The Four Pillars of Building Instant Trust Online

Human beings are social creatures that seek out companionship and relationships. We crave trust. 

by SiteTuners

Without trust, we would be consigned to a world where we examine everyone's actions with suspicion, and assume they are working only for their own purposes. But because of the sheer number of social interactions we have with complete strangers, we must at least extend some trust on a regular basis. Otherwise, many acts, both small and momentous, simply could not happen.

Even with total strangers in the "real world", we at least have appearance and body language to discern some level of trust. Online, we are at a disadvantage. Almost anyone can quickly create a website or landing page and masquerade as a wide variety of businesses. Additionally, we are often barraged in the media about various scams perpetrated online. So, we already have our guard up.

As an online marketer, your job is very difficult compared to your bricks-and-mortar counterparts. You must not only overcome anxieties, but do so in the most challenging of circumstances.

Online trust must be developed without face-to-face contact, and it must be created instantly in the few precious seconds it takes a website visitor to evaluate your value proposition.

So how can you build instant trust online?

First impressions matter. Recent research indicates that people will form an initial impression of your landing page or website within 50 milliseconds. This is almost as fast as visual processing happens in the brain, and can be considered as an instantaneous and automatic response. This initial reaction then extends to a more considered review of the page and will impact our likelihood of taking the desired conversion action.

Don't get disqualified based solely on your site's appearance We prefer well-dressed and groomed job candidates. We try to put our best foot forward on first dates. The same should be done online.

- Professionalism of design: Regardless of the intended audience or your business purpose, the visual design of your website should be professionally executed. It must hang together and function as a unified whole. Fonts, colors, and graphical elements must combine into a single visual "look."

- Sparseness and neatness: Clutter can be your worst enemy - whether it is visual embellishments, or dense, longwinded text. Less is more. Ruthlessly edit everything on the page until it is pared to its essence and has a natural and unforced feel. Give your page room to breathe.

- Organization & clarity: Too many choices on the page can be paralyzing. Similarly, a disorganized page increases the visitor's cognitive load and forces them to spend time simply trying to figure out how they should digest the information that you have presented. As the title of Steve Krug's excellent book on Web usability so elegantly puts it, "Don't Make Me Think".


Transactional Assurances
Will we be spammed if we enter our e-mail into a form? Will the goods promised ever be delivered after we order from an online catalog? Will our identity be stolen? Such questions are always in the background when we navigate around the Web.

Relieve point-of-action anxieties before they arise The mechanics of the conversion action matter. Whether you are trying to collect an e-mail for an online newsletter or have someone purchase an expensive item, reassurances are needed about the transaction.

- Forms of payment and delivery: Many ecommerce catalogs only show acceptable forms of payment and return policies after the checkout process has been started. In fact, they must be seen before they are needed and prominently displayed above the fold on every page. The same is true of well-known delivery and shipping methods.

- Data security and privacy: The website must be certified as "safe" by outside experts in terms of its ability to protect data. Having privacy policies and computer security trustmarks from well-known vendors will instantly show someone that you have safeguarded their data properly.

- Policies and guarantees: Often, the transaction is not at issue. It is what happens afterwards that concerns people. By prominently featuring warranties, return policies and guarantees, you can assuage these anxieties. A visual seal can be created to draw the eye to these important elements.

Experts & Media
Your visitors are not likely to have heard of your brand. Unless you represent a truly world-class consumer company, people are unlikely to know your brand promise. They do not know what you stand for.

Borrow trust from better-known brands

- Reviews and awards: Many services and products have won awards or at least been reviewed by relevant industry publications. Using the award seals or "reviewed by" language can be very effective.

- Paid endorsements and spokespeople: Paid endorsements can convey trust or at least transfer the celebrity of the spokesperson to the product or service in question.

- Marquee clients: Using client logos with permission or at least prominently featuring a written list of clients (unless specifically prohibited by contract language) will create powerful visual proof of your legitimacy. They confer an implicit halo effect - if you have worked with large companies, you can handle smaller "regular" ones.

- Media Mentions: Media companies are experts at self-promotion. Any association with them confers a sense of notoriety to your landing page. Often, media outlets can be broadly defined as bloggers or authoritative voices in your specific niche.

Keep in mind that there are several caveats to using expert and media logos. They must appear above the fold and be seen at the same time as the call to action (not below or after it) in order to provide context for the content on the page. On the other hand, they must be displayed subtly, as to not dominate the visual conversation. The logos are often expertly designed, distinctive and instantly recognizable in order to draw attention. So, you may need to actually de-emphasize their impact by reducing size, decreasing color saturation (possibly using grayscale) and decreasing contrast with the background color chosen to display the logos.

Consensus of Peers
We often follow the lead of people like ourselves. For example, if our circle of acquaintances turn us on to a new musical group, we are more likely to listen. Regardless of the actual cultural tribes that we belong to, our peers exert a very strong influence on us.

Support automatic compliance by demonstrating "social proof"
There are two important preconditions for social proof to be effective: 1) there must be many people who are taking a similar action and, 2) they must be as close to our own personas as possible.

- Objective numbers: "The many" can be demonstrated by showing how many people have bought, downloaded, or started a free trial. Numbers should be cumulative, starting with the inception of the business or product. Spell out the digits of each number (e.g. "Over 1,000,000 downloads"), and use large fonts to draw additional attention.

- Likeness: Create affinity by demonstrating that the people taking action are similar to your website visitors. This can be done by picking appropriate colors, editorial tone and graphics to make your visitors feel at home. You can also have a large number of detailed testimonials that discuss common situations faced by similar people.

Trust is a critical factor to transactional success, particularly in an online environment. If you build on the four pillars of trust outlined herein, you should have a solid foundation for improved conversions.

About the Author: Tim Ash is CEO of, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and tools to improve conversion. SiteTuners' interactive Express Reviews of a landing page can quickly identify major conversion issues. Ash is a frequent speaker at Internet marketing conferences. He is a contributing columnist to several industry publications and websites, and is also the author of the bestselling book "Landing Page Optimization."