference. So I thought why not launch the magazine there and invite different people who work in PR and marketing to the boat event and launch our magazine?

So we did it and a bunch of people showed up and they loved it. It’s really interesting to meet someone that has the same job as you; that has the same challenges. They’re really excited to meet each other and just have a chat. It was very informal and they asked if we’d have another one. We hadn’t planned to but we carried on doing it.

As you say it is very interesting to know what other people do in their jobs. So what does a typical day look like for you?

In the morning and I usually start doing a lot of research. I like to know what’s going on in the industry. I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters.

I’m a big newsletter geek because we have a newsletter for Unfold but also we have one for our company. So I spend a large portion of my day doing that.

Then I usually go about chasing up some contributors and reaching out to other people who I think would be interesting as contributors.

Then I probably spend the last part of my day looking into analytics and trying to work out what’s interesting to people, what isn’t interesting to people and how to plan my next issue.

As a newsletter geek, do you have any particularly good ones to recommend to me and our listeners?

My favourite newsletter is Next Draft. That’s great for the news and that guy is so brilliant. His headlines are just fantastic. As well for news The Skimm is really good.

As someone with a background in writing I can say that it’s really hard to make complex things sound conversational. So I don’t know who’s writing for them but they’re very talented.

Also I love Dense Discovery which is a design newsletter. Oh, there is a fantastic one from England called Imperica Web Curios.

As the editor, what does the process look like for coming up with constant content, ideas for the calendar that you know are going to really work? What does the research look like on a practical level that goes into that?

Well, the cool thing is always is to write for your audience because ultimately they’re the ones that are going to be reading the work. So I do a lot of outreach just to ask people what topics they’re actually interested in.

Then I look into online communities and see what people are sharing and see what people are reading and then I write around those topics. So I’ll either invite people who are working in those areas to come and write for us or I’ll write it myself. Sometimes we do interviews also.

But I’m lucky enough now that the publication has gained momentum that people are just actively giving us articles which is great and they’re often very relevant. I’ve been very lucky like that. But if not I might steer them in a direction that’s more relevant.

You also mentioned that you spend a lot of time looking into analytics. What are the most important analytics or KPIs or data points that you track for measuring your success?

Well, things like page views we don’t really look at so much. The number of subscribers is important to us because that something active that people have done and some active sharing as well is important.

I just like to look at the content itself where people drop off, where they’ve dwelled, what are the most read content pieces and why — things like that.

Another question on the newsletters, as somebody who’s so into newsletters and writes them yourself, what do you think are the most important considerations to someone who’s just starting up with their own newsletter? What’s the anatomy of a really great newsletter?

Well, firstly it has to be clear, very clearly laid out, very consistent, very easy to skim the information – people don’t have much time! They often read things at work.

Even I sometimes won’t have time for my favourite newsletter some weeks. So I’ll skim and look for the most interesting stories and click on those. I didn’t work in B2B before and I assumed that because it was business you have to be very formal and stuffy – but that’s just not the case.

Business people are still human and they still like a human voice. So I think one of the things that people really trip up on is they’re just too boring.

It’s good to have a sense of humor and it’s good to be conversational. In a way that’s not trying too hard but definitely if you can keep that human tone then people will find it more interesting and they’ll want to read.

Everybody in the industry knows now that trust is becoming a huge issue. Trust is falling in news. Why did this happen? 

That is indeed one of my favourite topics, and it seems a bit cliché at this point because the topic of trust comes up in marketing conferences all the time. But with good reason, because there was a point in the 80s when they had this dog eats dog approach to business where you would just feed some kind of marketing strategy to your audience and expect them to take it.

But the silver lining of this kind of culture was that consumers became really savvy, able to spot persuasion techniques from a mile away and just stopped taking BS. So you have to be better and you have to be more trustworthy, to step up and become more ethical and transparent.

What are the key ingredients in reversing this and creating more trust?

There are different ways of gaining trust and you have to do all these things if you’re going to be trustworthy. It’s a work in progress because now you can drop the ball and then your consumers will not trust you anymore.

You can see different scandals that come up with Facebook etc where they may have been building trust for a while and then they did one thing and they ruined it. So it’s an ongoing battle.

There’s a really great talk by Frances Frei on Ted about how to gain trust. She worked for Uber for a bit when she was working on this.

Firstly there needs to be logical rigour to your argument. So you have to make sure that what you’re saying to people makes sense, is logical, and that you’re presenting ideas that resonate with people. So that’s one — you’re not bullshitting.

The other thing is transparency. So many people hide what they’re doing in business. If you make a mistake, for example, and you try and cover it up then people can smell that from a mile up.

So to be transparent, to say ‘we messed up here, this is what we’re doing to make it right’ and apologize, that’s great because people make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes but to be able to own up for it and take responsibility for the choices that you made in the past is a way of being trustworthy.

In general, just being more human because businesses are human which is something that people forget. You can look at a business in a way to make it some kind of strange entity that’s very nefarious and out to get you. But at the end of the day, businesses are these organic entities that are full people, full of humans with real emotions, real value systems, real opinions and you should really harness that.

You should really show this human side of your companies if you want to be trusted because human beings trust other human beings. If you are too corporate and too kind of jargony then people are going to switch off.

Also be mindful of the language that you use because language is so nuanced and there are a lot of people that you could exclude with the language that you use.

So you should really listen to your audience and if one of them calls you up on a term that you were using then you should also apologize and use something that’s a bit more inclusive.

As somebody who’s in the publishing industry and also who’s very involved with tech, what developments are happening at the moment that you’re excited about in tech and are there any that you think are going to have a big impact on the publishing industry?

Well, our mother company, The Next Web have made a bot which writes articles for them but they probably need to clean them up quite a bit. There was a big feature last week – the bot’s article was the best performing out of all of the journalists! So it rattled them a bit. So, for sure, content can be written by AI and that’s slightly worrying. Of course, I think it will always go hand in hand with real journalists. Maybe they can do more factual things and then other journalists can go more in-depth and with some kind of historical perspective. But that’s one that really blows my mind.

Another I just wrote an article about is the nascent field of neuromarketing which I didn’t really know anything about before. All marketing seeks to change human behavior in some way, but neuromarketing now that the tech has developed to make it more precise raises some ethical concerns.

Neuromarketing is basically using the principles or techniques of neurology and applying it to marketing. You can understand people’s emotional response to marketing stimuli and you can change your product or campaign to be more consumer-friendly. They use different techniques. There are eye-tracking technologies. You can see points of gaze, the duration of gaze, where they drop off or they get bored.

Others are using fMRI to look at the blood flow in the brain. That corresponds with neural activation, so you can see how people are responding to different pictures for example.

Another one is EEG where they use imaging to look at electrical impulses in the brain. So all of these things you can see mostly in real-time how people are having an emotional response to different things.

The really interesting thing about this is that people tend to misreport their true feelings. You can have someone in a market study and they would say ‘oh, yes, I feel this way about the product’ but in their real heart, they feel something different. Because of social realities, they will slightly change. Even self-reporting on a survey that you give them, they might slightly misreport their true feelings. So neuromarketing can reveal hidden thoughts and preferences.

Also I don’t know if you saw the story with Elon Musk where he’s building this Neuralink technology where he’s making a brain-machine interface.

So this is threads that go into the brain so that we can merge with AI. The technology has got quite far. The idea was to help people with prosthetic limbs and such but now he’s thinking it will be a more efficient way of using machines. Facebook are also looking into some kind of brain-machine interface where they can now basically read minds. They can discern words from thoughts which is really scary but potentially great depending on how it’s used. So it’s not so far-fetched that in the future we’re going to merge with technology. Therefore, companies are always collecting data from us. If we have the capacity to read people’s thoughts and we’re trying to gather data about marketing activities, then there are some real ethical considerations that are coming up now. I think if we work in marketing and PR and advertising, we wear the dual hats of being both a consumer and someone that works in this.

So we have concerns from both sides and there are questions that need to be answered. If you are consumer, I guess the question is how would you want your data to be used? And as a marketer, can you give a good response to a consumer if they question you about ethics?

Suffice to say that technology is moving extremely quickly and we are thinking of more efficient and effective ways of reaching and communicating with people, but there is a point where it’s obtrusive. So it’s hard to know. Now everybody is going to have to build some kind of parameters as this technology is being introduced to work out how far is a company they’re willing to go and how transparent they want to be. These are questions that we really need to start considering already because the technology will be here within the next 20 years and human beings have this capacity to develop technology and adopt it immediately without thinking about the ramifications. So I think with this particular thing, we definitely need to sit down and just try and work out how we feel about this, have some kind of code of ethics.

I find that in equal parts fascinating and terrifying. When you research and write these kinds of articles – do the concepts start to inform your own work tactically or strategically?

Oh, absolutely, and I’m very lucky because as I said, I have a background in NGOs. So when I arrived at the job, I didn’t know so much about marketing as a discipline. Then, of course, my learning has just skyrocketed because I’m speaking to the great minds of marketing in my job. So I’m learning how to do things all the time and that’s fantastic. But also, I think as a company, we have a very strong personality.

It’s in our DNA to be a bit rebellious and we have always been concerned with things like ethics and trust and we’ve been very opinionated about it.

So I guess that does kind of inform the areas that I like to research. It’s been actually a really good fit.

I read a very interesting article that you wrote earlier. You were talking about the slow movement. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Now, we live in a world that’s just full of frenzy. We’re overwhelmed by choice. We’re overwhelmed by information and as a reaction to that, the slow movement was born, and you can see this in different industries. So we have things like slow travel where instead of going backpacking and seeing country through a bus window people are actually going to a country, they’re renting a house and they’re staying there for a month and they’re slowly getting to know the culture. We have slow education where you have time to teach children about perspective and a bit of emotional intelligence and to look at a topic and how it changes over time. You have slow food where you grow the vegetables yourself and the eating is slow and intentional and the communities are helping each other with the growing of food.

There are all sorts of areas where people are just trying to slow down and be a bit more mindful. Probably, the most obvious one of that is meditation. I remember when I first spoke about it people would raise an eyebrow. Now nearly everyone in my building if you walk past the call booth you can see someone with a headband meditating.

In terms of publishing, it’s really positive. Because of this fast new cycle that we have stories don’t get reported properly. Things like slow journalism you can visit a story month later and see what happened, have time to look at the historical context of what has happened with that story and be able to project into the future in a much more accurate way because you’ve followed this story from start to finish.

Some stories never really end. So there are a lot of slow journalism outlets that are looking at this kind of slow reporting. We subscribed to a magazine in the office called “Delayed gratification” which we really like which is just quarterly. They look in-depth into different stories.

There’s another one in the UK called “The Tortoise” which I’m not sure if they’ve launched yet. Yeah, people have a need to slow down because they’re overwhelmed. I think they miss that kind of in-depth reporting and storytelling because storytelling and journalism really is an art and it’s a pleasure to read and it’s also really informative and people do want to be informed.

So yeah, it’s a great thing and it’s really taking off and I think that’s because there’s a need with people to do things in a more mindful deliberate way.

What excites you the most about your work?

I like to learn new ideas and there’s an abundance of ideas in tech. The thing about being in a tech hub, working in a tech company is it’s not just tech-focused. Tech is just a means to make different industries more efficient. If you dive into the tech industry, you can find people from a wealth of backgrounds that are just really passionate about a specific thing.

It’s been great to go and discover industries that I didn’t even know existed or problem-solving for problems that I didn’t know existed; really clever innovative solutions that really bright people have.

So yeah, it’s nice to discover these different things and to meet these really bright and interesting people because I’m interested in other people that work in comms because I’m a professional communicator as well. People that work in comms, of course, are very good communicators. So it’s a pleasure to speak to them.

It excites me to meet other fellow communicators. I absolutely love meeting people, connecting ideas, and learning about what the future holds.

As a professional communicator and someone in the space, what are two key pieces of advice that you might give to somebody that’s at the early stages of starting up a niche publishing outlet or some kind of journalism startup?

I would definitely say connect with other people who are doing something similar.

I’ve been lucky enough to be put in contact with other people that are starting thought leadership blogs, some on the same road as me, others who are further along and it’s great to connect with them because you can share notes on what you’re doing.

Having a clear structure and sticking to it every week. It’s something people might find that easy but that’s something that I find challenging — keep it human and keep it interesting, have a sense of humor.

Are there any particular tools or methods you use to help you stay organized?

I work for a startup, so we have a very specific way of planning our week with Sprint Planning. It’s a brilliant system. I haven’t had it in the workplace before but it makes everyone accountable.

It’s very clear what all the tasks are at the beginning of the week – you cross them off. You can see where blockers are, you can help each other out in the team. So I use that system myself. But for sure, there are tools like Trello to do this which are great.

We also use Notion. I use that for my magazine to organize everything and it’s fantastic. You can upload documents, you can mess with things — it is like everything in one. That’s the wonderful thing about technology is they just save you so much time.

You didn’t realize you were wasting so much time in Excel and things like this until you have a tool that’s much more efficient and it frees up time to do the things you’re actually interested in like writing stories or talking to people. So I’m very grateful for all of those tools that we have.

Are there any resources — any books, podcasts, blogs, courses — that you would recommend to me and our audience if we want to learn more about the topics we’ve discussed today?

Our niche — because we work in PR and marketing — is PR and marketing.  I recently interviewed Iliyana Stareva from HubSpot. She wrote a book called ‘Inbound PR’ and that’s fantastic. It’s very practical. It’s very modern. It’s how to make sure that journalists are contacting you rather than you having to chase after them and that’s just a very human book. I think she’s moved on now to Cisco, I believe, but I really like her.

I’m going to do a shameless plug here and say that my company PR.Co have a book called “Purpose” about how the PR industry has changed; how things used to be.

Bad PR where people were spamming and corporate spin and how we’ve moved on to a new more fluid way of communicating with each other that’s much more personal and actually builds relationships. It’s based on research and that’s how you build strong relationships with other people in the media. I read that when I started and I found it incredibly helpful. But as I said, very biased.


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