What Brain Scans Tell Us About Website Trust Signals
Marketers have begun to explore the use of neuroimaging—functional MRI brain scans—in determining...
(Following is Chapter 5 of Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)
Few things are more important to a brand’s reputation than its website.
And yet too many companies, particularly as they get caught up in the day-to-day of running a business, forget just how central their site is to trust in their organization.
Fairly or unfairly, visitors to your home on the web—and in particular, potential customers—make conscious and unconscious judgments about your company based on their online experience.
WHAT A POOR WEBSITE EXPERIENCE SAYS ABOUT YOU
If you are not giving your website the attention it deserves in areas like performance, navigation, content, and SEO, your visitors may come away with the following impressions:
Slow to load sends an unconscious message that you may also be slow to answer the phone, slow to respond to a complaint, or slow to deliver an order.
It foretells other potential issues for your prospects, such as frustrating calls with salespeople, products that don’t do quite what they are expected to do, and policies that aren’t quite what they seem.
If you can’t keep your blog updated, how do I know you keep your product updated? How do I know you keep up with the news and trends in your industry? I don’t.
I noticed that you misspelled a word in a home-page headline—so how can I trust you to do a meticulous job on my tax return, kitchen sink, or marketing plan?
Not paying attention to SEO invites Google to consign your site to the farthest reaches of the web. It’s like having your fancy office in a bad neighborhood or having your important business dinner in the booth right next to the men’s room.
These aren’t glib analogies. They demonstrate how people actually process information—the shortcuts our brains take in forming judgments and making decisions. The “prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas,” as Edward Bernays called them.
They also reflect how visitors learn to trust, or not trust, your brand.
CREATING A TRUST-CENTERED WEBSITE
We learned about the importance of website trust seals in the previous chapter; now let’s take a look at the bigger picture. What characteristics of a website engender visitor trust?
Ultimately, a trust-centered website must achieve the following three objectives:
This requires an investment not only in professional design, but in taking the time to understand your audience. Because when your website visitors land on your home page, you want them to feel at home.
Trust signals factor into every aspect of design, navigation, content, and coding—even your web address itself. And when you fail to incorporate them strategically and with intention, you leave your website’s success to chance.
THE $456,000 TRUST SIGNAL
It’s amazing how many brands will spend lavishly on marketing expenses like trade show booths and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, but when it comes to their website, are regular Scrooges.
For example, I’ve often had difficulty convincing our midmarket clients of the value of premium, custom photography, especially on the company’s Leadership or Team page.
I usually end up winning the argument, though—after I tell them about my company’s own experience.
“Do you know what authentic, high-quality team pictures can add to your bottom line?” I ask.
“No, how much?”
“Well, every case is different, and it’s next to impossible to quantify precisely...”
“Exactly! That’s why I think...”
I gently interrupt.
“But in the case of Idea Grove, I can answer the question very specifically: $456,000.”
That’s when I win the argument—and it’s a true story.
“I FELT A REAL CONNECTION”
Here’s what happened: a few years ago, I got a call from a marketing director at a B2B tech company. She had just completed a three-month agency review process and was down to the final two agencies.
But something didn’t feel right. She hadn’t forged the personal connection she was seeking with either firm.
So she started Googling and stumbled upon the Idea Grove website.
Like many of our visitors, she went immediately to the second most popular destination on our site: our Team page. She liked what she saw and picked up the phone.
“I felt a real connection,” she told me. “I got a sense of what you’d be like to work with. And we want our company to communicate that same kind of feeling.”
Just a few months prior to this conversation, my agency had invested several thousand dollars in an award-winning portrait photographer for the shoot. He really brought out the team’s personalities in their photos—and it paid off.
We soon began a year-long engagement with that marketing director’s company, including redesigning her brand’s website. Over the course of the relationship, it generated $456,000 in revenue for our agency.
CREATING IMAGES THAT BUILD TRUST
If the right photography on a Team page can do so much to earn trust (and win business), think of how important the right visuals can be for the rest of your site—your home page, for example.
Have you ever visited the website for a physician’s practice or health-tech company and come face to face with a home-page hero image that looks like this?
What exactly have we learned from this image—arguably the single most viewed element of your entire website?
Why on earth would you waste the most important real estate on your website on a generic stock image that literally any other healthcare company could also download from Shutterstock and use on its site as well?
It’s the worst possible way to set yourself apart—and also the worst way to establish trust.
When people come to your website, they want to learn about you—in words and pictures:
All of this imagery helps to tell your unique story. It also communicates that your visitors are not just coming to a nameless, faceless website. They are visiting your online home, where they can learn who you are and what you’re about.
Authentic imagery also improves ecommerce sales. A 2019 Cornell Tech study found that on secondhand marketplaces like eBay, sellers who post their own high-quality images of products are trusted far more than those who post either stock photos of those same products or poor-quality photos (Lefkowitz). Because online visitors can’t see and touch your product in the real world, custom imagery fills a critical gap in building trust.
That’s not to say that stock photos don’t serve a purpose. It makes sense to use them when it would simply be too difficult or expensive to use custom photography. A frequently updated blog, for example, will typically need to rely on stock photography. Even some of the most popular news sites in the world use stock photography to illustrate their content for this very reason.
But the most important images on your site—those on your home page, your About Us page, your Team page, and your product pages—should focus on you, not the latest pics on iStock.
TOP TWENTY-FOUR WEBSITE TRUST SIGNALS
Custom photography is only one of the website trust signals you should use to build a trust-centered website. Here are twenty- four trust signals that can make a big difference for your site’s performance:
Research shows that fully three-quarters of website visitors trust brands with .com domains more than those with lesser-known TLDs. While alternatives can work well in certain sectors—such as .io and .ai with technology companies—it’s often worth spending what it takes to secure a trusted .com domain. TLDs frequently used by spam sites, like .info, should be avoided.
One way to make a good first impression is to build a site that loads quickly. The likelihood of users leaving your site increases by 32 percent when your page load time increases from one to three seconds, according to Google. If it takes much longer than that, you might as well close up shop.
Invest in a quality, custom design. If your website looks like it was slapped together with little care and attention to detail, that’s exactly what a visitor will think of you and your product.
Deliver a simple, intuitive user experience with easy conversion paths. This suggests transparency to your visitors and makes them more comfortable filling out a form or completing a purchase.
SIDEBAR: NAVIGATING YOUR WAY TO TRUST— AND CONVERSIONS
Sometimes when I visit a corporate website, I am so disoriented by the stiff language and confusing navigation paths that I am reminded of Jane Austen’s famous line from Northanger Abbey, when Catherine apologizes to the older, more sophisticated Henry for her inability to comprehend his meaning.
“I do not understand you,” she says.
“Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well,” Henry replies.
“Me?—yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”
Working in B2B technology, I’ve dealt with my fair share of clients who have difficulty communicating what they do, and why they do it, in intelligible terms. This can lead to website copy that is needlessly indirect and obtuse.
The problem doesn’t always stop there, either. It can afflict a website’s navigation as well.
Three Hurdles to Trust
When marketers talk about website conversion paths, the conversation typically focuses on lead generation. But that’s actually only the second most important reason your website should have simple and clean navigation. The first is trust.
Visitors don’t want to be confused, tricked, or surprised as they navigate your site. Here’s how to avoid each of those frustrating hurdles on the path to visitor trust:
#1: Don’t Confuse Your Visitors
Research by the Nielsen Norman Group concludes that users almost always approach a new website with a skeptical mindset (Kaley and Nielsen 2019). They expect to be disappointed. The best way to earn their trust (and increase their time on your site), is to provide an intuitive experience. The word “intuitive” is so over-used in design that it’s become almost meaningless, but what we’re really talking about is providing an experience that isn’t confusing. This tells the visitor you’re on their wavelength.
#2: Don’t Trick Your Visitors
As all marketers should know by now, popups and banners flying across your website can trigger an immediate loss of trust and increase in bounce rates. Visitors have heard enough horror stories about data breaches that they don’t want to feel tricked into providing personal data. A classic example of this is the clumsy way that many ecommerce sites make “free” offers that ultimately require the entry of credit card information or other commitments. Better to be upfront if you want to build visitor trust.
#3: Don’t Surprise Your Visitors
Visitors should have the opportunity to convert at all the places they would expect to, so while it’s natural to want your design to stand out, you still want it to feel familiar. Some of the most common ways that sites give unwelcome surprises to their visitors are non-standardized layouts and conflicting calls to action. Content that is off-topic or off in tone can also drive visitors away.
When it comes to navigation, remember Catherine’s response to Henry and keep it simple—if you want your visitors’ trust.
#5: High-Quality Content
Your content should make visitors feel like they’ve come to the right place. Website content that is overly salesy, or blog content that is overly vague, will drive them away. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are a trust killer as well. Visitors notice when a site’s content appears out of date, too, so keep it fresh.
#6: About Us Page
Share your company’s origin story in a personal way, as you might tell it to a friend at a party. Add names, events, and little details that make your history feel authentic and unique.
#7: Leadership or Team Page
These pages are among the most visited, particularly for B2B brands, because customers want to see who they will be buying from or working with. Add certification badges to leadership or team bios to communicate instant credibility to visitors.
#8: Contact Us Page
Make it easy for visitors to reach you, by offering multiple modes of contact: phone, email, live chat, and a form they can fill out to be contacted later. Add your location, along with photos or a map, for those who want to visit you in person or at least know where you can be found.
#9: Personalized Experience
Where possible, deliver personalized experiences to visitors based on browsing behavior and other clues—without being too creepy about it.
#10: Custom Photography
As discussed earlier in this chapter, it’s OK to include stock photography on your website, but balance this with your own photographs to create trust. Include pictures of your offices, products, employees, and customers to help your visitors get to know you better.
#11: Customer Logos
For B2B companies, one of the most valuable trust signals is client or customer logos. Prominently display the names and logos of well-known brands on your site to attract more of the same.
#12: Celebrity/Influencer Endorsements
If respected public figures endorse your product, feature their photos and endorsements prominently, and consider testimonial videos in which they describe their experience with your product or service in detail.
#13: Customer Case Studies
Case studies serve three important functions:
Publish at least one case study for every major use case and make it easy for your visitors to find. The more case studies, the better.
#14: Customer Testimonials
These are endorsement quotes from satisfied customers. They don’t go into the same level of detail as a case study, but for a visitor scanning your website, they quickly establish credibility. As with case studies, the more testimonials, the better.
#15: Embedded Customer Reviews
Many review sites, such as Tripadvisor, G2, and TrustRadius, enable you to embed customer reviews on your website. You earn trust with your visitors in two ways: (1) by providing third-party validation and (2) by pulling this validation directly from a respected, neutral source.
#16: First-Party Customer Reviews
Third-party sites aren’t the only way to collect customer reviews. You can also solicit reviews directly on your site; these are known as first-party reviews. They’ve been common on high-volume ecommerce sites for years—but now businesses ranging from restaurants to SaaS companies are getting in on the action.
#17: Icons Linking to Active Social Media Channels
Few things cause visitors to question your trustworthiness more than abandoned or nonexistent social channels. Be sure to post regularly on the channels that matter most to your customers and include links to these accounts from your website’s header, footer, or blog.
#18: Social Proof Statistics and Notifications
Statistics that show your sales, downloads, subscribers, or followers create a bandwagon effect that makes visitors more likely to buy from you.
SIDEBAR: WOO BUYERS ONTO YOUR BANDWAGON WITH THESE WEBSITE TRUST SIGNALS
“He’s such a bandwagon.”
That’s what my thirteen-year-old son says when one of his friends claims to be a University of Virginia basketball fan—after the team’s first NCAA championship in 2019. My son has been following the team since he was in diapers and has endured his share of ups and downs.
While long-suffering sports fans of a suddenly hot team may resent the Johnny-come-latelies, the bandwagon effect can be a big boost for brands. It’s a powerful psychological phenomenon whereby consumers do something mostly because other people are doing it—even to the point of ignoring or overriding their previous beliefs.
The term dates back to the nineteenth century. Bandwagons were parade floats on which revelers played music and celebrated—and encouraged observers to jump aboard. Today, the bandwagon appeal has become a bedrock strategy of the advertising- ing and marketing world.
While we all like to think we make our own decisions, the truth is we find comfort and assurance in following others. People conform in order to be liked or accepted. It’s also a reasonable shortcut to take during the buying process; if so many customers like a particular product, most buyers figure it’s probably a solid, low-risk choice for them, too.
In a sense, all forms of third-party validation exploit the bandwagon effect. People want to hear what other people think of you before doing business with you. “Other people” include the news media, influencers, analysts, experts—and especially your customers. That’s why testimonials, case studies, and media coverage are so effective in creating website trust.
Volume, Volume, Volume
The ultimate power of the bandwagon appeal, however, is in volume—the quantity of endorsers rather than the quality of their endorsements. It’s less about an individual customer story or positive review, and more about the sheer number of people who buy your product or interact with your brand.
If you are in a volume business, expressing your success quantitatively is the best way to woo new customers onto your bandwagon. And if you can communicate your brand’s popularity in a dynamic way—such as with real-time statistics—it’s all
Here are four ways to leverage the bandwagon effect, which you may wish to feature on your home page or, if you have an ecommerce site, during the checkout process:
#1: Social Media Follower Statistics
Show the number of followers or subscribers your company has on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and/or TikTok to indicate that you are a popular brand.
#2: Product Sales Statistics
Share and frequently update how many customers you have and/ or the number of products purchased (“over 100 billion burgers sold”).
#3: Subscriber and Download Statistics
Let visitors know how many people have subscribed to your blog or newsletter or downloaded your latest tip sheet, guide, or industry report.
#4: Real-Time Social Proof Notifications
Particularly for ecommerce sites with brisk sales, displaying customer actions like downloads and purchases as they happen can have a real bandwagon effect on site visitors. They feel the momentum and want to be part of it.
Bottom line: if you are generating sizable numbers in sales and/ or customer engagement, don’t be shy about sharing them.
#19: “As Seen In” Media Logos
One of the longest-standing forms of third-party validation is news coverage. Visitors are more likely to believe your company is doing something right if it has attracted positive attention from industry publications, local TV stations, or other media outlets. Display their logos prominently.
#20: Industry Association Logos
Being part of well-known industry associations can carry a lot of weight, particularly for smaller companies and consultants. Display these logos to borrow the authority of the groups your customers know and respect.
#21: Partnership and Co-Branded Logos
Earn trust with badges and logos that highlight your status as an official partner of well-known brands. In B2B technology, for example, the partner networks of Microsoft, Oracle, and Cisco confer authority on member companies.
#22: Industry Award Logos
Award logos send a message of credibility and accomplishment to website visitors, particularly if those awards are difficult to win, relevant to your brand, and respected in your industry. Display award badges prominently on your home page, About Us page, or payment page.
#23: Trust Seals
As covered in the last chapter, certification or accreditation badges from Norton, the Better Business Bureau, TrustedSite, Visa, PayPal, etc., demonstrate that your site is safe and your brand is legit.
#24: The Ps and Qs
MASTERING THE TRUST PLAYING FIELD
Buyers make conscious and unconscious judgments about your business based on their experience on your website. Creating a website that impresses visitors with quality, establishes credibility with third-party endorsement, and builds rapport with intimacy is the ideal formula for earning trust.
If the long list of website trust signals outlined in this chapter leaves you wondering where to start, don’t worry. I don’t expect you to be able to deploy all of these trust signals on your website.
And that’s OK.
Before you can master the game, you first have to understand the playing field. By the end of this book, you’ll have a rock-solid framework for building, growing, and protecting your brand with trust. We’ll discuss this system as it relates to web design in Chapter 13, “Making Connections: User Experience.”
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
Marketers have begun to explore the use of neuroimaging—functional MRI brain scans—in determining...