a Good Impression
With a Superior Web Site
By EDWARD SEGAL
Making a good
first impression online is important for start-ups. To convince
visitors to take a chance on a new company, your Web site must
convey that yours is a credible and reputable business. Easier
said than done. But there are steps that you can take to help
build customers' comfort level with your company.
with customers is central to the strategy of Boston-based Zipcar,
a car-rental company founded in 1999. Because it relies on the
Internet almost exclusively to process applications and make reservations
for its fleet of 65 cars near transportation hubs in Boston and
Washington, D.C., its Web site takes pains to foster its customers'
trust in its service.
each customer e-mail receives a personal reply. In fact, there's
a company-wide ban on automatic responses. This personalized approach
has helped Zipcar to attract about 150 new members each month
and 1,200 loyal customers. Robin Chase, the firm's chief executive
officer, says she uses an informal writing style and signs all
e-mail messages with only her first name.
"I work very
hard to write our communications as if I am writing to one individual
whom I know well," she says.
when a customer wrote to ask why Zipcar's rentals are all either
white or lime, Ms. Chase responded: "We chose white for the bulk
of the fleet for a couple of reasons: We wanted most the of the
cars to be the same color so that they would be identifiable to
members and nonmembers as Zipcars. White, black, red, silver are
really the only color choices that are remotely consistent across
auto manufacturers. Ray Magliozzi (co-host of National Public
Radio's "Car Talk" program) told me that it was true that red
cars get in more car accidents than any other color. The
white cars show dirt the least (I spent a number of days watching
every car that went by and can verify this)."
an online shopping catalog and price guide, builds trust by letting
customers share their comments about the products and services
it offers. Site visitors have written more than 1 million reviews
for the Brisbane, Calif., company, which was founded in 1999.
In one example,
a reviewer titled her comments on an Epilady TweezEpil hair-removal
product: "Uh, Did I Get a Dud?" The product, she says, "doesn't
deliver on [its] promise [and has a] shoddy design."
allowing consumers to repeatedly see these strong statements,
in conjunction with having favorable experiences using the Epinions
service, they'll increasingly build a level of online trust,"
says Merilee Kern, president of Las Vegas-based Kern Communications.
not something for which we have a single strategy; rather, it
permeates everything we do," says Nirav Tolia, co-founder of Epinions.
The site adheres to three core principles:
users can see who writes content, why it's sorted a certain
way, and what other users think of it;
the site doesn't write, edit or rate the content -- members
determine what and where content appears; and
members can comment on products, reviews, people and the site
How to Build
the old rules for establishing a strong reputation still apply.
You must deliver the product on time and make sure it works. But
to succeed in a competitive business environment, "to truly succeed
in building trust, companies will need to follow a model that
revolves around the customer," says Dave Steer, communications
director for TRUSTe in San Jose, Calif., a nonprofit that offers
a third-party "seal" program designed to alleviate Internet users'
concerns about online privacy.
can you make your Web site a more effective -- and trusted --
marketing tool for your start-up? Consider the following tips
from professional marketers.
for feedback. Ms. Kern encourages companies to establish a
bulletin-board system that allows visitors to post comments related
to a specific topic. Call it "How Are We Doing?" "Customers Sound
Off" or "Members Q&A."
includes a chat room for its members and links to firstname.lastname@example.org
on every page. When appropriate, the company will make changes
to implement the suggestions it receives. For example, a member
told the company: "I rent at only one location, but it takes me
three clicks to get to that screen." It would be more convenient,
he said, if the site was designed "so that when I log in, it automatically
goes to the location of my last reservation." The site was reprogrammed
to do just that.
several forums for feedback, including one for general comments
about the site. "We believe that it is crucial to develop an ongoing
dialogue with our members. In addition, some of our best ideas
have been provided via member-generated feedback," says Mr. Tolia.
your site updated. Evaluate your site on a regular basis to
ensure it continues to reflect your business, marketing and the
competitive landscape accurately. Know what's newsworthy, timely
and relevant to your target audience, and update your site accordingly,
says Ms. Kern.
same goes for your list of frequently asked questions (FAQs).
"FAQs should be an ongoing work in progress, in that they are
never done," says Ms. Kern. Keep track on a periodic basis of
the questions people send and revise the FAQ page as necessary.
updates its FAQs almost every week. Zipcar updates its list every
two months or when an issue arises that calls for a revision.
privacy statement. Epinions and Zipcar post links to their
privacy policies at the bottom of the page.
statement should tell users what you will and won't do with visitor
information -- and follow through on your promises. Don't expect
customers to just take your word. Additionally, consider asking
a respected third-party organization such as the Better Business
Bureau or TRUSTe to review and verify your policies and activities,
then display its "seal of approval" on your Web site.
Take the seal-of-approval strategy a step further and include
customer endorsements. John Bell, senior vice president/creative
director at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in Washington, D.C.,
encourages companies to use their customers' names. Doing so will
help convince visitors that "real people had good things to say
about their experience," says Mr. Bell.
you can, feature quotes or reviews from news organizations. "Consumers
put a lot of weight on commentary and seeming endorsements from
the media, and [you] should exploit those, in a good way, every
chance [you get]," says Ms. Kern.
information. In addition to its e-mail address, Zipcar lists
its phone number on every page. On its "About Us" page, it lists
its postal mailing address. Marketing experts suggest going even
further and including a toll-free phone number, fax number and
e-mail address on your site. Even if yours is a strictly online
business, include your postal address anyway. While people may
not send you letters, knowing where your company is located may
give customers some assurance of your trustworthiness.
Customers who have the ability to create their own user names
and passwords in order to access Web sites are more likely to
think their privacy and security are being safeguarded. "Having
that sense of security can be the first step towards trusting
the company that operates the site," says John Mills, director
of regulatory affairs for Myhealthbank, an online service based
in Portland, Ore., for managing employee health benefits.
Mr. Segal, author of "Getting Your 15 Minutes of Fame, and More:
A Guide to Guaranteeing Your Business Success" (John Wiley, 2000),
conducts workshops on media training, presentation skills and
effective public-relations strategies. His articles also have
appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times and The Wall