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How Hannibal Lecter holds the answer to building trust online

Building trust online is a complex procedure, especially given how noisy the web is, so could Hannibal Lecter hold the answer? Of course he could.

Trust, social media, and Hannibal Lecter

One of my favorite films – ever – is the Silence of the Lambs. I believe that it’s one of those movies that has an answer for many a sticky situation if you listen and watch carefully. What has brought this to mind lately is the elevated level of spam I’ve seen in Twitter.

My favorite is the form in which people send you an @ mention, instructing you to click a link, tell a friend, buy a product. It confounds me that it’s not obvious to those people why this method doesn’t work. Most of the time, I just block it and report it as spam.

Every now and again, if I see signs of intelligent life, I’ll try to help. I might say “I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”

A means to an end that eventually leads me to suggest to the other party that just as they sometimes opt out of buying from an unfamiliar site because no other trusted source is involved (like Amazon, KikScore or Google Checkout), neither would I click a link sent to me by a stranger.

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For all I know, that link is from a hacker and could lead to some kind of virus or worm. Nor will I pass along messages that I don’t trust.

Trust is so important to online transactions – we need to know that the other party is somehow bound to uphold their end of the bargain. Just as in love, we’ve all been burned at least once. And it makes us more cautious. Also, most of the time the people I meet in social media who chose the road of spam have already made up their minds that what they’re doing is NOT spam.

Further, they think this is their best way forward. It’s better to them to get 1 in 1000 to click, and one in 10,000 to buy with no effort, than it is to take a bit of time to build trust, even if it increases results a hundred fold. Logic tells me I shouldn’t waste my time then. I don’t know why I still chose to – I suppose it’s an amusing past time.

Anyway. The real story here is you, trust in social media, and what you can learn from my weird obsession with this film. None of us here are spammers or we wouldn’t read AGBeat. But we do want to build trust because we know how important it is to making a sale, particularly one online. So how do we get there from here, and can we use social media to help?

Our unlikely hero, Hannibal Lecter, has the answer.

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Well, at least he has an answer.

“If I help you, Clarice…”

In one scene, Hannibal breaks down the fact that trust – and even help- is to be earned, just like in social media. He says, “If I help you, Clarice, it will be “turns” with us too. …. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself.”

Isn’t that the way it is in social media? We can’t just throw information at each other, or it’s not social. We must form relationships, interact. Do we expect to become best friends? No. But aren’t you more likely to do things for acquaintances and peers than you are for strangers?

So the first lesson is to avoid just parroting a bunch of links – get to know people. They’ll trust you more.

Don’t know how? Try sharing something about yourself. It doesn’t have to be your greatest fear or something private. Your name. An interest. Where your office is.

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These little tidbits that make us a bit more comfortable than dealing with an anonymous handle, something we can track if something goes wrong – these are the things we seek in our social media interactions.

“Quid Pro Quo, Clarice”

In this same exchange, Hannibal ends his speech with the phrase “Quid pro quo. Yes or no?” Quid pro quo is a latin term that refers to the exchange for something of value in exchange for something else of equal value. Yes, we just talked about value exchange, but this is from another angle.

See, the thing about exchanging information in social media that frustrates so many people is that the thing they give isn’t necessarily the thing they get back. And to make things more complex, whatever they do get back is often not from the source they gave to at the time.

You might share someone’s link to a great article they wrote. But if you expect that the person whose article you shared is going to automatically share yours when you write something, you may find yourself seriously stressed in a short amount of time. They may not see your article. They may not be on at the time yours goes out. Or they’ll see it and don’t like it. Or they like it but it doesn’t fall into the category of things they share with their audience.

Maybe they don’t consider you part of their community, and that’s where they focus their assistance. It may be as simple as the fact that they’re waiting for you to ask.

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Social media mimics life in that it’s not an exact reciprocal exchange of energy. So you have to give when you believe, do your best work and make the types of connections most likely to want to tell the world about you. And make sure you thank the heck out of them when they do. Seriously. Thank them until they tell you to shut up.

That’s the second lesson – you can’t control or predict how your returns will come. But you can measure them, guess where they’ll be most likely to re-occur, and help the process along as much as you can without being annoying.

“Tell Me About It and Don’t Lie – Or I’ll Know”

The third thing I learned about social media from Hannibal Lecter is the importance of more transparency. Not necessarily total transparency. But more is good. It used to seriously confound me – how would Hannibal know if Clarice was making up stuff to tell him? Eventually I came to the conclusion that was simplest: because he’s not an idiot.

Your customers aren’t either. While I’m aware that my clients come to me because they don’t have the same insights in my area of experience, I assume that in general, they’re smarter than me. Saves me a lot of time.

Your customers are probably smarter than you are too, or at least smarter than you give them credit for – i.e. they can tell if you blow smoke. They may not know exactly how to tell if they’re being overcharged, but they know who to ask to help them comparison shop.

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And even if they weren’t that bright, assuming that in this fundamental BS-detector way that they’ll know if you’re full of it is worth the time and money you’d expend assuming otherwise.

When you were a kid, you knew when that “we’ll see” meant “probably not”. Your customers have to be at least that smart if they’re smart enough to buy from you, right?

Level with your customers, especially if they use social media to communicate with you. As fast as they can use it to praise you is about half the speed it can be used to take you down a peg if you treat them like they’re dumb. Even unintentionally. Just ask Netflix.

“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity.”

Sometimes Hannibal likes to make Clarice come to the correct conclusion herself. Almost like a teacher, he wants her to learn and grow. And with the vanity of many a mastermind criminal, he wants to be the one who taught her.

At one point, he’s attempting to get her to understand why the person she wants to catch kills people, and he says: “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?”

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This is of particular fascination to me because I believe that the best success in marketing comes from starting off with the right target audience. In my own blog, I sometimes write for my peers when I should be writing for my customers. (Or changing my customer group to include my peers, but that’s another story.)

Ponder that question in your own search for more customers, or more repeat business – what does the person you are seeking do? Who is she? What does he like to do when he’s online? Is she having a baby soon? Is he about to propose marriage?

How would either of those events impact how they behave in relation to buying your product? Would it matter at all? Could it help you find where they hang out?

Take some time to develop a detailed profile of who your perfect customers and clients are. If you can nail down who they are, you can figure out where they go online. Then. You could be there when they arrive.

These are just a few things I’ve learned from Hannibal Lecter, and I suppose learning social media insights from a movie that came out before the web is a bit “out there.” But perhaps popular culture can teach us many things about the way this new world is shaping around us. Mainstream or popular, books, film or music, the art we consume matters. It’s all about what we do with what we absorb.

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Written By

Tinu Abayomi-Paul is the CEO of Leveraged Promotion and a member of Network Solutions Social web Advisory Board. Her website promotion company specializes in reputation management, and engineering demand generation system for businesses, integrating search, expertise marketing and social media.



  1. Valerie Keener

    November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Loved it. Tom Hanks in "You've Got Mail" said that The Godfather was the iChing for advice. This is a great comparison!

  2. Tinu Abayomi-Paul

    November 4, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Hi Valerie,

    Thanks so much I appreciate that. Have learned a lot from film, books and music – usually something way different than what was intended. 🙂

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