It's All About Having Credible Content

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Experienced Internet users are, by and large, a skeptical lot. Though they are quick to expound on the virtues of the ever-evolving Web, they view online content the way one might view a used-car salesman: as less than credible.


That point was driven home in a recent survey of adult Net users by Consumer WebWatch, a nonprofit research project designed to improve the credibility of online information. Of the 1,500 respondents, 29 percent said they trust the content on e-commerce sites, and 80 percent said it is very important that they are able to trust the information.


Call it a wake-up call to e-marketers, the survey underscores the core values of posting credible content on a Web site: driving repeat visits, building customer loyalty and extending a company's brand. Now if we can only get everyone to agree.


"One beauty of this medium is that everyone can be a publisher," Consumer WebWatch director Beau Brendler said. "But some people don't understand the basic tenants of good journalism. Sometimes readers are taken for granted - that they won't notice what's advertising copy."


They notice. And you can bet they're not racing to bookmark these Web sites. According to a new study by Stanford University and Makovsky & Co., people pooh-pooh sites that carelessly blend editorial content with advertising.


Nick Usborne, a respected columnist on e-commerce and the author of "Net Words," related a story of a successful foreign automaker that once cut and pasted text from a slick brochure onto its Web site. It made for good comedy, but at the company's expense.


"The exact words that were trusty in print were laughable online," Usborne recalled. "There is a lot of untrustworthy content out there, but often it's the online voice of a company that's untrustworthy. There is a different voice online. It's more personal, more human, more engaging."


And it's less about buy, buy, buy! E-commerce sites that seek to raise consumers' trust in their content must strive to clearly distinguish editorial from advertising. Adding bylines and author bios to articles, as well as citing the sources of your information, is a good start. Fact-checking and proofing all content so as to avoid posting false, misleading or mistake-riddled information is perhaps the most critical step to online credibility.


Not to be overlooked in all of this is the importance of customizing your content to speak to customers, not at them. The very principle of a custom magazine is that the content creates an emotional connection with a targeted audience, a connection that continues long after a sales transaction.


"The more that a Web site can give consumers or readers a sense of being able to interact with the people behind it, the better," Brendler said.


Added Usborne, "People have to recognize that the Web is uniquely interactive, so the style of writing has to reflect that."


E-marketers in healthcare understand the intrinsic benefits of tailoring their messages around credible, relevant and personalized content. According to a study by Pew Internet & American Life Project, 61 percent of online health content seekers (roughly 45 million Americans) said they obtain the information they need to make informed medical decisions. And they are the first to shun health-related Web sites with untrustworthy or stale content.


CVS.com is an example of how fresh custom content can create a sustained dialogue with customers and also cross-sell and upsell products. Rather than rely on hard-sell product descriptions, the site lures customers through engaging articles, tips and expert advice geared to healthier living. The content not only encourages repeat visits but positions the company as an industry leader.


"To make an e-commerce site stand out from the pack, you need to have good content," said Cindy Hunt, director of creative services and usability at CVS.com. "That helps grab the precious bookmark. A majority of people go online not necessarily to shop, but to do research."


CVS.com posts articles from its pharmacists (after a thorough editing and proofing process) as well as from WebMD Health, a leading provider of online information and research. Refreshed regularly, the content has a friendly, conversational tone that is every bit as human as the pharmacist who works behind the counter at an offline store.


"We get a lot of compliments on the content," Hunt said. "Conversely, when we do something wrong, we hear about it right away. Our editors always go through our vendors' copy to make sure it adheres to our editorial standards. It does take a lot of time and a lot of manpower, but [the content] is a great service to our customers."


Automakers also are making inroads in generating click-through sales through reliable, customer-focused online content. In a March survey of 400 U.S. consumers by Vividence Corp., 82 percent visited the Web site of a specific automaker before shopping for a car.


At subaru.com, the marketing folks would like nothing more than to increase auto sales, but their interests also lie in establishing communication with Subaru owners, whom they've identified as having an active lifestyle. This led to the introduction last year of "Outdoor Life," a collection of articles that show how all-wheel drive can complement Subaru drivers' zest for the outdoors.


The content, updated monthly, is supplied largely by Subaru marketing partners such as the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, the American Canoe Association, the International Mountain Bicycling Association and L.L. Bean. The articles marry quality journalism with relationship marketing to inspire trust in Subaru.


"We rely on our partners and other sources for the content because they are the experts," said Annika Ladner, online marketing analyst for subaru.com. "The feedback from our owners has been very good. The Outdoor Life section gets about 35,000 visitors a month. It's really a means for our owners to learn more about our partners and the different events we sponsor throughout the country."


More importantly, it's a way to build credibility. And isn't that what it's all about?


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