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Make a Good Impression
With a Superior Web Site


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.

The Personal Touch

Personal communications 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.

For example, 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.

For example, 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)."

Your Input Is Welcome, 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."

"By 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.

"Trust is 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:

  1. Transparency: users can see who writes content, why it's sorted a certain way, and what other users think of it;
  2. Objectivity: the site doesn't write, edit or rate the content -- members determine what and where content appears; and
  3. Feedback: members can comment on products, reviews, people and the site itself.

How to Build Confidence

Of course, 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.

How can you make your Web site a more effective -- and trusted -- marketing tool for your start-up? Consider the following tips from professional marketers.

Ask 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."

Zipcar's site includes a chat room for its members and links to 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.

Epinions has 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.

Keep 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.

The 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. Epinions updates its FAQs almost every week. Zipcar updates its list every two months or when an issue arises that calls for a revision.

Post a privacy statement. Epinions and Zipcar post links to their privacy policies at the bottom of the page.

A privacy 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.

Use endorsements. 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.

If 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.

List contact 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.

Use password-protection. 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.

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