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Business Resource Center

How to build trust and long-term relationships with your Web site visitors
By Merilee Kern

Building trust and long-term relationships with visitors to your Web site can be an elusive goal. But some of the most effective strategies are also among the most basic. Following are some ideas for how companies can establish a foundation of trust and a sense of loyalty with their Web site visitors.

Respect privacy. First and foremost, make it very clear wherever you capture data that any and all information requested of and provided by visitors will remain completely confidential -- that it will not be sold, rented and/or otherwise provided to third parties. Doing so will provide a significant risk reliever that will increase response rates and help establish the visitor's trust in the way your company maintains the integrity of each visitor's personal information.

Make all communications customer-driven. Let prospects and customers tell YOU how and when to communicate with them, and then follow through accordingly. Empower visitors to specify exactly what type of communications they would and would not like to receive from your company (both online and offline) through a simple online subscription form.

By making each and every type of “push” contact with those who have visited your site opt-in, you will increase the satisfaction level of the recipient and his or her receptiveness to the information presented. You may also significantly reduce costs associated with the mass production and deployment of such materials, particularly for offline communications. Of course, it should go without saying that you should provide an opt-out or unsubscribe mechanism within every communication.

Make your intent known. Don't take for granted that first-time visitors to your site know exactly what the nature of your business is. Highlight the fundamentals that make your organization a success by placing some descriptive/positioning copy in an above-the-fold position on your Web site's home page. When visitors repeatedly see these strong and clearly descriptive statements about your company and its intent, they will increasingly build a level of online trust and, when telling others about your company, may even quote directly from this highly visible language.

"Float" important content. If there is an element of your online offering that plays an integral role in your company's ability to build trusting relationships with visitors, be sure it is readily accessible directly from the primary pages of your Web site, not the least of which is your home page. In other words, if it's a keystone to your company's success, increase the likelihood that it will be seen!

Directing users to this important information with one-click access will increase the probability that this mission-critical content will be internalized. It might be your published company principals, privacy policy, press and/or customer/member testimonials, etc. On your home page or perhaps on every page throughout your entire site, consider embedding a predominantly placed intra-site "advertisement" that links users directly to this critical information.

Scrutinize usability and quality assurance. Errors on a Web site can crush visitor confidence in a flash. You might consider having a Web site usability expert evaluate your site to analyze its usability, effectiveness and relevance.

Optimally, the site's user logs should be evaluated each month to analyze user behaviors, such as what page is the predominant entry and exit point, internal navigation paths, etc. Doing so will allow you to continue fine-tuning a number of elements including navigation schemes (menus), intra-site and external advertising messaging and/or link-to URLs, etc. In short, quality assurance — systematic proofreading, evaluation and testing of Web site content, navigation and functionality — should ongoing.

Offer valuable free content. One timeless way to draw first-time traffic to a Web site, and to keep visitors coming back for more, is to offer free content that has a high perceived value with your target audience. The most common vehicle is an online newsletter.

If your content is strong, this will increase the number of first-time visitors and function virally as the visitors forward the newsletter to others. It can also provide a subscription mechanism through which your company can garner highly valuable information from visitors that can be leveraged for a variety of highly targeted direct marketing initiatives. When you can deliver such targeted communications based on data provided by visitors themselves, they will sense that your company understands their unique needs, which is the ultimate foundation upon which your company can establish a long-standing relationship.

Highlight success stories. Leverage positive customer feedback by establishing a testimonials section that features (with their permission) your customers’ photos, names, company names and/or job titles with a selection of associated testimonial-based commentary. Even better, larger case studies could be created and leveraged to show how your company has solved problems for your customers.

Such testimonials will serve to establish your company's credibility and will act as an all-important "risk reliever" as a prospective customer contemplates moving forward with a purchase, subscription or membership. Prospects want to see how your company has helped solve problems for others, and high visibility should be given to this type of content on your site.

Highlight third-party endorsements. Similarly, third-party testimonials should be leveraged throughout your site to help establish trust and, hence, improve sales conversion. Consider placing a glowing press quote or two in the margin of your membership registration or newsletter sign-up page, and see how conversion may increase accordingly. Press commentary and seeming endorsements carry a lot of weight with consumers, and should be exploited every chance you get.

Maximize communication personalization. Imagine an email being distributed to your company's customer database, addressed by name from the Member/Customer Services Manager, simply thanking the customer for the business and ensuring they know how to reach the company if they have a question, comment or concern. Conversely, consider banning auto-responder email, despite the potentially large amount of email-based correspondence you and your employees may receive. Ensuring that each incoming query receives a personal, one-on-one reply will help further establish trust and satisfaction with your online visitors and customers.

Build an online community. More and more, people are using the Web in their everyday lives to establish personal relationships with their peers. If you can discern a way to create a community or "family" environment within your Web site interface, then by all means do it.

This might include establishing a product- or service-specific message board where customers can interact with each other and your customer service staff to learn interesting and useful information regarding your products/services. Or, you might institute a series of weekly interactive online meetings that allow experts within your company to have direct, one-on-one communication with your customers, perhaps for live Q & A sessions. By facilitating a community or family environment within your Web site, you can help build loyalty and retention among customers who build relationships with your staff and fellow customers through the site.

Simplify your customers' lives. An effective strategy for maintaining a long-term relationship with customers is to provide them with automated systems that simplify their lives and provide conveniences in whatever way is applicable for your offering.

For example, you might consider allowing customers to establish an online "automated purchase" account through which they can pre-select items that they purchase regularly and request that you automatically send them each week/month/quarter and bill the credit card on file. This way, repeat customers don't have to go online to facilitate recurring purchases. This not only enhances your revenue stream, but it also helps you better forecast future revenue, inventory requirements and other mission-critical issues — all while endearing the customer to your site by allowing easy and convenient "hands off" purchasing.


Merilee Kern is an online marketing consultant and a member of the i-on interactive consulting team, working with clients on Internet marketing projects that include strategy, visibility, planning and execution of various interactive marketing initiatives. Merilee has been marketing high technology, B2B and B2C products and services over the Internet since 1994.

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