From 2006-2008, I conducted a large study of website credibility on a global anti-poverty campaign, in order to assess the impact of website credibility and trust on target audience’s participation levels. The study found a relationship between website credibility, users’ trust, and their participation levels. The findings suggest that online campaigners need to engineer credible and trustworthy e-campaigns if they wish to maximize their potential impact. The following excerpt describes the practical applications of this study.

Passage from the dimensions of website credibility and their relation to active trust and behavioural impact

For social marketers, pre-campaign research is called formative research; this is the point where problems are identified, target audiences are considered, solutions are examined and intervention materials are tested.

Our study suggest that Website credibility and active trust factors should be addressed during the early campaign planning phases to increase the probability that target audiences find the campaign’s messages believable, safe and motivating. The following suggestions show how the findings in this paper may be applied to online social marketing campaigns.

1. Since Website users may conceptualize campaign Web sites (in part or whole) as the credible source, it may be useful to conceptualize Web sites in human terms and model online campaign interactions on human-like relationships. For example, a healthy-eating campaign may provide facts and diet tools, but it may also model these features on relationships between the target audiences and a health specialist, ideally one who is a good match for that target audience. Likewise, an active living Website may consider adopting the disposition of a motivating and charismatic coach.

2. During the formative research phase, investigators can use the three dimensions of credibility (trustworthiness, expertise, and visual appeal) as a simple framework to guide research on online credibility. As credibility is regarded as a perceived quality, it should shift according to each target audience and campaigning context. Consequently, for each intervention, we suggest that target audiences should be the ultimate judges of what constitutes a credible and trustable online campaign.

3. When designing interventions, online content should, where appropriate, demonstrate the campaign’s expertise and trustworthiness. At the same time, these factors must be conveyed through a visual language relevant to the target audiences. Given two campaigns of equal substance, our research suggests the better packaged online campaign would outperform its uglier rival. Thus, visual appeal should not be underestimated, but rather, used as a vehicle to express a campaign’s core messages, credentials and other motivational factors.

4. This paper has not discussed specific design factors that are associated with Website credibility (such as colour, layout, editorial style, etc…). Nonetheless, detailed credibility factors should be addressed during the formative research phase by consulting existing literature on the subject and seeking feedback directly from target audiences through market testing.

5. The correlations in this study do not show that Website credibility and active trust cause behavioural impact, but rather, that there is an association between these variables. Research on this topic suggest that Website credibility and active trust can only impact the effect of an already existing motivational appeal. Clearly, Website credibility and active trust should not be misinterpreted as motivational appeals; but rather, they should be treated as factors that may modify motivational appeals. For example, a credible source who makes no motivational appeal cannot have any impact on any audience; while the impact of a motivational appeal may be modified by the credibility of the source. Consequently, credibility factors alone should not be seen as a substitute for sound campaign appeals.

6. To outperform online competition and competing behaviours, it is possible to stand out by having a more credible and trustable online campaign than the competitors. Conversely, the same factors used to design credible appearing campaigns can be leveraged to undermine the credibility of competitors’ campaigns. While some social marketing campaigns have focused on undermining the credibility of competitors, such as Florida’s Truth Campaign (discussed in the conclusion), our research did not address third-party portrayals. Although the three dimensions could be used to design discrediting attacks, this study has not examine third-party effects of discrediting.

Download the full study: Cugelman, B. Thelwall, M. & Dawes, P. (2009) The dimensions of website credibility and their relation to active trust and behavioural impact. Communications of the Association for Information Systems.