Gaining Trust Online

Being a trusted resource on the Internet can directly translate into dollars. Many online companies in all sectors have tried to gain the elusive trust factor for years. With information everywhere, becoming a trusted advisor is a critical step to gaining market share and share of wallet. Increasingly, however, companies are realizing that being a trusted advisor is wrapped up in larger brand marketing issues: balancing personal with trustable, and balancing mass appeal with relevancy.

Financial Folk

The banking and financial industry is the most obvious vertical in which the trusted advisor is an important concept. Since the early ’90s, financial institutions have tried to get people to trust them online. That effort is constantly stymied by their own branding and a holy-tower image that intimidates consumers rather than instills them with trust.

The big financial firms have recently tried to appear more approachable. Charles Schwab launched its “Talk to Chuck” campaign in an effort to appear more accessible. It even launched an “Ask Carrie” column, aimed at starting a dialogue with users and engaging them on a more human level. It’s a fine balance, though, between making something accessible and dumbing something down too much. Financial companies must retain their expert status. A “friendly neighbor who knows a little about finance” doesn’t cut it.

Where Do You Get Your News?

The news industry also wants to become a trusted advisor. Some news networks brand themselves as “the most trusted source.” CNN heavily markets its news anchors in an effort to get people to trust them. News Web sites abound online, so retaining loyal readers can be a challenge. Though blogs and other informal methods of relaying news are plentiful, most people don’t look to your average blogger for news. They do look to names they trust, such as CNN for national news. They also look to smaller, localized news sources for news about where they live. School closings and traffic updates aren’t a major concern for CNN. They’re for local news stations’ Web sites.

These smaller news sites gain trust by understanding their local audience’s needs and marketing around their anchors to instill trust. Combining this trusted advisor role with relevancy makes these local sites very sticky. New York’s local NBC news site, for example, contains a mix of local and national news. During the New York transit strike, it was one of the best places online to get up-to-the-minute coverage. It even had a newsletter just about the transit strike you could sign up for.

These sites are primarily operated by Internet Broadcasting Systems, one of my company’s clients. Kevin Abramson, director of marketing, told me how this mix of relevancy and loyalty leads to more loyal, profitable users. He says their research uncovers a direct correlation between on-site satisfaction and relevance to the advertising success rate.

People are six times more likely to feel an ad is more relevant simply because it appears on an Internet Broadcasting Web site, for example, because the content’s more relevant. Just as compelling, users are twice as likely to click an ad from one of its sites than one from a site they didn’t feel was as trusted or relevant.

Retailers Get in the Mix

No longer content to be impersonal online stores, major retailers are adding personalities and trusted advisors to their sites. Review sites such as are go-to places to read about new technology. Online retailers such as Best Buy would be wise to put a more human face on their Web sites to become more of a resource for buyers.

The Home Depot takes a different approach to becoming a trusted advisor. Instead of using people and personalities to instill loyalty, it uses knowledge and education to increase stickiness and sales by offering several online how-to guides. SmarterKids offers editorial sections and newsletters that discuss child development and other issues about children that makes SmarterKids seem like a place to go for information and advice, rather than just a store. The products seem that much better because of it.

Booksellers have always featured staff reviews. When I was at, we created “bnEditors,” a place for the editors to communicate directly with readers. Readers became very engaged with them, leading directly to more sales. We also created Barnes & Noble University to help instill our customers with more knowledge (with lots of sales opportunities embedded in the classes).

Mixing Trustworthiness, Relevancy, and Brand

Combining trustworthiness, relevancy, and brand isn’t simple. Your company must appear authoritative and trustworthy. It also must appear personal and relevant. It must speak a language your audience understands, without intimidating them. It must also have the tone of a knowledgeable source. A financial industry can’t dumb itself down too much. People need to feel it knows what it’s doing. A retail company can’t be too impersonal, especially if it’s selling commodity products, such as electronics. Those that sell customized products must have an equally personalized user experience, though their unique product offerings help create loyalty by themselves. News organizations must be both personal and relevant yet retain the air of professionalism that sets them apart from your average blogger.

Once the right balance is found, the result is more loyal, profitable customers. Really. Trust me.

Thought or comments? Let me know.

Until next time…


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