Why and How to Gain the Trust of Users

Paul Boag

Trust is a crucial component of any online interaction. If users do not trust you and your site they will not trust you with their data or money.

Do you trust me? Because if you do not then you are not going to believe what I write. You will not value my opinion and you certainly won’t trust me enough to sign up to my newsletter with your email address, or part with money to buy one of my courses.

Trust is the cornerstone of any online interaction. Without it people will not believe what you say or trust you with their money or data.

Unfortunately, trust is a fragile thing that we can easily undermine, especially when it comes to initial impressions. That is in part due to the halo effect.

The Impact of the Halo Effect on Trust

The halo effect is our tendency to judge an entire experience based on a single, initial, characteristic. So in our case, a user’s initial impression of a website’s design could be enough to undermine the sense of trust in your offering. In other words, unrelated factors can influence how we feel about a company and, by extension, our likelihood to complete a call to action.

Trust might be hard to earn, but it is incredibly valuable when achieved. That is because we have a desire to say yes to requests from those we trust. We want to please them.

That raises the question about the kind of things that can shape people’s impression of our companies and in particular whether they are willing to trust us.

One such area is how professional we appear.

Be Professional

Poor design quality, and mistakes in spelling or grammar, can all undermine the perception of professionalism.

Would trust a website like this to provide a good service?

Because of the halo effect, users will wonder whether the poor quality carries across into the products and services you offer. They presume that because you have demonstrated a lack of attention to this one area that this will be reflective of your operation as a whole. That will impact your conversion rate.

But the perception of professionalism is a relatively minor factor when compared to the role communication plays in building trust.

Improve Your Communication

I once got grounded by snow at Dallas Airport. Every flight was delayed, and passengers were left stranded.

I found myself sitting on the floor opposite two check-in desks. Immediately outside one counter was a crowd of angry, demanding passengers. Meanwhile, in front of the other check-in desk, only one or two passengers were waiting patiently, while the rest sat, or wandered, nearby.

It was apparent that these passengers were confident that the situation was under control. They trusted their airline to sort the situation out as efficiently as possible. That was not the case at the other counter.

So why were the two check-in desks so different? Planes and passengers from both airlines were in the same situation. It wasn’t like one was getting preferential treatment from the airport.

Being snowed in at Dallas Airport taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of communication.

Thanks to Grisha Bruev from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

The difference came down to how the two airlines were communicating with passengers. The airlines with angry passengers had told customers they would come back to them when they knew more. They had not appeared since that initial announcement.

By contrast, the other airline provided an update every ten minutes whether or not the situation had changed. Because passengers were updated continuously, they were able to trust that the airline was working hard on their behalf.

That is the power of communication to build trust, and it applies just as much to digital channels. By keeping customers up to date about the state of their interaction with us, we reassure them everything is under control, and that builds trust.

That works even better when communication is as transparent as possible.

Prioritise Transparency

I hate privacy policies and terms and conditions! Companies typically couch them in legal terminology that is inaccessible to most people. Copy like this undermines trust because it gives the impression the organisation has something to hide.

I have worked hard to make all my communications as transparent and open as possible.

You see companies making similar mistakes all of the time. They try to hide or justify their behaviour, and a lot of online copy seems to be more about ass-covering than it does helping the customer.

But just as a lack of transparency can undermine, so being transparent can help build it.

For example in the early days of photo sharing site Flickr they faced a lot of server issues. It was not uncommon for users to be unable to access their photos and it was beginning to undermine trust in the company. Then the unthinkable happened, they lost a small number of user’s photos entirely.

Unsurprisingly this blew up online. Flickr faced a massive PR disaster and an utter collapse of trust in the service.

Most companies would release a carefully worded statement offering a half-hearted apology without opening the company up to legal reprisals. They would have then gone into great detail explaining why it wasn’t their fault and reassuring people it wouldn’t happen again.

However, Flickr took a radically different approach. They posted an apology entitled “Sometimes we suck!” in which they sincerely apologised and expressed how unacceptable the situation was. They then went on to explain how they would prevent a similar thing happening again in the future and how they would compensate users.

Flickr’s disarming honesty was able to mitigate a major PR disaster and improve trust with its users.

The post was so sincere, open and transparent that it went a long way to recovering the lost trust the company had experienced. It was just such a refreshing change in a world of lawyers and corporate protectionism.

Some other companies have taken this approach of transparency to the extreme. For example social sharing tool Buffer, publishes everything you wish to know about the company online. Everything from the product roadmap to the salaries of individual employees.

Buffer has taken openness to the extreme by even publishing employee salaries and other sensitive financial information.

It is an approach that makes you immediately warm to the company and to trust them implicitly. It is apparent that they have nothing to hide!

But there is another feature both Buffer and Flickr share in the way they communicate. They are not only transparent, but they also have maintained a very human tone to their communication.

Remember to Be Human

I am regularly amazed how perfectly normal people turn into corporate machines when they sit down and write copy for a website. Their communication style changes entirely from friendly, warm and approachable to distant, cold and utterly dull!

If we want people to trust us, they have to feel they know us and copy is one of the best ways to introduce something of the company culture and character. Don’t be afraid to inject some humour into your writing.

At the very least you should write in a way that actively engages and has a more conversational style. Take for example this copy from the University of Essex website.

As well as ensuring students make the most of their potential through their academic studies, the University of Essex also provides an environment which caters for all of the needs of its students through offering a range of accommodation, catering facilities, and active students’ union, sports and the arts.

Setting aside for a moment that is one single long sentence, the tone of voice fails to engage the reader personally. By referring to the reader as “students” instead of “you” and themselves as the “University of Essex” rather than “we” it actively puts up a barrier between the reader and writer. That does nothing to build trust.

By rewriting, the copy has a more accessible, friendly and relaxed tone.

Student life is about more than just studying. We support you with everything you are looking for: from accommodation and catering through to an active students’ union, excellent sports facilities and an engaging arts programme.

Not only is that far more engaging it is also considerably shorter!

Without a doubt how we present ourselves through our writing, openness and communication, all influence whether users are willing to trust us or not. However, all of that is ultimately words; our actions are what count.

Ensure You Are Consistent

I am going to go ahead and presume your company delivers a great product and are worthy of a users trust. However, you can undermine that good work if you are inconsistent in your behaviour.

Nothing makes users more nervous than worrying about whether a supplier is going to do what they say. We have to be reliable and predictable if we want to build trust.

However even if you are utterly reliable in the delivery of your products or services, you can still leave prospective customers doubting you. Once again this is down to the halo effect.

Take for example the blog on your website. Do you post on a regular, predictable schedule or are there months with nothing? Are you consistent in blogging or sending out email communications or in responding to enquiries in the time you say? Being consistent in this way matters. It shapes the user's perception of you.

Failing to do what you say in any aspect of your online behaviour will undermine trust in your ability to deliver.

Of course on an individual basis, most users won’t be able to express why they are unsure about a company or their unwillingness to complete a call to action. However, you will find that these factors will influence a site’s conversion rate. If we want to encourage more clicks, it is well worth paying attention to the image we project to users. We have to come across as a company they can trust with their data and who will deliver on our promises.