Building Trust Online

(Note: This article was written in 2000. Really. That being said, it's still relevant today. Just a reminder that some things don't change, no matter how the technology does.)

According to Webster's Dictionary, trust is defined as "assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something". Trust is the foundation of all successful relationships. If your business is going to be successful, your customers need to trust you. So, how do we build trust in the Internet age? Let's start with your website. There are a number of ways that your site can increase or decrease trust among your visitors. Design, content, maintenance and follow-up all work hand in hand to create an image of your company. Here's a few thoughts on these items.

Website Design

The layout and design of your website can have a direct impact on people's impressions of your company. The only thing people know about your business is what they see on your website, so you have to make a good impression. There are two sayings in English that are often used to describe the difficulties companies face on the Internet: "It's important to make a good first impression" and "You can't judge a book by its cover". One of these sayings has to be wrong.

The First Impression

When people visit your website, they make a judgement about it (and therefore your business) in the first few seconds. If your site is graphics-heavy, takes a long time to download, doesn't have intuitive navigation, contains broken links, relies heavily on plug-ins that users have to download separately or has other design features that make it difficult for visitors to find the information they're looking for, they will leave. The only impression they will be left with of your business is that you have a crappy website and you will be quickly forgotten.

Content is Still King

The reason people visit websites is because there is something interesting for them to see or do. Whether you're offering advice, providing stock information, cartoons, cool graphics or online games, your site offers content that your visitors are interested in. Creating a great site isn't rocket science; creating content relevant to your target audience is. To do this, you have to know your audience better than they know themselves. You need to have content they relate to and want.

The Content Hook

Imagine how successful the comic strip Dilbert would be if the lead character was a disaffected trash collector instead of a disaffected office worker. Scott Adams has created characters based on our collective experiences of office life and used them to poke fun at the stupid things that happen in the workplace. This is something many of us can relate with. Some of us even have bosses as dumb as Dilbert's. It's funny. Reading Dilbert and enjoying it reinforces our subversive tendencies, lets us know that we're not alone in thinking everyone around us is nuts and of course, we want to read more. It's like a drug. Wouldn't it be great if the content of your site was addictive? It can be, if you know your audience's needs and meet or exceed them on a regular basis. If you demonstrate to your site's visitors that you know what they want and consistently deliver it, their trust of your site and your company will grow by leaps and bounds.

Keep it Current

Last year, I wanted to get a new pair of glasses. Being the Internet nut that I am, I went surfing. I found several local optometrists but one site really caught my attention. It had a two for one special advertised on the site, which expired on Valentine's Day, 1998. Needless to say, I didn't go there. It wasn't because I thought their prices were too high. It was because I didn't think they cared enough about their image. If they didn't care about theirs, they probably wouldn't care too much about mine either. I just didn't trust them. My first impression was negative and I wasn't motivated to contact them at all.

Outdated content on your site indicates that you don't have anything new to offer visitors. Change is inevitable. Your website needs to show that your business is keeping up with the changes in your industry or even better, that you're leading those changes to make things better for your customers. Your website should change as your business evolves.

Would you trust a company that hadn't updated its website since 1999? How do you know they're current with the changes that are happening in their industry? Can you be assured that they're the best at what they do? If you can't tell from their website, you probably won't deal with them. Looking at your website from a visitor's perspective should help you avoid this problem.

After All That Work, Now What?

So you've built a website that gets lots of visitors who are drawn to it by the fabulous content which is always up to date and demonstrates your expertise in your field. Now the e-mails are flooding in and you're having a hard time keeping up. This is a common problem experienced by many companies. Unfortunately, many companies deal with the situation the same way. They ignore their e-mail messages or take a very long time to respond.

Pretend You're a Politician (Not!)

Here in Canada, we have a multitude of political parties vying for our attention. During the last Federal election, a new party was making a bid to form the next government. I had a few concerns about one of their policies so I went to their website and filled in the appropriate question form and sent it in. I never received an answer from them. Not even an automatically generated "Thank you for your request" type message.

Now, I know they were busy - there was an election going on after all. But I was trying to decide who to vote for and the information I requested was important to me so I could make up my mind. Not seeing my topic of interest addressed on their website was worrisome to me. (It was a serious point of controversy in 1999 - a long time ago for politicians.) Not getting an answer from the party made me more certain that their answer was contained in their lack of response - they didn't care about the issue. I didn't vote for them. However, if they had at least given me a response, I might have felt a little better about them as a whole.

Build Trust the First and Every Time

Imagine that political party was your business. People are interested in your products or services but have questions that you don't answer. Would you do business with a company like that? Would you assume that they will give you fantastic service, once you become a customer? Do you trust them enough to even try them out? Probably not. The Internet has allowed consumers to request information at any time of the day and it is our responsibility to ensure that those requests are dealt with in a timely manner. If visitors don't feel good about you because it took a long time for you to respond to their initial inquiries, it will take much more effort on your part to make them trust you.

Build Your "Trust Fund"

Understanding your customers and providing excellent customer service builds the trust you need to be successful. It's not rocket science, but it does take commitment. The Internet is like a fitness club - you get out of it what you put into it. Having an effectively designed website with up to date content that is relevant to your target audience whose requests you follow up on in a timely fashion takes work. Happy visitors become happy customers who provide lots of word of mouth referrals and more business over time. Having a "trust fund" is one of the best investments you can make in your business

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