Web credibility – It’s a matter of trust

Web credibility is key to maintaining brand perception and establishing trust with your consumers. But how is this achieved, Dinah Hatch asks

Rumour has it that fashion megabrand Top Shop employs an 18 year-old to sit in its London offices and scan social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook for negative comments, which she then replies to.

Why? Because the company, which by the way is so switched on to online brand perception that it has its own Facebook application Fashion Fix, is one of a growing band of companies that are wising up to the fact that maintaining credibility in the online world is absolutely key to people’s perception of your brand offline.

In a world where over 53% of people say they don’t believe or have faith in the web in general (source: UCLA), it has never been more important to maintain credibility of your brand, both on your own website and others.

So what do you have to do to build up and maintain online credibility? Well, a bit like the Rubik’s Cube, until you know the answer it can seem daunting but once you do it makes perfect sense.

Digital agency Fortune Cookie specialises in web credibility and has clients including Kuoni, Exodus, Flexiski, Sovereign, Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Hayes and Jarvis and Into The Blue. Its head of experience architecture, Ellie Hardman, says credibility is all in the detail.

She explains: “There are loads of factors that contribute to people losing faith in a site and many of them revolve around making usability harder rather than easier and irritating the user. So, poor navigation is a factor, as are broken links and poor site performance resulting in a bad technical experience.”

She adds: “It sounds obvious, but one of the most important things you can do is have really clear contact details. If someone cannot find your details, for all they know you could be operating out of someone’s bedroom. You have to have that contact and for people to know there is a solid operation behind the site.”

Privacy, too, is a key factor to maintaining credibility. “Make sure there’s a padlock on display and that your privacy policy and terms and conditions are readily available. People feel they know how they are going to be treated and how they are going to manage their transaction with you if they see this,” says Hardman. “It’s also vital to have ABTA and ATOL numbers shown prominently so people know they are not going to get ripped off.”

A consistent tone is also flagged up as important. Says Hardman: “You need to make sure you use the same tone of voice with people on your website as you do in your call centres. That way, customers know where they are. We look at companies’ marketing position and make sure that is maintained online – with images, tone of voice and logo.”

Hardman also believes that an issue affecting travel companies online is search results. “It’s hard for travel companies to get their site’s search results to work correctly. Error messages come up when searching for a holiday because the site forces you to be more specific than you want to be, and then perceptions of what the company can offer are damaged.”

Catriona Campbell, chairman of usability company Foviance, which has worked with many travel clients including Bourne Leisure, Thomas Cook and BMI, believes a major factor in creating and maintaining credibility is search optimisation. She explains: “This does an incredibly important job for credibility. According to Hitwise, 90% of the UK reach their destination online via Google. So there is a huge lack of credibility if you are not on Google.”

Campbell, a specialist in psychology and human/computer interaction, agrees that clearly displayed phone numbers were key, particularly on certain pages. She says: “Design helps subconsciously and has a lot to do with emotion. Research shows that when you are at the point on a site where you have to hand over your money and you are unsure about something, you take great comfort from seeing a telephone help number on the right-hand side of that page. This is regardless of age. You just feel better that it is there even if you don’t use it.”

She believes that the concept of implied trust is crucial too, particularly for sites that have no street presence, such as Expedia, Lastminute and Opodo. “People feel reassured by a bricks and mortar presence. Opodo has overcome that by creating a concept of implied trust. It is made up of a bunch of large airlines and you realise that when you go to the site –there’s an implied trust there because you know the brands and so you are more likely to spend money on the site.”

A good FAQ page is also up there as crucial in the credibility stakes, and customer relationship management company Right Now Technologies has capitalised on this and created an ‘intelligent’ FAQ system that updates and prioritises information on the page according to how many people request that information.

The company’s vice-president EMEA Joe Brown explains: “Using this technology, your FAQ page is self-learning and dynamically changes the way the information is presented. It monitors what the most FAQs are and makes sure they are presented first so that you can access the answer to your travel question quickly – much faster than wading through a thousand Google responses to a question. That raises the credibility of your site substantially.”

Thomas Cook e-commerce manager Russell Gould believes navigation is key to keeping the operator’s websites credible. “The easier a customer can move from one place to another, the more faith they are going to have in the site and you as a brand. We have done lots of work on our architecture with emphasis on site maps so people can find what they want. And when they do find it, it’s important the information is accurate and that they are not going to get to the point of paying and seeing there’s a whole bunch of extras to pay for. That’s where you lose credibility.”

Gould revealed that Thomas Cook has been working on ‘Project Starfish’, which looks at social networking sites and how to police them to protect its brand. The project is also focusing on bringing consumer reviews to the Thomas Cook sites.

Says Gould: “We have been doing work on how consumers use and interact with other consumer reviews. The feedback we get says that they do not believe a lot of them on a general level, because they have heard about hoteliers posting their own positive reviews, but use them as a measuring stick. We going to have reviews on our site, but only allow people to write them who have travelled with us or been on one of our holidays. We will moderate the comments, both positive and negative, and answer the feedback. Our aim is to be transparent because we know this raises credibility.”

Virgin Holidays general manager e-commerce, Chris Roe, says the operator is constantly evaluating its site for credibility. He says: “We discovered our customers were very aware of dynamic packaging and lack of protection, so we put up an interstitial assuring people that all Virgin holidays are ATOL protected. We also realised people need to see a phone number, so even though we want people to book via the web we don’t hide our number.” He adds: “We also discovered people have a lot of trust in Richard Branson and we didn’t have him on our homepage, so we rectified that.”

Roe has also researched the different holiday types Virgin Holidays consumers look for and classified its ‘holiday types’ menu accordingly. “Customers reach what they are looking for easily – they don’t get lost. That helps credibility enormously,” he adds.

Case study: Bourne Leisure

Bourne Leisure began working with Foviance after recognising the need to reinforce its offline brand messages online. It set about making the site as logical as possible and focusing more directly on the customer experience.

Says head of e-commerce Alison Dunn: “Our work with Foviance includes usability studies, surveys and website evaluations by usability experts. We constantly monitor the conversion and optimise the customer journey. By ensuring that the site is logical and provides customers with all the information that they need, we reinforce that we are a credible company and have a specialism in e-commerce, developing trust between our customers.”

The result? Dunn has overseen a complete redesign of the booking engine, a redevelopment of the late deals system and a new homepage and says there is now a high percentage of online repeat bookers and this number is growing year on year.

Outside of the operator’s own site, the company monitors user-generated content across the web and passes comments to its customer care department and on to the parks themselves.

Dunn believes the way to combat negativity on the web about brands is through transparency. She adds: “In my opinion, copy and content need to be a lot more honest these days, rather than covering things up with marketing speak as it’s easy for customers to find out the truth.”

The laws of web credibility

  • Make sure your site clearly displays how to find the FAQ section and ensure that the information you give is totally accurate. This inspires trust.

  • Don’t hide your phone number. Okay, you want people to book online and they usually will but it’s all about reassurance. If you are a less well-known brand, listing a physical address will also inspire confidence that you are a real bricks-and-mortar operation.

  • Don’t let your user get lost – they’ll get frustrated and click away from your site. Navigation is key.

  • Show who the people behind your site are with mini-biographies, pictures and something about them as people. This engenders the feeling that you can trust them.

  • Update your site’s content as often as you can, as people are known to assign more credibility to recently updated or reviewed sites.

  • Display that you accept Mastercard, Visa and Amex. Studies have shown that this inspires credibility, particularly with the older generation. Remember also to prominently display your terms and conditions and privacy controls.

  • Broken links can really damage a brand’s credibility, so it’s crucial to keep overhauling the site for technical errors.

  • Avoid anything irritating such as pop-ups and interstitials without useful information on – these slow down the user journey.

  • Make sure your site is easy to find. You’ll lose credibility if people can’t find you on the big search engines.

  • And when you are arrived at via a search engine, make sure people land on the page relevant to the information they searched for. Simply arriving on the homepage and having to search again is incredibly annoying.

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