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Placing Trust at the Center of Your Internet Strategy

When consumers visit a retail Web site, how do they know that the information describing the products or services they want to buy is accurate and unbiased? How do they know that their order will be fulfilled correctly and on time or that their financial records, purchasing and Web-viewing habits will be protected from prying eyes? The answer is they often don't know. In most cases, consumers base their purchasing decisions largely on trust.

As consumers become more savvy about the Internet, the authors contend that they will insist on doing business with Web companies they trust. As a result, trust will become the currency of the Internet.

While the Internet enables consumers to research competing companies, products and services, most manufacturers design and deploy their Web sites as if such information were largely unavailable. They promote their products in a biased way -- using high-pressure sales tactics that do little to inspire trust -- while neglecting to provide consumers with the tools they need to make informed purchasing decisions. Some undermine trust by secretly collecting data about their customers' Web usage and selling it to third-party marketing firms. Others lose trust by failing to support their products or deliver them on time. Such sites rarely provide honest comparisons to competing products. Instead, customers must find the information themselves in order to make a sound decision, or they rely on brands they already trust.

According to the authors, Web trust is built in a three-stage cumulative process that establishes (1) trust in the Internet and the specific Web site, (2) trust in the information displayed and (3) trust in delivery fulfillment and service.

The authors review current trust-building practices used on the Web and propose the use of new, software-enabled advisors that engender trust by engaging customers in a dialogue to discern their needs and provide unbiased recommendations on a range of possible solutions. The authors tested their hypothesis by creating Truck Town, a Web site featuring software-enabled advisors that mimic the behavior of unbiased human experts. The advisors consult with customers on purchasing decisions, providing honest comparisons of competing products. More than 75% of Truck Town's visitors said that they trusted these virtual advisors more than the dealer from whom they last purchased a vehicle. According to the authors, Truck Town shows that virtual advisors can be a cost-effective component in any Internet trust-building program.

The companies that earn real profits in the world of Internet marketing will be trust generators selling products that deliver the best value in a complete, unbiased, competitive comparison.

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