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Improving Web Trust

Researchers at MIT's Sloan Center for eBusiness and Intel are trying to improve e-commerce trust with a new online system called WebTrust methodology.

"The WebTrust methodology has enabled us to generate superior trust between our Web site and our customers," said Bryan Rhoads, Web Strategist for Intel and the Intel team lead. He cited the example of improved user confidence in finding support solutions, "which can be a daunting task for the novice user."

Under the guidance of Professor Glen Urban, MIT students worked with Intel on some "trusted advisor" techniques and an online persona to help customers with a specific task on the Intel Web site. Urban is known for his research into "trust cues," or specific elements that have positive or negative effects on user trust. They were the foundation for work by the Intel and MIT teams to develop a trust generation development methodology.

"Trust has always been fundamental to relationships, whether between individuals or between a corporation and its customers," Urban said in a statement. "The traditional paradigm of how trust is developed, which was through real human interaction, has been sharply altered by new technology. This increasing reliance on electronic media poses interesting challenges for both businesses and individuals about our traditional notions of trust."

For three years, Intel has been analyzing Urban's theories and testing the new methodology on customers from around the globe who visited the Intel Web site.

Intel R&D personnel and MIT Sloan students then analyzed anonymous user click streams and user surveys between the test and control environments. After validating them against the control, the test features were reintroduced and became the control Web site. This "Trust Generation" process produced a more advanced and trust-based user interface and experience.

Early results look favorable. Intel reported its probability of success jumped from 63 percent to 83 percent over time within a site that sees more than 100,000 customers every day. Intel said the improvements also saved it millions of dollars a year by reducing the need to support customers through less efficient means like e-mail or phone calls.

A paper on the results of the project is forthcoming, but Urban is convinced that now is a good time for businesses to embark on a trust-based marketing strategy.

As a buildup to the project's findings, Urban drafted a list of eight strategic elements he said could help a company establish itself as the trusted partner of the customer:

  1. Strive for transparency.
  2. Realign to be on the customer's side.
  3. Help customers help themselves.
  4. Put the customers to work.
  5. Build outstanding products and services.
  6. Compare your products to your competitors'.
  7. Create a trust-based supply chain.
  8. Make trust transcend all functions of the firm.

Although trust is not the best response in all situations, Urban said firms like GM, Intel and HP are implementing trust-based strategies, and early adopters are formulating action plans to advocate and partner with customers.

"Trust will increasingly become the norm of behavior in the next 10 years, as the new paradigm becomes established and firms meet the trust imperative," he said in a recent newsletter.

Some progress has been made in the last two years. A June 2004 study conducted by the Ponemon Institute and TRUSTe found that eBay's community-based approach to e-commerce put it at the top of a list of sites considered the most trusted for honoring their privacy commitments. American Express, Procter & Gamble (all brands), Amazon, and HP round out the top five.

With the research behind it, Intel said it has now begun implementing similar approaches and techniques throughout its intranet and human resources systems. Intel said it is also committed to the continued implementation of trust generation methodologies on the Intel Web site.