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Hitting the Mark: How Privacy Seal Programs Work

Converting visitors to customers is, of course, vital to the success of your Web site. To do this, you need your customers' trust.

These days, it's challenging for online merchants to build this trust. According to Business 2.0, 81 percent of customers are concerned about privacy invasion. The fear that private information won't be handled responsibly or protected is often enough to discourage customers from conducting online transactions.

Common worries are the release of personal information to third parties without permission and the vulnerability of sensitive data such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, addresses and dates of birth.

While building trust with your customers can seem difficult, new resources can aid you in the process. The privacy mark program is a promising one.

Trust Is a Must
Privacy mark programs function much like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval program. They're regulated by a third-party provider, which certifies member sites if they comply with and enforce standard privacy and disclosure procedures. These procedures include what customer information is collected, how it is used, and the security measures in place to protect it.

The programs allow member Web sites to display a mark -- usually a graphic -- that shows their compliance.

Though the various privacy mark programs differ slightly, all promise to increase customer confidence in your site as a safe place to shop. The programs compete to create a branded icon easily recognizable to consumers.

This recognition is what attracts you, the online merchant, to become a member. The programs benefit from having you join, and you benefit by reassuring your current and potential customers.

Getting Good Marks
All the programs listed below require some type of annual membership or application fee, which ranges from $30 to $2,300 (U.S.), depending on the program. These fees purchase various services. All programs offer a drafting template for a privacy policy, and most supplement templates with child-oriented provisions, if needed.

These programs provide limited consulting services on your current privacy practices, and most offer an e-mail newsletter or content on their sites addressing privacy issues. They provide you with the mark graphic and a listing of your business in a registry.

All the programs make available to you and your customers some form of a consumer redress procedure.

Each program requires you to have a privacy policy, to fill out an application form to demonstrate your compliance with their standards, and to sign a participation/license agreement. Acceptance decisions take between 10 and 60 days, depending on the service. On acceptance, you can enter into a contract with the privacy mark program.

The image and HTML code needed to install the mark are sent to you. Then, for the period of time specified, you must uphold the agreed-upon privacy standards. Most privacy mark programs use staff visitation or random checks to ensure your compliance with their standards during the registration period.

If you don't comply, you'll be dropped from the programs -- usually without a refund.

Magic Markers
The most popular and well-known privacy mark program is TRUSTe. An August 2000 study by Cheskin Research states that 69 percent of American Internet users recognize the TRUSTe seal. According to Media Metrix, 88 percent of all Internet users visit a TRUSTe site monthly. This has led to many well-publicized cases in which nonmember sites have pirated the TRUSTe mark.

TRUSTe runs The Privacy Partnership, an educational outreach program on privacy issues. TRUSTe membership fees are on a sliding scale, according to your annual revenue.

BBBOnline is a program of the Better Business Bureau, one of the largest business-member organizations in the United States. A business must be online, have a clean complaint record with the Better Business Bureau and have posted a privacy policy on its site to be considered for the privacy seal. One potential advantage this privacy seal program has over other programs is the Better Business Bureau's high brand recognition.

WebAssured offers a free customer download that allows visitors to view a company background report, see whether others have had problems with a site and if they were resolved, and file a complaint or praise online. Fees are based on volume of sales. WebAssured offers merchants and customers online purchase protection: Customers' money is directly refunded if they're unsatisfied with a transaction.

Secure Assure approves an entire company and its privacy standards not just its Web site. When customers click on the posted seal, they are directed to Secure Assure's database, where they can verify your company's record and find options for contacting you or Secure Assure. Membership costs are on a sliding scale, according to annual business revenue.

Hal Can Read, Too
PrivacyBot's privacy policy drafting template includes a plain English and a machine-readable XML version. The XML document will be readable by the next version of Internet Explorer, which will automatically scan it and alert the user to any unacceptable privacy practices. This means that users won't need to read the plain-English version of your privacy policy.

PrivacyBot's automated application process allows you to display a seal on a provisional basis in about 10 minutes. Provisional status is noted on the seal. To obtain full active membership, you need to complete the full application checklist.

Privacy mark programs do come at a cost to you, both in money and vigilance. However, they can help you improve existing privacy practices and establish solid ethical practices.

To your customers, your visible participation in privacy mark programs confirms the safety of their sensitive information. This builds trust. This trust can turn transactions into long-standing relationships, which are the mark of real success.


By Caren Gussoffs, workz.com

e-Business Systems 2001. All rights reserved.