Monetizing Trust


Verisign's recent – and odd – acquisition of Moreover Technologies made me wonder how it was positioning itself these days. During a quick spin through its site, the first thing I noticed is that it has dropped its intriguing old tag line "the value of trust." It still offers a program called "Verisign Secure Seal" which proves to site visitors that credit card and other sensitive data is transmitted in encrypted form, but aside from that, it seems to have morphed into a high-end hosting and transaction processing company.

I also received a press release from ConsumerWebWatch.org, a non-profit, grant-funded group formed by Consumer Reports. Next week it will be issuing the results of a major study of Internet user attitudes towards Web site trustworthiness. ConsumerWebWatch has done lots of research about trust on the Web, but to date has been better at raising issues than providing solutions. One of its main initiatives is to ask Web site operators to pledge to abide by five general guidelines it has developed that it feels improves a Web site's credibility and overall trustworthiness. For all of this organization's concerns about trust, this doesn't strike me as a very aggressive response, and the very short list on its site of pledged companies seems to confirm this.

This got me thinking about "the state of trust" programs on the Web. One of the earliest initiatives in this area was TRUSTe.org, another non-profit dedicated to building trust in the area of information privacy for Web site visitors. TRUSTe has introduced a number of innovative offerings since it was founded, yet in its seven years in existence, has grown to only 1,300 members, albeit very large companies for the most part The Better Business Bureau, a natural player in the area of trust, offers both a business "reliability seal" and a site privacy seal program. Despite its strong brand and five years in the market with this program, it appears to have convinced only around 25,000 businesses of all shapes and sizes to participate Of interest to database publishers, D&B has also entered the fray with its D&B Web Seal program, which a business can place on its site to demonstrate it is listed in D&B, is not in bankruptcy, and does not meet D&B's "business deterioration criteria." A list of participating business as of December 2004 suggests D&B has signed up fewer than 500 firms in the United States.

This list only scratches the surface. Depending on definitions and approaches, there may be as many as two dozen firms offering certification or verification programs addressing issues relating to trust. The need is there -- at least the vendors think so. So why have none of these programs taken root in the marketplace? I think the key issue is how to offer customers a concrete guarantee of satisfaction that is so compelling that it influences purchasing decisions (although InfoCommerce Model of Excellence winner ValueStar comes close). Satisfaction, particularly where services are concerned, is in the eye of the beholder. That's a huge variable that translates into risk for any third party trying to assure satisfaction. For this reason most of the operational certification programs have pulled their punch. Most offer very little in the way of added confidence for reasons of cost and liability. To meaningfully audit a Web site on an ongoing basis for any specific type of compliance is expensive, which is why most certification programs are based around written pledges to be good, rather than attempting to require proof. Similarly, arbitrating complaints and disputes is messy and expensive, so these organizations tend to stay away from that as well. Even trying to ascertain that a business has appropriate licenses and insurance is labor-intensive and fraught with risk if a mistake is made. It's a dangerous world, and ironically it may be even more dangerous being in business to try to reduce this danger. That's why most trust-based certifications devolve to "we think they're okay because they told us so," or "we haven’t heard anything bad about this outfit."

To truly monetize trust, somebody is first going to have to provide a solid basis for trust.

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