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marketing: Web Sites Find Security Seals a Boon for Business

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Web Sites Find Security Seals a Boon for Business

October 17, 2007

"I AM ADORED. I am cherished. I am loved."

So read the so-called "affirmation blankets" sold on the web site of Seattle-based online retailer Affirmagy. But founder Kristen Marie Schuerlein wasn't feeling the love, especially after looking at her sales numbers for early September.

A year after the web site's launch, Affirmagy's abandoned cart rate — the number of consumers who shop, but don't end up buying anything was still teetering at a frightening 80%. (The industry average is 50%, according to Forrester Research.) "We sell fleece blankets, so we're well aware what our trends are in terms of sales," says Schuerlein. "Yet as a small-business owner, any time you see numbers like that, you're concerned. I couldn't help but think, 'What could we have done to capture more of those customers?'"

Her web marketing team's suggestion for Affirmagy's warm and fuzzy homepage: Install a few visible steel doors, in the form of merchant verification seals, that attests to the site's protection by online security firm GeoTrust. Just one month after Affirmagy posted the seals and when temperatures nationwide were still hovering in the 80s and 90s sales of its fleece blankets were up 15%. "We know we have a safe site, but realized that the customer needs to know that, too," Schuerlein says.

Such third-party verification programs are an increasingly important part of e-commerce, says Rob Walling, founder of The Numa Group, a Connecticut-based web-consulting firm. Here's how they work: You pay into a program, agreeing that your business will abide by the program's regulations, submit to regular quality monitoring and, in many cases, use its technology. In exchange, the program lends you the strength of its reputation, in the form of an online endorsement seal. "Consumers need to know that a web site is not going to misuse their information, intentionally or otherwise," he says. It's a valid fear. Internet-related fraud accounted for more than 60% of all complaints in 2006, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Just as a lack of seals can keep potential customers from buying, finding the right combination of programs to join is also important for boosting business, says Thomas Harpointner, CEO of AIS Media, an Atlanta-based web developer. The Better Business Bureau's BBBOnLine seal, for example, reportedly boosts sales by as much as 30%.

What's in a Seal?

Merchant verification programs fall into two categories. "First, you're trying to prove to consumers that you're an honest business and you're not going to intentionally misuse their personal information" say, by taking their money and not providing the product they ordered, or selling data to third parties, says Walling. That's where programs like the BBBOnLine and Dun & Bradstreet come in. For starters, they confirm that you are in fact a legitimate business with a verifiable street address (as opposed to a shell web site with only a Russia-based email address for contact info). They also focus on your customer service record, essentially, the nature of complaints and how those have been resolved.

"The other half is proving that you're a technologically sound business that isn't going to unintentionally let someone else misuse your information," adds Walling. Unprotected small businesses face real threats from hackers and phishers looking to steal consumer data. Hacker Safe, Thawte, VeriSign and its subsidiaries (including GeoTrust) all offer services that protect customers' data, improving overall site security. Because such security programs tend to cover a specific part of the e-commerce process VeriSign, for example, encrypts data while it's in transit, while Hacker Safe protects data that's residing on your computer businesses may want to consider applying for several.

Security-related seals are as much for your protection as they are for consumers' less than 20% of consumers say they would shop with a site or company known to be a victim of a data breach, according to research firm Jupiter Research.

Here are some of the most well-known guard dogs of the web:

Merchant Verification Programs

Program

Details

Annual Cost

BBBOnLine

Certifies that your business is a member in good standing of its local Better Business Bureau, and that your site meets set standards. Among them: prompt response to consumer complaints and adherence to the BBB's advertising guidelines.

$450 to $7,000**

GeoTrust

Certifies that data transmitted to your site is secure and encrypted.

$249 to $1,499

Hacker Safe

Certifies that your site is tested daily against hacking to protect consumers from identity theft and fraud, and that stored information is encrypted.

$1,790 to $5,000

Thawte

Certifies that data transmitted to your site is secure and encrypted.

$149 to $899

TrustE

Certifies that your privacy policy meets set standards, which includes notifying consumers of how their personal information will be used, and giving them a chance to opt-out.

$650 to $13,000

VeriSign

Certifies that data transmitted to your site is secure and encrypted.

$399 to $1,499

* Data from individual programs.
** Varies by location and business size.

You're Safe Here

Just how many and what kind of merchant verification programs you need varies from business to business. A site selling high-ticket items such as high-def TV sets, for example, may benefit from additional security seals that would be overkill for someone selling T-shirts. How you use these endorsements also determines their effectiveness. Try these six tips to incorporate them in ways that will help boost business:

Know your customer.
A safety seal means nothing if consumers aren't familiar with the company or group endorsing your site. Make sure to apply for verification from groups that your target customer will recognize. "To the [consumer], a rating from [business-to-business rating firm] Dun & Bradstreet isn't going to mean anything, but everyone knows the BBB," says Walling.

Leave no page unsealed.
Whichever seal you use, make sure it shows up on every single page particularly during the checkout process. Even the most minor inconsistency may cause you to lose customers, cautions Harpointner.

Don't mix security with marketing.
That Altervistas Weird Web award, which rewards "spectacular Internet weirdness," speaks to credibility somehow but too many seals on your page spells "clutter," instead, says Jimmy Duvall, director of e-commerce for Yahoo! Small Business. "There's no evidence that the more the better, and from a visual perspective, it can be overwhelming," he says. Save one-time awards for your "About Us" page.

Reiterate guarantees.
Just having the VeriSign seal indicates that online transactions are safeguarded with a high level of encryption and other protections. But it's a promise that's worth repeating plainly, says Ron Teixeira, president of the National Cyber Security Alliance. A simple statement like "We protect your privacy" reinforces the seals' message to consumers.

Dot your i's and cross your t's.
All the seals in the world won't help if your site itself raises red flags on the credibility front, says Douglas Shuman, spokesman for web consulting firm Register.com. Savvy consumers are naturally cautious about a site that is poorly designed, contains misspellings or fails to include real-world contact information. "It's like walking into a restaurant and seeing cockroaches on the walls," says Shuman. "If that happens, I don't care how many credit cards they accept or what the Better Business Bureau has to say about them."

Check for effectiveness.
Consumer advocates often suggest consumers check a site's legitimacy and security using free tools like TrustWatch Search and Comodo's Trust Toolbar, which check a site's security certificates and run its URL against lists of known spoof and scam sites. Look up your business to see what a consumer using such tools sees. Like traffic lights, a "green" site means go ahead. "Yellow" is unverified proceed with caution. And "red" sites are not secure or known to be fraudulent. "You have no way of knowing how many potential customers use that technology so you're better off fixing a problem than trying to convince the customer that their toolbar is wrong," says Harpointner.

Corrected on Oct. 24, 2007.
In this story, we originally implied that GeoTrust, Hacker Safe and Thawte are subsidiaries of VeriSign. A subsequent correction incorrectly identified Thawte as an independent company, when it is a subsidiary of VeriSign. Hacker Safe is the service offered by independent company ScanAlert.

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