With a limited audience and intensely competitive market conditions, Web sites must try and convert every single visitor into a frequent user of their product or service.
Building a strong brand plays a major role in achieving this objective and the first step to be taken for this is establishing a relationship based on trust.
The Internet as a 'medium' is almost over six years old in India and is, for the vast majority of people online, a totally new experience. This makes surfers extremely cautious while carrying out transactions on the Web and hypersensitive to the attendant risks. Online businesses, especially those that do not have the advantage of a strong brand to begin with, must prove that they can be trusted to offer adequate protection to the best interests of their customers.
So what are these risks that have our customers so worried? I see three major types of online risk: financial, product-related and information-related.
Convincing customers of the low financial risk of transactions on the Web is probably the most significant hurdle for an online operation. The primary and most publicized worry is that hackers can intercept and misuse confidential information like credit card details transmitted online. There is also the fear that Web sites may try to swindle people by selling fraudulent or overpriced services. These apprehensions are amplified in international transactions and those in countries with little or no regulation of online commerce.
Product risk has more to do with receiving defective, delayed, incorrect, injurious or socially damaging products from an online vendor. Once again, the onus is on the business in question to provide sufficient proof or testimonials to the customer that can lay these fears to rest.
Information risk is a relatively new area with people worried that any personal data they put online will be harnessed and exploited. In most countries the fear is that the information will be used for commercial purposes. Additionally, in countries like the US and Singapore that have governments actively involved in the new economy, there is also the worry that citizens are being spied upon.
There is no doubt that a strong brand is the best way to generate trust in a customer. However, most online businesses aren't lucky enough to have them and must work the other way round. There are a number of ways we can engender trust in the visitors to our site, four of which I have listed below:
Seals of approval: This is probably the most important tool that is used. Customers trust a site if it carries third-party seals of approval or is affiliated with strong brands. This could involve security certification by authorities like Verisign, prominent display of associations with credit card companies like Visa and logos of strong brands like Amazon.com if we are part of their affiliate programs.
Effective navigation and fulfillment: An easily-navigable site and efficient transaction fulfillment conveys an image of professionalism and builds visitor comfort-levels. If the fulfillment process from placing the order to product delivery and beyond is of high quality, an immediate bond is formed with the customer and he or she will definitely remember and trust the site.
Privacy and confidentiality: All sites must display a brief privacy statement on every page that shows the commitment of the business to protecting the rights and privacy of their customers. Or perhaps even better, carry a link that provides details about security and privacy measures implemented on the site.
Presentation and sophistication: Aesthetics do matter to customers and a well-designed site leaves a
good impression. If the Web site uses technologically sophisticated tools, it can often serve as an assurance that
the rest of the business is similarly advanced.
Implementing these measures will give us enough goodwill to override the disadvantage of a weak brand.
Two annual surveys released recently for example, illustrate my argument that developing trust and branding are inextricably linked. The first is the Interbrand report on the most valuable brands in the world. Only brands valued at one billion dollars or more are listed and seventy-five qualified this year. The second survey is the Cheskin Research report on online trust.
There is a significant correlation between the top rankers of each survey. There are only three 'New Media' companies in the Interbrand survey: Yahoo!, Amazon.com and AOL. All of them are in the Top Five of the Cheskin report. Interbrand ranks the Microsoft brand second in the world while Cheskin ranks MSN/Hotmail at three and Microsoft at seven.
Developing customer trust online is not an easy process and involves considerable investments of time and money. However, the reward of our efforts is that we will be on our way to achieving the most critical marketing asset for a business on the Web: a strong online brand.