When we talk about “trust” in terms of websites, we often refer to elements such as adding details such as you address and contact details, a privacy policy, and a guarantee. But trust is also a process.Trust is something earned with every interaction.

For example, once a music artist has built up a fan base, their new album is bound to sell more units than a new artist. The fans place a higher level of trust in someone with whom they have positive, prior experience. It’s not just about the intrinsic quality of the music, it’s also about the conditions that lead to a valued relationship. The same goes for websites.

Thinking of trust as a process can help build momentum, build your name, and build your reputation. In order to get users to engage with your site, they need to first place a level of trust in your site. Thankfully, the bar is reasonably low. You don’t have to convince them to hand over their life savings, you only need to convince them that engaging with your site will provide them with value and not waste their time. And in order to keep them over the long term, you must maintain that trust.

Let’s look at a few broad principles about trust as a process.

Ease Of Interaction

Make it easy for people to interact with the site. Learn the self-evident lessons of usability. Go beyond usability. Offer easy ways for people to interact. Why is interaction important? The most important trends in the web space in recent times have been about community and shared space. Think Facebook, blogging, Wikipedia, feed readers, and cloud computing. They’re all about interaction, as opposed to the mid 90’s web, which was mostly about top-down publishing.

Interaction will become an increasingly important factor over the coming few years, especially as the global recession bites deeper. Here’s an exert from Jason Calacanis’ latest email letter:

“The good news in all of this is that folks are going to be spending a lot of time online, playing video games and consuming things that are not expensive. They’re going to be looking for “experiences over expenses. …Why will there be a boom in traffic, engagement and participation?

Well, people will have time on their hands and the desire to socialize. Group behavior makes people feel better. One of the best cures for the blues is sharing a meal with friends.

Blogging became a phenomenon not because of some technological advance, but because between 2002 and 2005 there were a lot of unemployed–and underemployed–individuals with a lot to say and a lot of freetime. Bloggers like Peter Rojas, Michael Arrington, Nick Denton, Rafat Ali, Xeni Jardin and Om Malik broke out in the down market–not the upmarket.”


People like to feel important. Offer them an award or an elevated status level. You see this technique used in forums. Members are given classifications, from Newbie through to Moderator. Bestowing moderator status not only assigns an administrative role in itself a form of hierarchy – but it also elevates their status within the community. Similarly, the granting of stars, boosting posts to sticky status, or boosting posts to the front page has a similar effect.

So long as an award process is transparent and consistent, people will come to trust in it, which, in turn, leads to greater levels of engagement.


People like to feel their opinion matters. Give people an opportunity to vote. Voting helps make people feel included, and that they are influencing outcomes. An obvious example of such a system is Digg. Digg is a community built around voting and a forum for expressing personal opinion. It could be argued that the downside of Digg is that some people’s votes appear to matter more than those of others. The lack of transparency is, to my mind, Diggs biggest flaw. If people feel that voting is skewed, they are less inclined to trust the system.

Meet Expectations

Deliver what your users expect.

Google had a problem. They wanted to index subscription-only material, but clearly publishers did not want to give this material away. This led to a situation where Google users would click on a result, but not get the article they expected, based on their previous experience of using Google i.e. clicking on a result leads directly to the indexed content. This situation leads to a decrease in trust. So Google came with First Click Free. First Click Free allows users to skip over the subscription page on their first visit.

The lesson is to try and maintain consistency. If users get something other than they’ve come to expect, they’ll leave.

A Sense Of Belonging

People like to feel they belong. Cultivate a sense of belonging, and look to include people, wherever possible. Be accessible. Talk in terms of the group, rather than the individual. Examine the language you use. Does your language speak of a sense of community, involvement, and shared values? Of course, this won’t apply to every type of site, but if you’ve got a strategy based around user interaction, then look for ways to make people feel as if they belong. It might be something as simple as responding to people’s comments in timely fashion, or providing a personalized welcome message, or using inclusive language.

Social Proof Of Value

People like to go where other people are. Think about ways in which you can demonstrate that other people use, and place a high value upon, your site.

Methods include visitor counters, positive mentions you’ve received in the popular press, recent comments on your site, feed reader subscription stats (like those offered by FeedBurner), third party traffic stats (from sites like Alexa and Compete.com) and quotes from known influencers. Make sure that people who are new to your site see these social proofs as soon as possible. Don’t bury them deep – put them up front, loud and proud. Don’t be afraid to blow your own horn.

Social proof is an increasingly important aspect of internet marketing. Some things gain currency for no other reason than everyone else likes it. No one wants to eat at an empty restaurant, even if the food is just as good as the heaving restaurant next door. People like to be where other people hang out.

To get there, you need to establish momentum. But how on earth do you build that momentum from scratch? The answer isn’t pretty – it’s hard – but there three concepts you are helpful.

Have a read of this article, Filthy Linking Rich & Getting Richer by Mike Grehan, if you haven’t read it already:

“The great twentieth century sociologist Robert Merton dubbed it the “Mathew effect” as a reference to a passage in the Bible, in which Mathew observes, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The Mathew effect, when applied to networks, basically equates to well connected nodes being more likely to attract new links, while poorly connected nodes are disproportionately likely to remain poor.

This is also known as cumulative advantage. If one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors. It has been proposed that “the rich get richer” effect drives the evolution of real networks. If one node has twice as many links as another node, then it is precisely twice as likely to receive a new link.”

Also take a look at this article in the New York Times, entitled “Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?”. To summarize, the article talks about how social influence plays a large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality.

“The long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictability is inherent to the nature of the market “

So, popularity is an impossible process to replicate and systematize. Popularity is due to a combination of factors, which could include take-up by a few influencers, being in the right place at the right time, gaining the momentum affect as others get on board, and a large dose of luck.

However, there are, I think, three main lessons here.

One is the role of influencers. Influencers is a fairly broad term, which can include people who hold sway over large communities, to those who are merely inclined to pass on a good find to another person. You need to make it easy for those people to engage with your site. To trust you. It’s old fashioned word-of-mouth, and it’s still the most powerful marketing method there is.

In practical terms, try linking out to the inflencers and saying good things about them. Or bait them. Give them things. Make it easy for them to talk about you.

Secondly, identify the hubs with a sphere of influence. All communities have a few, central authorities around which the entire community orbits. Try to get seen on those sites, whether it’s by buying advertising, posting articles, or participating in discussion.

Thirdly, leverage off a trust process.

SEO is an example of leveraging off a trust process. The user trusts Google to find the best results. The searcher searches on a phrase, and chooses a result from the left hand side of the page. The user will often choose one of the top three listings.

The key to achieving these things is tenacity. And to build and maintain trust.

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