Today, I spoke to Julien Smith, who is the New York Times bestselling co-author of Trust Agents, with Chris Brogan, and one of the first podcasters.  Julien talks to us about what a trust agent is, why it’s important in the online world, and then gives some examples of trust agents.  He also explains how you can build an online following and what he learned while writing his book with Chris.

What is a “trust agent,” did this title always exist and why is it important in the digital age?

I consider trust agents to be a new phenomenon— only recently have people been able to take control of channels by themselves, get known worldwide by being a part of a wider conversation, etc. We often point to people like Oprah in the book as being pre-web examples of trust agents, but the more we go on, the less these people will need to have huge audiences to do a great job at building influence– it’ll be more about connecting to a specific niche (or tribe, as Seth Godin would say).

It’s important for these people to exist now because there is a huge trust deficit in our society due to the massive number of marketing messages we receive and yet, paradoxically, there will always be room for a message from people that we personally have confidence in. Therefore, the trick is to become one of the people your audience stops when they see a message from, going “I need to read that.”

Can you name a few trust agents that have created loyal followings and have succeeded in business?

Oprah, John Stewart, and Gary Vaynerchuk are good examples, but you don’t need huge following to be a trust agent– you just need to be good at influencing particular communities. So D&D enthusiasts need people that understand that culture and car nerds need someone from that culture, too. They don’t need to be household names to be powerful, and that’s why it’s so important to have one on your side.

How can employees become trust agents to support their companies?

You need to have an honest dialogue with your audience first. From high up in our office buildings we tend to consider *the message* we’ll be delivering to our audiences without first thinking whether they’ll even believe what we say. As we say in the book, humans have sophisticated BS detectors and if you’re not being real with us, we’ll know about it. Google keeping everything we say online doesn’t help, either. You’ll be figured out eventually.

What are your top ways to build a following online?

Realizing that there is no one formula that will help you— any formula that exists means you’ll be copying someone else, and as such, trailing behind them. Those that successfully make their own game tend to transform the space they’re in and, as a result, make themselves into the status quo of their niche. Think Tim Ferriss and “lifestyle design” — titling himself with something new puts him in a whole new category.

What did you learn about yourself as you wrote Trust Agents?

More than anything, I’d say that Chris and I learned to have utter confidence in each other. We had a good relationship beforehand, but now, it’s extremely tight and we know we have each other’s back. You need people like that– a kind of mastermind group, people that are on your side no matter what. Nobody can do this alone– in fact, that’s kind of the point. Even if you make it, it’s lonely up there all by yourself.

Julien Smith is a 26 year old designer, entrepreneur, student, and podcaster. Julien is the New York Times bestselling co-author, with Chris Brogan, of Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust (Wiley). He lives in the Plateau area of Montréal, where he is frequent far too many web cafés. Montréal is also the city where he was brought up and have lived his entire life. Julien has been podcasting since November of 2004. He is one of the first podcasters in Canada, and definitely the first in Quebec and Montreal. His podcast started on a whim, to connect with people through this new medium as it developed. As it expanded, the world of podcasting as a medium quickly enveloped him. He found myself devoting a great deal of time and energy to learning about the broadcasting medium, and now he focuses a majority of his work hours on podcasting, blogging, and their related mediums, both as a consultant for companies and for himself. His work has been written up in Hour magazine, La Presse, the Montreal Gazette, the CBC, among other publications.