During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only did ecommerce ramp up—so too did the activities of fraudsters. According to the World Trade Organization, price gouging, product safety concerns and deceptive practices all became amplified during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proliferation of fake personal protective equipment (PPE) made front page headlines, as the market was flooded with knock-off N95 respirators and sanitizing products. In China, more than 31 million counterfeit masks were seized. This shady business wasn’t limited to PPE—the sale of fake cosmetics, apparel, toys, and sporting goods also surged, with the number of counterfeit detections growing by 38%.
But while a global pandemic may have made consumers more vulnerable to counterfeit goods, the counterfeit industry was alive and well before that. It’s estimated that by 2024, it will become a $4.2 to $4.5 trillion industry, which is why the U.S. Patent and Trade Market Office considers it to be the largest criminal enterprise in the world.
This comes at a time when more people are shopping online than ever before, with Google reporting that 71% of people are “always on the lookout for new brands and products.” That’s some 2.6 billion customers who are open to trying new brands.
Yet, according to TrustedSite.com’s 2020 research, 92% of consumers have concerns about purchasing from unfamiliar websites. Questioning the legitimacy of an online business is one of the main reasons that customers will abandon a full cart, but it’s not their only concern. They worry their personal or credit card information will be stolen; that they won’t be able to return an item if it doesn’t meet their expectations; and that they won’t be able to get personalized help from a staff member or salesperson.
And then, of course, there’s the worry that a product will look different once it arrives—a fear only further perpetuated by simultaneous hilarious and horrifying subReddit threads, Pinterest boards, and blog posts devoted to online shopping fails.
Businesses selling online need to earn customers’ trust more than ever before. They are tasked with not only providing quality products and exceptional customer service, but also with proving that they are reliable and trustworthy. Research indicates that this latter quality is just as important to online shoppers as price.
Building that trust requires appealing to a customer’s social, psychological, and economic instincts. Here’s how to do it.
- Demonstrate social proof
- Personalize your “About us” page
- Invest in social media and original content creation
- Write clear and thorough product descriptions, along with your own photos
- Educate customers on how to identify authentic goods
- Show your customers how you're protecting their personal information
- Be clear on shipping timelines and return policies
- Make yourself available for customer inquiries and support
1. Demonstrate social proof
One thing that brick-and-mortar and online stores have in common? Word-of-mouth works.
We’ve previously written about how to generate social proof for your brand, products, and website, but for those new to the topic, here’s a quick rundown: Social proof can include popularity (such as the number of people who follow on social media), endorsements from trusted experts (such as micro-influencers or industry bloggers), or evidence of demand (such as the number of items sold). It may also include stamps of approval or certification, such as getting verified on Twitter, industry awards, or media mentions.
Getting online reviews or testimonials may be the most critical element of establishing trustworthiness though. According to research conducted by the Spiegel Research Center, nearly 95% of shoppers read reviews before hitting “buy,” with the purchase likelihood for a product increasing by 270% if it has five reviews (compared to none).
But it’s not as simple as just getting the reviews—they need to be of the right number and quality. In fact, perfect star ratings raise questions. On a five-star rating system, Spiegel found that purchase likelihood typically peaks with ratings in the 4.0 to 4.7 range. Translation? Negative reviews can actually help to establish credibility, with small businesses with a 4.0 to 4.5 star rating earning 28% more in annual revenue.
For this reason, if you choose to feature testimonials directly on your website, select those that seem genuine and offer balanced feedback, rather than those that are overtly positive or promotional in nature.
Finally, don’t delete or hide negative reviews; instead, take the time to respond to them. A 2019 study by international marketing agency BrightLocal found that 89% of consumers read businesses’ responses to reviews. This can also translate into higher sales, with commerce platform Womply reporting that people spend up to a whopping 49% more money at businesses that reply to reviews.
2. Personalize your “About us” page
Here’s the scenario: You’re shopping online for your morning brew. You find two different companies that both carry fair-trade organic coffee beans, at the exact same price point, with the same shipping conditions.
Seeing as you’ve never heard of either company, you navigate over to their “about” page to learn more. Which one would you trust more:
Business A: “We ship our freshly roasted coffee beans to customers across the United States. Our beans are fair-trade, organic, and affordably priced.”
Business B: “We’re Ravi and Mary Ahuja. In 1987, we started roasting organic coffee beans in our Seattle garage and selling them at the local farmers’ market. Demand soon outgrew supply and in 1990, we opened our first commercial roastery. Ever since then, we’ve grown our community by shipping our fair-trade beans to coffee-loving customers across the United States.”
Your “About” page isn’t the time to stick to company lines, pitch a sale, or use jargon. It’s an opportunity to create a genuine connection with your customer by introducing yourself, your business, and what makes your products unique—and, in the process, create a sense of authenticity.
3. Invest in social media and original content creation
Counterfeiters aren’t just found on ecommerce marketplaces, they also use social channels such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to target their marks. That’s why it’s more important than ever to ensure your own social media channels convey the genuine nature of your business.
Regularly updating your socials with fresh content, ensuring consistency in messaging across platforms, and interacting with your followers is one way to do this. This is about more than just social proof. When a Facebook page is left abandoned or an Instagram page only features low-quality images, it can leave customers questioning the quality of products or service they’ll receive when ordering a product from you.
For businesses lacking the capacity or resources to update all their social channels on the regular, it’s better to use a few key platforms based on your target market and do them well. So if your target buyers are all on TikTok, but you haven’t updated your profile in months, now might be the time to delete your account.
Likewise, you can establish authority and trust by blogging. Content creation works hand-in-hand with SEO to boost traffic and sales. But writing and maintaining a blog post is about more than content marketing—it’s another chance to form a relationship with your customers. For this reason, blogs aren’t the place to make a hard sell—they’re the place to establish yourself as a reputable and trusted resource.
Looking for inspiration? Here are eight blogs run by ecommerce stores—and what you can learn from them.
4. Write clear and thorough product descriptions, along with your own photos
When it comes to product descriptions, more is more.
This may defy the conventional wisdom of everything you’ve ever learned about copywriting, but to differentiate yourself from scammers, specifics sell. Your product descriptions should include everything from measurements, to materials, to even how the item is packaged when it’s shipped. Since fraudulent sites lift images and product descriptions word-for-word from real websites, taking the time to write your own copy and take your own photos of products matters.
It sounds like a lot of work, but many ecommerce businesses have made the mistake of outsourcing copywriting—and unfortunately, nothing screams “scam” more than SEO-laden copy that has been churned out by a cheap content mill. This is one case where it may pay to enlist the help of a professional copywriter, particularly if your site sounds like it’s written for robots rather than humans.
5. Educate your customers on how to identify authentic goods
It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling New Zealand manuka honey, original artwork, Nike apparel, or ethically produced toilet paper—your first line of defense against counterfeit goods is ensuring that the product you’re selling and shipping is authentic in nature.
This isn’t just a matter of preserving the integrity of your brand. In some cases, it’s also about protecting the safety of your customers, such as is the case with fake pharmaceuticals and electronics (two categories with the most counterfeit goods circulating in the United States).
We recommend writing a blog post or thorough FAQ on how users can verify the authenticity of goods. For example, Fashionably Yours, a consignment shop that resells vintage designer brands including Hermes and Louis Vuitton, outlines what to look for on its Authenticity Guarantee. Or, over at the Bead Chest, you can read a buyer’s guide to determining whether the African turquoise beads you’ve purchased are genuine.
6. Show your customers how you’re protecting their personal information
As the number of counterfeit and fake goods rises, so too does the number of scams and hackers. One of the biggest consumer concerns is the danger of having personal information or credit card numbers stolen.
7. Be clear on shipping timelines and return policies
In the world of online shopping, there are good surprises, like free gifts with purchase. Then there are bad surprises, like exorbitant shipping costs that don’t become clear until you reach the checkout page, or a product that arrives and looks totally different than what you ordered.
By clearly communicating shipping timelines and costs, inventory, and return or refund policies, you’ll ensure that carts are less likely to be abandoned. If you have a bricks-and-mortar store, offering flexible return policies where customers can return their purchase in-person may also help to make the sale.
8. Make yourself available for customer inquiries and support
Customers' hackles are immediately raised if they aren’t able to easily find a direct line of contact for your company. In addition to an email address or contact form, be sure to include a physical address (preferably not a PO box, which can be a red flag for the wary). Studies show nearly half of customers will leave your page if they can’t see contact information on your website.
The second half to this equation is responding promptly to customer concerns or questions.
Take your prototypical online shopper, for example. They’ll visit your site no less than three to five times before making a purchase. If they’re unfamiliar with your business, they’ll read through all the reviews, including the negative ones. They might even look for further social proof, such as other users tagging the product on Instagram.
But social proof is meaningless when customer service fails. When emails or direct messages go unanswered, or when basic communications (such as order confirmations) don’t get sent, a customer can quickly be flooded with doubts. It can also lead to negative feedback including publication complaints on social media or less-than-stellar reviews posted, well before a customer has even received their order.
Responding to customer inquiries, and yes, complaints, promptly, is vital to earn true respect and credibility.
Establishing your brand as authentic and trustworthy isn’t difficult. For most businesses, it’s just a matter of sharing what you sell and why you love what you sell, investing time and resources into original content creation, and clearly communicating with customers the type of service they can expect from your business.