As E-Commerce Grows, So Does Concern About Privacy.
Who’s more likely to keep a date: the person who jots it on a napkin or she who inscribes it in a Day-Timer? Who will be better at conveying a message to his boss: the receptionist who sounds like a bored teenager or the one with the chipper lilt?
Of course, it’s impossible to say for sure. When we mere mortals make these decisions about trust, we don’t do it on much more of a basis than when we were kids and decided who we wanted to go out with based on their haircuts. The same judgment calls can apply to trusting an e-commerce Web site. Millions of people trusted Internet merchants during the holidays, but after the buying binge, everyone seems to be wondering whose panties they ended up with. Consumers are saying to e-merchants, “That was fun, but can I trust you in a long-term relationship?” Now, some organizations are taking steps to ensure that consumers will answer, “Yes.”
One of them is the U.S. government. Commerce secretary William Daley and Federal Trade Commission chairman Robert Pitofsky held a news conference on Feb. 5 to discuss the need for consumer protection during the e-commerce gold rush, with the Department of Commerce predicting $30 billion will be spent shopping online next year. And the FTC will be closely following a coming sweep of sites to see how well they post their privacy policies. “Sales will not keep going up if retailers fail to act responsibly,” Daley noted tartly. “They will stop shopping if their data is abused.”
The FTC’s Pitofsky chimed in, “One concern I have is that people will begin to think of e-commerce as a Wild West where there’s no law, no sheriff and anything goes. We’re doing our best to dissuade people [from thinking] that’s the case.”
Daley said Internet shoppers worry their personal data will get spread around. They also want to believe that clicking on some icon will actually result in a widget arriving on their doorsteps sometime in the very near future. But what makes consumers believe in a Web site is a funny thing, as a recent study conducted by San Francisco-based Studio Archetype/Sapient pointed out.
SA, which builds e-commerce sites for corporate giants such as UPS and IBM, set out to determine how to build in the kind of belief that leads to buying, hiring Cheskin Research, San Francisco, to survey 315 Web-savvy adults. The resulting E-commerce Trust Study, released in January, identifies six trust-builders: navigation, presentation, technology, fulfillment, branding and seals of approval.
First, just as in the offline world, neatness counts. Online, that translates into simple, consistent navigation and an organized, attractive presentation. It also means creative site design is not paramount. The study found that people had more confidence in sites that resembled other well-known sites.
But clean design doesn’t mean a site automatically qualifies as trustworthy, cautions Cheskin principal Davis Matsen. “Trust has three stages,” he emphasizes. “In the initial part you need to build trust, then you move into confirming it, and finally, maintaining it over time.” In other words, if your spiffy site doesn’t deliver the goods, customers will be one-night stands.
Technology should be literally up to speed–pages that load slowly or incorrectly are a turn-off. Order fulfillment is crucial. “If that fulfillment is not done well over time, it will weaken the trust,” stresses Clement Mok, SA’s chief creative officer. Don’t overlook upfront reassurance about fulfillment, he adds. Sites that people want to bring home to mother explain shipping procedures, order tracking, return and refund policies, and also state explicit privacy policies.
Then, there is the role the elusive brand image plays in a site’s perceived trustworthiness. The SA/Cheskin research found that branding is indeed as important online as off. The good news: Top e-world brands are perceived as just as trust-worthy as what the study calls their “dirt-world” counterparts. One successful strategy, according to the study, is to team up with highly-regarded brands which can provide seals of approval, especially “security brands” such as VeriSign and Truste.
VeriSign, Mountain View, Calif., lets people know you’re not a dog online. Members of its Secure Site Program can post the VeriSign seal of approval verifying their identities. Explains Anil Pereira, director of marketing, “One component of trust is the ability to feel that you’re truly at the place you think you are.”
However, these security brands have some trust-building of their own to do, since SA and Cheskin found that experienced Web users are less familiar with their names than with the underlying concepts and technology that sites employ, such as cookies and encryption.
UPS worked with SA to build a site that would allow any service or transaction to take place on the Web. The site processes 750,000 package tracking requests per day. As an example of how the site puts the study’s ideas into practice, Tom Daly, UPS interactive communications manager, points out that even as language and functionality change among foreign UPS sites, navigation remains the same. “Our business connects buyers and sellers around the world,” he says. “So [a seller] can direct [a buyer] to get tracking information on the German page as easily as on the English page.”
But UPS also illustrates the power of a well-established brand. The company acts as a de facto seal of approval for the sites of other companies that use UPS. Those sites can use free UPS software to let customers track packages and often tout their relationship with the company. The UPS site itself doesn’t wear third party seals of approval though it could in the future. “We wouldn’t take anything for granted,” Daly says. “And if the digital space requires we explore that tool, rest assured we’ll take a look at it.”
To build a site users will cuddle up to, “You need to have a combination of at least brand and navigation,” Cheskin Research’s Matsen says. “You need to have the experience of your brand, even if it’s not well known, really show up in a differentiating way, at every click.”
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