Who Can You Trust on the Internet?

Real-world brands versus online-only brands: Which do you think consumers generally have more trust in?

One of the problems the Internet world faces today is the lack of trust consumers are demonstrating in web sites and online brands. Not only is it apparent that users don’t trust the information they are being exposed to on the Net, they resent and fear an invasion of their privacy online, and they doubt the security of online purchasing systems.

I conducted an experiment in an attempt to ascertain the validity of consumer suspicions about online privacy. Three months ago, I created an email address for the sole purpose of using it as my junk mail address. The exercise didn’t involve my becoming a heavy web surfer. I occasionally signed up as a member of a site I liked the look of, but I never ticked the boxes that allow the site manager to bombard my inbox with “additional material which may interest [me].”

After three months, the results of my experiment shocked me 623 emails managed to find their way to my address, yet I had offered my new email address only fourteen times! No wonder consumers are suspicious about being asked to volunteer personal information.

I believe the consumers’ lack of trust is a clear symptom of weak brand management. Far too many web sites tarnish their brand’s image by bombarding consumers with information they neither want nor need. This is a crazy tactic when companies could be systematically using the intelligence gained from their site to tailor messages and restrict communications to items of relevance.

Consumers may know and respect an online brand, but their trust in that brand is what keeps them coming back to the site and the brand. Maintaining your consumers’ trust in your brand requires respecting consumer privacy and guaranteeing that the consumers’ inboxes won’t be packed with superfluous emails once they hand over private information.

Companies wishing to form a relationship with their customers should therefore employ a brand custodian. This is a person who, independently of the marketing or product development department, reviews all material to be sent out online, deleting junk messages and adjusting worthwhile ones to ensure that the brand isn’t committing suicide by talking irrelevancies, superfluities or idiocies at the consumer.

Disney is one of the few clicks-and-mortar brands that control their brand image online. The difference between Disney and other dot-com brands is that Disney benefits from its longstanding familiarity to consumers and thereby inspires trust, a key value that only a few other online brands have established and maintained.

I believe most consumers would click “yes” when asked by Disney to hand over their credit card number. Can the same be said for dot-com gambling brands such as www.goldenpalace.com? At this stage, with very few exceptions, there would still be hesitation on the part of most consumers.

You can’t buy goodwill and trust; you must earn it over time. Considering no online brand can have experienced a history longer than five years, consumer trust has been earned by only a few online brands. It could even be said that offline or bricks-and-mortar brands such as Disney have “free tickets” to consumer web trust.

However, to maintain and extend that trust, established brands like Disney have realized they must apply the same principles guiding their offline brand management to their online efforts, primary among these being respect for the customer. Disney identifies the qualities that earn respect and trust (family values, safe community, etc.), builds its image upon them, and ensures these values are transferred online.

And you can do the same. One of the best ways to do so is to take your brand so seriously that you include a brand custodian on your salary list.

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