Public sector websites - building trust online

11/01/2016 By Sally Mimnagh

As a public sector web site, how do you encourage your visitors to trust you without being off-puttingly chummy?

This issue occurred to me recently when running focus groups for the Information Commisioner’s Office (ICO).  The issue was internet security and cookies.  We spoke to people with a range of online experience to understand common fears and concerns.  Not surprisingly, those with least internet experience had the greatest fears.

In particular, there were a lot of mentions of “they” and how “they’re watching what you do” and counting keystrokes.  Trust was higher for known brands, but even then there was some concern when brands got a bit too clever.  For example, one man who had been listening to Ultravox on Youtube at work got an email from Spotify later at home directing him to their album.

I had a similar experience myself recently when I got a new phone and logged into my Google account.  I agreed to let it set up my phone as my old one had been, and found it included everything – all my apps, contacts, and even my background picture of my husband hugging our cat (much to his dismay).

An online presence amongst your customers provides a cost effective way of engaging with them by outlining services available, ways of paying bills, or providing helpline services via email rather than through an expensive phone service.  So how do you become an organisation that they trust without being too ‘in their face’?

Some best practice advice on striking this balance is available online from staff in other local councils.  The three key tips:

  1. Include case studies or stories to allay fears and make residents feel included in the process
  2. Tap into trusted online communities. Residents will be more receptive to messages if they come from a trusted source
  3. Practice makes perfect – staff can develop their social media voice on internal social media channels (e.g. Yammer) and also gather feedback on social media from their customers or residents, to ensure their communications hit the right tone

While different approaches will work for different organisations, these tips should help to balance the professional and friendly faces of your social media and website presence, and encourage the public to engage online.

There’s an excellent Guardian page with more on this topic.

With my colleague Jacqui Banerjee I have undertaken a number of projects addressing communications issues in this sector, and we would be happy to share some of our experience with you if you get in touch.