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Straight Talking

To tell or not to tell? That's a no-brainer if you want to build credibility with your customers.

Many e-tailers have managed to attract and keep customers, despite a recent study's finding that consumer trust in e-commerce Web sites is alarmingly low. The study from Consumer WebWatch-a project of Consumers Union-aimed to better the credibility of online content. But it revealed that less than 30 percent of respondents trust information on sites that sell products and services.

Conducted by independent research group Princeton Survey Research Associates, the study based its results on 1,500 phone interviews with U.S. Internet users aged 18 and older who were asked about their impressions of news, information and e-commerce sites.

According to Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch, "Most Americans want to find accurate information on sites they visit and believe Web sites must better distinguish advertising from content and fully disclose fees before they earn high marks for credibility."

Eighty percent of users said it's important to trust the information on a Web site, 59 percent indicated that advertising should be clearly distinguished from news and information, 95 percent believed sites should disclose all fees, and 93 percent said it's very important that sites disclose how they intend to protect credit card information.

Consumer WebWatch also created guidelines for good Web site business practices, and it rated sites based on their adherence to those standards. The guidelines, which are listed at the project's site (www.consumerwebwatch.org), say Web sites should identify the physical location and purpose of the site's publisher, distinguish ads from news by using labels or other visual means, and clearly post privacy policies, contact information and fees, as well as relevant financial relationships with other sites.

"We're not trying to put anybody out of business; we're just saying 'If you are a site that reviews DVDs and you link people to a site where they can buy the DVDs, and you have a business relationship with that DVD site, [you should] disclose that,'" says Brendler. "Disclosure of business relationships in the most simple terms is important." It's not common practice yet-but that's something Brendler hopes to change.

And where does your site stand? According to Brendler, Web sites owned by small businesses are often the worst offenders: "You see these types of things on small-business sites. However, I don't think it's because these companies are trying to bamboozle anybody. I think it's just a lack of experience."

How Much Is Too Much?

Web site credibility is crucial to Jim Donnelly, 33, president and co-founder of IgoUgo, an online community of travelers. Members use the Web site (www.igougo.com) to read about and choose travel destinations, earn points for gifts, share travel experiences by writing reviews about trips they've taken, and purchase vacation packages from a select group of travel providers. More than 100,000 members have joined the New York City-based IgoUgo community since its creation in 2000.

"By nature, our model promotes integrity," says Donnelly. "The folks on the Web site who are telling you how great a trip was are not representatives from a travel company; they are passionate travelers with no vested interest."

IgoUgo sells advertising using these travel experiences. For example, when a member writes a review about a trip, IgoUgo tries to partner with the particular tour operator or hotel that was mentioned in the review. Then, if the company decides to advertise, IgoUgo includes a link to articles that mention the sponsor whenever possible. The Web site also has links to companies within destination entries that are both paid and unpaid.

However, "We warn advertisers that we, in no way, shape or form, edit or filter what our members will say. Negative reviews are treated the same as positive reviews," Donnelly says. "Obviously, advertisers prefer positive reviews, but the good ones understand that for the site to be honest, negative reviews have to be displayed."

Brendler points out it's good that negative reviews are treated like the positive ones, but, he says, "This strikes me as a low wall between editorial and advertising." As far as the Consumer WebWatch guidelines are concerned, IgoUgo should spell out all of its practices on its "About Us" page or in another applicable location so readers can judge for themselves whether the content is free from advertiser influence. In addition, paid links should be listed as such and separated from editorial content or unpaid links.

Donnelly sincerely believes that visitors to the IgoUgo Web site can tell pretty clearly what is advertising and what is not. "We think it is obvious when you step into the advertising section of the site, vs. the journal section," says Donnelly. "Pasting a label across the top, side and bottom [of an ad] that says 'This is paid advertising' tells people not to pay attention to that ad. I don't see how it's good for anybody."

Brendler, however, says you can never give out too much information. "People are using e-commerce sites more and more, but they're trusting them less and less, and that's probably because their expectations are higher now."

Get Some In-Site

Now's probably a good time to see how your site measures up. Take some time to evaluate the following: Does your site have a clear, up-to-date privacy policy? Do you plainly disclose the purpose and mission on your site? Are sponsors clearly identified? Does your site identify financial relationships with other sites, particularly when these relationships affect consumer costs?

For more information on how to make your site more trustworthy, click on over to these organizations and Web sites, which all have a stake in credibility and other Internet issues: Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org), the FTC (www.ftc.gov), People for Internet Responsibility (www.pfir.org), the Privacy Leadership Initiative from the Better Business Bureau (www.understandingprivacy.org), and the Stanford Web Credibility Project (www.webcredibility.org).

It may take time and money to implement changes, but can you really put a price on customer trust?


Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in Brooklyn, New York.

Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at mcampanelli@earthlink.net.

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This article was originally published in the October 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Straight Talking.

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