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Strut Your Credentials, Particularly Where They Matter

In some cases (for instance, the purchase of commodity items such as books or branded shampoos), many consumers will be unfamiliar with a particular dot-com. For this reason, it is critical for users to have a sense that the prices and rates are fair and the site is legitimate. The web can be a scary place for the faint-of-heart, and users need to know they are not being taken to the cleaners by one of the many fly-by-night operations that prey on Internet newbies and the generally unwary.

When the web sites in question pertain to industries such as healthcare, education, or financial services, the importance of credentials increases exponentially. In fact, strong credentials are often the make-or-break point for consumers considering whether to use such weighty services or purchase products from these sites. It is critical to getting users to put their faith and their dollars in you. This holds true whether you're speaking of consumers making "high ticket" purchases (such as cars, furniture, and antiques) or of the many businesses for whom the "cost of doing business" entails the purchase of costly goods and services from other businesses.

Consider the following examples. When Fleet, a major bank in New England, was about to launch web banking, testing showed that consumers clearly wanted the site to look just like the bank branch. They rejected a new logo in favor of the one already employed on signage, letterhead, and so on. Moreover, most of those tested wanted their account information to look just like their statements and expected the site to be a visually obvious extension of the bank: In every sense, its online shadow and not, as one consumer put it, "something a twelve-year-old in Wisconsin had created in his basement." The bank took these recommendations seriously, and consequently, at launch, the site was a mirror image of the bank and was as easy to use as the bank's ATM. Thereafter, usage far exceeded projections.

In another case, the first version of a homepage for a site that sold children's educational books and software made no mention of who or what was behind the site. Users thought anybody could be behind it, and consequently they simply viewed the site as a specialized e-commerce site. This was a missed opportunity insofar as the company in question (unlike competitors) carefully selected and sold products based on strong ratings given them by both top-notch educators and parents. For the second version of the homepage, the proud trumpeting of these credentials front-and-center on the homepage was extremely comforting and appealing to parents, who thought these credentials added much value to the site.

Finally, when we tested a prototype of a site for trading metal, we found that the first thing target users wanted to know was "who was behind the site." When they learned that the site was developed by significant people in the industry, their interest in using the site increased substantially. As a result, the company placed "About Us" as the first item on the homepage.

Figure 3.2. (Next two images) As with its famous bricks and mortar counterpart, the homepage of McDonald's (http://www.mcdonalds.com) greets visitors with the familiar yellow arches and striking red background—in other words, exactly what they expect to see. Likewise, Pier 1's (http://www.pier1.com) site mirrors the look and feel of their stores.

As these examples make plain, in cases where users need to really trust a site in order to enter the "front door," companies need to make the most of their credentials by making them prominent features of their homepages.

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