TV pitchman Kevin Trudeau recently made headlines with a ten year jail sentence in connection with his “Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About” series of books and infomercials. The case study highlights persuasive techniques used for ill gain, and it’s certainly a cautionary tale on ethics in online marketing and information products. But when I was following the case, it brought to mind another consideration: trust signals are more important than ever, not only to win you customers but to set you apart from from fly-by-night companies in your space. This reality is particularly germane to online businesses.

Against the backdrop of the ever increasing noise of advertising in every sphere of our lives, legitimate businesses must work hard to earn the trust of prospects and customers. It’s not a one step process, but something that is created through an initial connection and builds strategically over time by meeting expectations and over delivering at every point in the customer life cycle. It’s also about constructing a user experience that leverages trust signals – the right trust signals – to help overcome objections and friction points at the moment they develop in the funnel.

Trust Signals

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What are trust signals?

Trust signals is a term that’s broadly used to describe anything that helps establish that you’re a legitimate business, delivering on the promises made to your customers. Trust signals leverage some aspect such as endorsements by other customers or a no-risk guarantee to reinforce the core value proposition, while eliminating perceptions of risk. Some popular examples of trust signals include:

  • Customer testimonials
  • Celebrity endorsements
  • Expert or brand endorsements
  • Displaying subscriber numbers or social media followers
  • No risk 30 day (or X day) money back guarantees
  • Trust seals
  • Affiliations with organizations such as the better business bureau
  • Contact information and the ability to talk to a live representative wherever possible
  • High quality, active content
  • Professional documents like a privacy policy and terms of service
  • Press coverage
  • The logos of affiliates, partners, and customers

This list is by no means exhaustive, but if you look at each of them you’ll see that they have one thing in common: they help establish that legitimate individuals and organizations can verify that you’re worth doing business with.

Proof: The Most Important of the Four Ps

Gary Bencivenga is widely recognized as being one of the most influential copywriters of the last century. One of Bencivenga’s core frameworks is the four Ps of good copywriting: problem, promise, proposition, and proof. In his famous “end of career” seminar that he later went on to sell for $5000 per copy, Bencivenga said unequivocally that the most important element is proof.

Defining the problem is about mastering relevance. That pulls prospects into your funnel. Promise stimulates desire (such as in the AIDA framework), getting prospects fired up to buy what you’re offering. A proposition shows that you’ve got a solution that’ll work and that has real benefits. But the proof is what drives it home, speaking to your prospect on two levels:

  • Proof offers the all important intellectual justifications, helping to overcome resistance and natural concerns that arise with any purchase.
  • Proof also speaks straight to the lizard brain, reinforcing the idea that we want what others have and that if other people have good experiences with a product or service, then we will too.

Taken together, it’s pretty powerful stuff.

Building Trust throughout the Funnel with Content

Robert Cialdini is one of the leading authorities on the art of persuasion. If you remember his framework, you’ll recall that trust signals are one of his “weapons of influence.” Used strategically, trust signals can draw people in and help you make the sale. But the key phrase here is strategically. There are at least three common mistakes I see in the use of trust signals for conversion purposes:

  1. The company piles on every trust signal possible, believing that the more evidence that they can provide the better. There’s no prioritization of trust signals, and no thought to the visitor experience.
  2. Trust signals aren’t matched to the audience. It’s great that Betty White is endorsing a product for 11 year old boys. But does her perspective hold any weight with that audience? Similarly, would you use Taylor Swift to endorse an investment product for retirees?
  3. Trust signals aren’t mapped to the buyer’s journey. It’s important to remember that different trust signals will be effective at different points in the buying process. The more closely you connect the buyer’s expectations and the stage in the buying process, the more likely that the trust signal will actually be persuasive.

The Lean Approach to Trust Signals

In response to these three issues identified above, I advocate what could be called a lean approach to trust signals. Here’s an overview of a framework to think about using trust signals in your business:

  1. You want to strive to find the minimum effective dose of information that builds trust, without overwhelming or distracting your visitors. With A/B testing and specific testing focused on the user experience, it’s possible to discern the right level of proof elements that improve conversions without bogging down visitors.
  2. It’s important to know your audience and to determine which types of proof are most likely to resonate with them. Specifically, it’s important to understand this in relation to your specific niche. For example, the same person may demand very different proof elements for a fashion product (e.g. peer testimonials) and a health product (e.g. expert opinions). Only getting to know your customers and extensive testing can help you determine where to focus your energy in developing the right body of proof – whether that’s investing in gathering customer testimonials or crafting the strongest guarantee possible.
  3. Connect your trust signals to the different stages of buying funnel. While each of the following are simply broad recommendations, they can help inform the hypotheses that you use to guide your systematic testing.
    1. Introducing your product or brand: At this phase, general endorsements on the quality of your product and company are important. Press logos, partner logos, social proof factors such as follower numbers, and expert/celebrity endorsements are enough to keep prospects reading on.
    2. Educating about the product and stimulating desire: At this phase, a focus on customer testimonials, objective reviews of your product’s quality, an active social presence, and high quality content are among the most important factors to keep things moving forward as prospects learn about your products.
    3. Getting the prospect to take action: Particularly powerful customer testimonials can get prospects to take action. As they’re pulling out their wallets and contemplating a purchase, associations with the Better Business Bureau, money back guarantees, and the ability to contact a person easily with questions become critical important. Trust signals should be carried throughout the checkout process.

Building trust is one of the biggest challenges in the online world. It’s also one of the most important parts of building your brand and ensuring that customers are comfortable moving through the purchase process. Strategically placing trust signals that align with your prospect’s mindset throughout the funnel will increase your conversions.

What trust signals are most effective in your business? Let me know in the comments below.