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What's the Deal With Seals?

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What's the Deal With Seals?
By Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.

Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media, a division of Carlson Marketing Worldwide. © Carlson Marketing Worldwide. All Rights Reserved.

In the nascent days of the Web, consumers jumped from destination to destination with little concern about privacy. Yet even before the media alerted the masses to the twin scourges of identity theft and information brokering, TRUSTe was on the case with its Web privacy seal. Nine years later the firm is working on the tenth iteration of its standards agreement.

One question remains, however: Do consumers truly pay attention to such seals? And if so, does the absence of a seal make consumers think twice about entering their personal data or ordering a product?

The answer to the first question appears to be a qualified "sometimes," according to privacy pundits. "Most people don't understand what the intricacies are or why seals matter, but they're happy to have them around when there's a problem," says Alan Chapell, president of privacy consultancy Chapell & Associates.

As for the second question, when dealing with an established Web merchant or the online arm of a cherished offline brand, consumers tend to have few qualms about sharing their data or even about giving that company free reign to share it with others. But when dealing with lesser-known Web entities or with financial services firms, they demand more in the way of assurances.

"Anytime you're involved in the handling of sensitive information, it can't hurt to have a seal or some other kind of display that shows you can be trusted," says Charles Giordano, associate director, privacy marketing strategy for the Bell Residential Services arm of Bell Canada.

TRUSTe, not surprisingly, has compiled more than its share of research on the matter. In a study conducted for the firm by TNS, TRUSTe found significant awareness of privacy seals (47 percent of respondents had heard of them and 34 percent had not, with 19 percent answering "don't know"). Eighty-six percent of respondents said privacy seals were either "very" or "somewhat" useful, while a majority believe seals have effected their online behavior "often" (15 percent) or "sometimes" (38 percent).

TRUSTe director of marketing Carolyn Hodge acknowledges that privacy seals "are not the first thing [consumers] look for." In those situations where a person doesn't have a preexisting relationship with a company, site, or brand, however, seals provide reassurance that some degree of third-party oversight exists. "Publishers collecting more than email addresses, data-collection companies doing surveys, small merchants -- these are the companies that need to let people know that they follow privacy best practices," she says.

What's next
Giordano and Chapell applaud TRUSTe's efforts to date and note the effectiveness of the firm's privacy-certification programs. At the same time, they offer suggestions as to how seal providers -- whether in the privacy arena or elsewhere -- might further bolster their offerings.

Stressing that his comments are "not a critique of TRUSTe," with which he has collaborated on research about email seals, Chapell wonders whether firms offering seals update their standards often enough. "It's an administrative bear," he concedes. "But some of these Web-seal programs were established in 1998 and the world is quite different now. Some of today's uses, whether as analytics products or whatever else, probably weren't entirely contemplated. When one of these seal companies is silent on a certain topic that compromises the level of assurance and recourse you can give."

Giordano, on the other hand, wonders whether seal providers go far enough before giving their blessing. "Do they actually do an audit of all my practices to make sure I'm doing what I say I'm doing, or do they just do a cursory interview and take my word for it?," he asks. "[The approval process] should be more like an accounting audit than what we usually see." He adds that TRUSTe has faced that criticism and has improved its audits.

As of early March about 1,800 companies were part of TRUSTe's core privacy-seal program.

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