Online trust between consumers and companies is becoming an integral component of online business and marketing. If a company wants a lasting online presence, then its marketing strategy must include ensuring to build customer rapport, trust, and loyalty. One of the vital benefits of internet marketing is its ability to reach a wider audience due to the quality of the information dissemination method. Because of its wide reach, it is able to traverse geographic and national boundaries at a cheaper cost. By improving its web marketing strategy, a company increases its sales and achieves a competitive advantage over similar businesses that do not employ the same tactics. However, as consumers' do business only with trusted web sites, companies begin to understand that customer trust is not only about privacy and security, but also involves other factors such as pro-active communication, third party endorsements, user interface design, website quality and credibility, and customer service, among others. As well, because customers are now computer literate and information on the web abounds, companies cannot afford to offer substandard levels of services and products lest they lose their most loyal clientele to other companies doing business online.
In this light, what then is online trust? Why is it so important when discussing online marketing strategy? What are the components of online trust? Are these the same for various companies regardless of type of business?
What is Online Trust?
Online trust is a key success factor for companies doing businesses online. It refers to the users' willingness to share information on the Internet despite knowing there are certain risks attached to making oneself vulnerable (Meckel 2011). Studies reveal that this willingness to become vulnerable is based on one's perceived trustworthiness of the other party. Von Kaenel, Hoffman, and Meckel (n.d.) shares that this level of vulnerability is a "prerequisite for online transactions in the various business models" (p. 4) as it means sharing oneself by revealing important details about the individual as well as knowing and understanding the other party, too (p. 8). It further shows an individual's level of comfort when to come to giving out personal information.
Because trust has to be earned, some potential customers who may have been using the Internet for years already still hesitate doing transactions online for fear of losing important data and becoming victims of cybercrimes (Cheung & Lee, n.d., p. 681).
Why Is Trust Important when Discussing Online Marketing Strategy?
Online marketing strategy helps a business leverage on its strengths as it lessens the occurrences of risks and failures. Without a strategy, business owners risk losing clients, money, and their business. However, despite having a marketing strategy in place, if business owners do not consider how to build relationships with their customers and potential clients, their business is doomed to fail. This is because trust is important to keep clients and attract new customers (Kamari & Kamari, 2012, p. 125).
Trust involves two types of trust relationships with clients, online and offline. Online trust pertains to activities that the company does to maintain its online presence, especially its website. On the other hand, offline trust is all about the company's relationship with its customers and company stakeholders (Nagel, 2013). What differentiates one from the other is that in online trust, the basis of trust is what the customer sees in the company's website, or customer experience and the technology applied by the company, whereas, offline trust pertains to the actual relationship or interaction between the customer and the company (Shankar, Sultan, & Urban, 2002, p. 4). Thus, for a company to gain a customer's trust, the website itself must speak for the company because it is the first and primary interaction between the two entities.
Trust helps facilitate business relations because a satisfied customer will always come back to transact business with the same company based on his or her experience with the firm. It also aids in reduction of transaction costs considering the many benefits companies provide loyal customers with (Yazdanifard, et al., 2011, p. 144). In addition, the customer is more likely to order more products or avail of more services if the individual trusts the company. In return, this translates to more income for the company (Mahadevan & Venkatesh, 2000, p. 3).
Components of Online Trust
Being the focal point of contact between company and customer, the company's website must focus on usability in order to attract a customer's attention as this improves website performance, increases sales and revenues, and boosts opportunities for success. Thus, user experience must generally be positive all throughout the time the customer is navigating the site (Hansen, 2011). Clients would generally look for points to consider when it comes to doing business online. Considering the financial risks and information risks involved, it is just natural for customers to become wary of online transactions (Bart, et al., 2005, p. 5). The key is transparency, accessibility, and availability of the Support team as well as information needed by the client (Smiciklas, 2011). When these points are present, a client is more likely to feel comfortable to reveal vital information needed for the transaction. Therefore, with high perception of trust comes lower risk perception on the end of the customer (Howells-Smith, 2010).
Apart from these, clients look for reciprocity and exchange of information and relationship with companies. This means when clients disclose their personal data to a company, the expectation is that the company will also do the same to the client. They want proactive communication with the company wherein product and service information are already present on the website, including the accessibility of company entities to respond to their queries. Third party endorsements are also important because with the support and good word from other satisfied users, customers are more likely to try products or services provided by the company (Online, 2012). Brand reputation adds to the equation, as customers will look for stability, innovation, relationship, and competence of the company to provide for the various needs of its loyal customers (Jarvenpaa, et al., 2000, p. 49).
In summary, customers and potential clients develop online trust when factors such as satisfying online experience, low perceived risks (Connolly, 2007, p. 6), good brand reputation, security, positive feedback from users, and availability of information are present (Super User, 2005).
Figure 1 Diagram of a Research Model
Source: Alam & Yasin, 2010
Physical Components of Trust
Companies that have existing websites or plan to develop one must understand the characteristics of an effective website that helps build online trust. Users do not browse poorly designed websites, thus, instead of helping the company increase its clientele, it does more harm than good to the business. Therefore, companies must take into consideration the appearance, content, functionality, and usability of their websites if they want to attract more customers into their business.
The website's appearance must already be eye-catching and visually appealing. It must have a professional look in order to generate positive impressions from clients. Therefore, planning the website must consider the use of appropriate color that speaks of professionalism. Business owners must deviate from too much color as it could distract the client from the products and services offered. The text must also be easy to read in terms of size and font style (Walker Sands Communications). If images are to be used, photographs must be of high quality to further increase the visual appeal. Most importantly, the layout must be simple enough that there is less clutter in the website. Multimedia may be used, but must be kept to the minimum to illustrate an air of professionalism (Site Tuners, 2012).
Website content must also be professionally written, especially if the website is an informational site. This is how business owners can increase website traffic – if information is well-written and current, then confidence in the business increases as well (Matthew & Cheung, n.d.,).
Along with appearance, functionality is an important aspect of a good website. Each part of the website must work properly. Broken links or email links that are not working only frustrates users and can disillusion the user about the company (Black, n.d). In connection with functionality is usability, which equates to fast loading pages, minimal scrolling, descriptive link texts, consistency in layout, and compatibility with different browsers, among others. These components are among the factors that determine whether a company is trustworthy or not (Porta, 2009).
Evaluation of a Consumer Retailer's Website
Considering the above determinants of online trust, a company involved in selling products online will be evaluated whether it satisfies the requirements of a trustworthy site. The site's name is Jill's Consignment (http://www.jillsconsignment.com/), which has been in operation since 1996.
The website's appearance is simple and does not contain too many colors that could inhibit a customer from seeing important information. The font is plain and is of the right size for the average reader. Content-wise, the site is informative and contains all the necessary information needed by a prospective client. However, while the grammar and vocabulary used are correct, the flow of the language sounds robotic. In addition, some parts of the site, such as the About Us section, were too long, thus, it seemed like ongoing paragraphs of information. Although the business owner probably wanted to establish the company's credibility by citing the company's history, it would have been better had the owner made use of sections to break up the content. The Contact Us section contained information about the owner, which included addresses, phone numbers, and an email address. These are important parts of a website as they establish the website's reliability.
Checking the site's functionality showed that all links are working and pointing to the correct page. Even the loading capability of the site was fast, layout was consistent, and major parts of the website can easily be located. In terms of feedback, searching the Internet using the "jill's consignment" as search parameter did not show any negative feedback or complaints from customers. Thus, prospective clients can be rest assured that the site could be trusted.
Online trust is a vital aspect of a company's online business strategy. Without it, businesses could fail and lose valuable clientele. Online trust is multidimensional in the sense it covers various aspects such as website credibility, client's emotional comfort, product and service quality, and client's security and privacy. When all these constructs are present, clients offer unwavering trust and loyalty to businesses.
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