007 – Six Trust Signals for Health Nonprofit Websites

If you provide online health information, people must trust you before they choose to read it. However, many nonprofit health organizations miss this critical step when crafting their digital platform. In this solo episode, Spencer breaks down the six website trust signals he’s observed in Brooks Digital’s research, and how they fit into the larger arc of effective health information.

Full Transcript

Speakers: Spencer Brooks

Spencer Brooks 00:05


Welcome to Health, Nonprofit Digital Marketing, a podcast for nonprofit marketing and communications leaders who are using the internet to reach and engage people with health issues. I’m your host, Spencer Brooks of Brooks Digital, an agency specializing in digital platforms for health nonprofits.

00:23 Website Trust Signals

And today, you get a special solo episode with me, so isn’t that exciting, you get to hear me talk to myself or really to you. But I’m kind of sitting in this room alone so it just it feels like I’m talking to myself. But I’m actually really excited because one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the topic of website trust signals, which is what I wanted to talk to you about today. And the idea with website trust signals, those are just simply the factors on your website, which will either contribute to, or detract from visitors trust in your information or your organization. And so I think it’s a really important topic to think about and to be aware of, because if someone comes to your site, and they don’t trust it, for whatever reason, then they’re not going to read your information, they’re not going to take action on it to improve their lives, they’re not going to get engaged with your organization, become part of support groups, or to give money or to share things like that. So, trust is one of those things that it may not be obvious that it’s a factor, but it certainly is. And so, if you’re an organization, a health organization that provides online health information that absolutely if you want to improve the lives of people who have a particular health condition, then your website needs to be trustworthy.

01:50 Arc of Effective Health Information

So today, we’re going to break down some of the trust signals that that I’ve noticed in Brooks Digital’s work in our research, but I wanted to actually start with this this concept, it’s the Arc of Effective Health Information is how I think about it. And in the Arc of Effective Health Information, you have these four different phases. And they aren’t necessarily linear. But they’re these four different phases that a visitor will go through when they’re visiting your website, or they’re getting your health information. And they all contribute to ultimately that person walking away with some sort of improvement in their life. And so those four phases are first awareness, then trust. Third is understanding. And fourth is action. And so, I’m talking about trust today. But I did want to break down the other three items in that arc just so you have a context of where trust sits in that arc, and how I like to think about effective health information as a whole.

03:00 Awareness

So that first stage is awareness. And that should be pretty intuitive because if you have a person who usually what they’re doing is they’re typing information into Google, or maybe they come across you via social media or sharing, you know that some someone shared content with them via their text messages or something like that. And so, you have this person that’s typing something into Google. And of course, that first stage is them becoming aware of your content, of your existence, of your organization. So that’s step one, they actually have to get to your site. And certainly, you can’t really have health information that’s effective if no one’s reading it. So that’s phase one.

 03:00 Trust

The second is trust. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. I actually, the first time I realized this, that trust was actually a factor is I was sitting in a research session for a client of Brooks Digital’s and we were talking about how people with diabetes were finding health information online. I was actually at a session where someone that had diabetes was in a Zoom Room, and I was one of the note takers there and just listened to them explain Here’s how I was diagnosed, and how I started to search for this information online, and what I was thinking, and things like that, and they just made the offhand comment. And it was so obvious, of course, that I almost didn’t think about it and tell them, but they described this process of vetting different websites and some of the factors that they considered as they were deciding what search results to click on in Google, what articles to invest time in reading. And then once they read those articles, then okay, what things should I actually try to take action on because there’s so much information that I have to whittle that down and find the signal in the noise. And so that’s when the light bulb went off for me. And I started to think about this idea of trust. And so that’s the second item, the second phase in that arc of effective health information.

05:13 Understanding

The third one, and we’re going to talk a little bit about this today. But the third one is understanding. And so, if you have someone who’s become aware of your health information online, and they’ve landed on your site, they’ve decided that they trust you. And that’s like a split-second decision, usually, or it happens pretty fast. That’s all great. But if they don’t understand what you’re talking about, your information, if it’s confusing, then it doesn’t really matter, because they’re just going to leave because you either talked over their head, or maybe your website was poorly organized, something like that. So that’s what understanding is, that’s the third thing.

05:51 Action

And then finally, if someone becomes aware of you, they trust you, they understand your information, then that fourth phase is actually taking action on that on that particular piece of information or using it to change their life in some way. So that’s the Arc of Effective Health Information. And that’s how I think about providing online health information in a way that helps people with a particular condition.

06:20 Trust Signals

So yay, you got all that information. Now let’s talk about some trust signals. And there are six of them that I’ve highlighted here, I’ve chosen to highlight today. And certainly, this is not a comprehensive list by any means. It’s just some things that I’ve noticed, through the course of Brooks Digital’s work of, you know, leading different strategy projects over the years, sitting in on research sessions with people who have particular health conditions and just paying attention to their offhand comments that they’ve said, and then compiling it into this list here. And there is, by the way, there’s a companion article for this as well, that that I wrote, it’s called Six Trust Signals for Online Health Information that is on the Brooks Digital website. So, if you prefer to read there’s actually some screenshots, I think there as well of some examples when it comes to just how the website design contributes to the trust that someone has, in different features, different layout, things like that. So, if you want to get some visuals on this, feel free to check that out, you can just go to the Brooks Digital website, you can find it under the Insights section, I believe, I’ll also post the link in the show notes as well. So, you can find that. So, let’s get into it.

So, the six trust signals. The first one is the author of the article. So usually, people are coming, at least I’ve found, by typing something in Google, it’s very common with health information, they’re just Googling stuff. And they’re going to click and go directly to a specific article on your site. And I would imagine that if you go into your Google Analytics right now, and you look at predominantly where people actually land on your site, the top landing pages that you’ll find that those are individual articles on your site, it’s not generally the homepage, although that usually is in the top 10 sometimes, not all the time. But predominantly, people are coming. And they’re actually hitting an interior page, an article page on your site. And by the way, I’m making the assumption that certainly part of your work for the organizations listening to this or that might find this information most applicable, that part of your work is publishing a fair amount of content related to a particular health condition.

So, authorship, therefore is the first trust signal because someone’s landing on this interior page, usually an article, and the first thing that they’re asking, it’s actually two things. Number one, when it comes to authorship, they’re looking at the parent organization. And number two, they’re actually looking at the person who wrote that piece. And so, the first top level thing is the parent organization. So that’s, it’s a quick subconscious thing. Usually, people brought that up in research sessions actually, just in passing, looking at different things like Is this a university website? Right, that’s something that they’re sort of classifying that different, very high level types of websites is university versus you know, a nonprofit like a dot org. As an example, the name of health condition being in the organization’s name certainly is something as well that that can contribute to that. So, they’re first looking at the organization itself. And then they’re also looking at the person who authored the article. So, if there’s a medical title, and there like MD, that’s, that’s a higher level of trust, or they might want to just get a very brief idea of, okay, who’s the person that’s writing this?

 10:24 Organization Name

So, as a takeaway, first of all, just know that that’s what’s happening, right? So, if your organization if it doesn’t have a name, that would clearly denote that you specialize in whatever you’re writing about, then that might be something that someone lands on your site and goes, Okay, well, I don’t know who this organization is, they’re probably not, they’re not landing on your homepage. So, if your organization’s name or your website doesn’t make it clear that you are somehow related to the topic that you’re writing about that you have authority or expertise, then that’s going to be a bit of a ding, on the trust that someone has when they when they hit your site. And similarly, you can make the authorship of your content more prominent, if it’s not very prominent, if there’s no by lines, if there’s no biographies, if there’s no, it doesn’t have to be, you know, this, they don’t have to have an extensive full history, no one’s going to read, you know, a three page biography, but just be aware that that authorship is important, so you can make that prominent or more prominent on your site, if it’s just not there, or if it’s buried at the bottom of the page. So that’s the first one authorship.

11:46 Peer Validation

The second one, a second trust signal, is, is what I’m calling peer validation. And so, if someone comes to your site, and they are unsure of whether your content, your site is trustworthy or not, then what they’re going to do is they’re going to turn to their peers to validate it for them. And so how I heard this expressed was in a few different ways in some research sessions, I remember sitting in a session, and someone made the comment that there’s just so much health information online, it’s hard to know what to trust. So I go to social media, I go to specialized forums and groups, and I ask people to vet it, I say, is this good? Or could you recommend some good information for me? and so that that’s an action that people take is they actually look for peer validation, so that they can literally filter out the noise and find the signal. And you can leverage this on your website by providing subtle but important forms of peer validation, that don’t necessarily mean that you have to go into all these niche social media groups and forums and try to see your content or, you know, some groundswell kind of movement. But rather, if someone hits your website, there’s a few different forms of peer or social validation that you can use. In no particular order, if your content has ratings or comments on it. That’s a form of peer validation. Social media share counts are certainly an option, although I think a lot of platforms have actually disabled that feature. So, it’s not as relevant as it once was. I also think that there’s other information, such as even the amount of views or traffic that a particular article has.

13:59 Other things that we’ve seen are, if you have, for example, a large email list, like one of Brooks Digital’s clients has a quarter million email subscribers. That’s a huge trust signal. So that’s why we make sure that on their website, that number is prominent on a page and different signup form. So, it’s not shoved in someone’s face, but if they look in the sidebar, they can see oh, okay, a quarter million people subscribe. Maybe this is worth staying around and reading, clearly other people have found value from this. So that’s something that you can do, you can sort of weave that into your page, is just forms of peer validation. And so that’s the second thing to be aware of. That people are going to try to validate your site your information with their peers, if they’re having trouble trusting it.

14:52 Intent Match

The third is something I call source intent match. I don’t really like the naming of that. I just can’t come up with something better. So, you know, maybe email me or something and say, Hey, Spencer, this is a better name for this. But it’s what I’m calling it for now. So okay, so source intent match that’s a fancy way of saying that people basically gravitate to different sources of content, depending on their learning goals. So, we’ll break it down for you super practically. If someone is a researching medicine, like some kind of prescription drug, then they are going to tend to prefer a source of information that would be for example, a university or a WebMD, or a very official sounding, looking website, because that’s prescription drugs, they don’t want to go to a mom blog to read about that, they want to go to a to a source that’s credible.

However, if someone is looking for a lifestyle change information, so they need to make a change to their diet, or they need to start exercising more, they just need to learn how to combat you know, anxiety with a cancer diagnosis, something like that, then they are going to tend to prefer content that’s authored by someone who has personal experience with that, they want to see someone else. And this came out of a session that I was sitting in as well, that’s where a lot of this comes out of, it’s just listening. But someone said something to the effect of, has the person who’s written this actually tried it? It’s a valid question, right? They want to know, especially when it comes to lifestyle change things, you know, like emotional, mental health, whatever, that it’s not a doctor necessarily, or someone with no personal experience writing about it, they want to know has this person actually tried this because I don’t want to waste my time. So that’s what source intent match means really, is just being aware that depending on the topic you’re writing about, that people are actually going to want to see different credibility markers, or different types of information to trust it. And those things can actually be on totally opposite ends of the spectrum. Again, you have the mom blog end of the spectrum, which would be personal, a totally personal experience, right. And then you have the education, the University website, or the medical website with, you know, with studies and doctors talking and like that’s those are two totally opposite ends of the spectrum. But people are going to go to one end or the other, depending on the type of information that they’re looking for. So how this breaks down to health organizations is that you just have to be aware of balancing that, balancing the credibility of your information and it sources, also with the recognition that people are going to want to feel like you have empathy, that the person who’s writing the article has experience with the thing that they’re writing about. And so, there’s a balancing act that goes on right there. And weaving those two things into your site’s design, into its layout, into how you write your content even, is important because they need to be present in different amounts, depending on the topic.

18:38 Reading Level

Fourth thing here on trust signals, is reading level. And so, this, this actually goes in a little bit into understanding, again, the Arc of Effective Health Information, it’s not necessarily linear, sometimes, you know, people are going to jump around. But reading level is one of those things where like if your content is just complicated and dense, then people aren’t going to stick around. I think it was Readable, if I’m remembering that source correctly, that said that 85% of the public can read your content, if it has a readability grade of eight or lower. So, you’re shooting for an eighth grade reading level when you’re writing health information, because that’s where most people can understand it. And if you’re writing at a higher reading level, then you can legitimately get to the to the place where only a minority of the public can actually understand what you’re talking about. And I think that can be a problem especially if you are providing the type of information that typically is written by a very highly educated researcher, for example, who may make the assumption just intuitively that Oh everyone else can read it at my level or can understand these concepts. And you get a piece of content that might be really medically accurate but it’s really totally not understandable for the majority of the public who’s searching for it. So that’s, it’s, it’s legitimate there. That’s it goes, like I said, into understanding a little bit that third phase of the Effective Health Information Arc. But I think it can also be related to trust, as well, certainly, someone might be more willing to trust you if you’re talking at a very educated level. But again, if they don’t understand they’re just gonna leave. So, keep in mind, eighth grade reading level is the sweet spot there. And there’s a lot of useful tools online where you can actually check that like WordPress plugins as well make that really easy to do. And it’s, it’s a good target to shoot for.

21:00 Design Gut check

The fifth trust signal out of six, or we’re almost at the end here, is a design gut check. And this is probably one of the first things I would imagine that you think of when you’re thinking about website trust is, Okay, does the design look like it’s trustworthy? It’s super obvious, but we have to talk about it because of course, it is very relevant. When your site doesn’t look great of course, people are less likely to trust your information or stick around. I think that I think about it, I guess in bands, or maybe a minimum viable design. At the bottom end like you, you don’t have to necessarily have the world’s best website design. But it just has to meet this threshold of not detracting from trust. And I, it’s impossible to nail down exactly where that is. But I do like to think about it in those terms, where you, as long as you exceed that threshold where the light bulb and a visitor’s head goes off, it says, This doesn’t really look that great, or can I trust this? Then you’re probably going to be good. But that being said, I do think that as you move up the ladder in terms of just really good, solid, modern web design, that the trust does increase, because clearly, if you’ve taken the time to organize your website and make it look good, then there’s a good chance that the information that you’re providing is also going to get a similar treatment. So, in a way, the design and organization of your website is a signal towards how you’re going to treat your content. Because, again, like if you aren’t investing in a great website, then can someone trust that you’re investing in great content? It’s a valid question. It’s one that that people may be asking. So, this one in terms of action, I think a certainly a good place to start is to actually sit and show your site to members of your target audience and get their feedback on it, get their initial impressions. You can, for example, ask them to rate it from zero to 10 on a trust scale, or something like that. And just get their honest feedback and impressions. And you can do that with platforms like User Testing and things like that. Or you could just actually sit down in a room with some folks from your audience, that that will give you a good sense of how people feel about your design. And importantly, if there’s any immediate gut level reactions to this doesn’t really look that great. And so, you’ll find out a lot when you actually show it to someone and have them narrate their thoughts and their reactions. So that’s a good way to get some actionable information about that design gut check.

24:06 Content Organization

And the last thing, number six on the list here of trust signals is content organization. Again, this is another one that kind of bleeds into the understanding, also, but the reality is that when people are searching for health information online, they’re, as I said before, they’re usually Googling and they’re reading multiple articles, right? I’m sure you’ve done this, I do it. You’re tabbing open a bunch of different stuff. And you probably know something about the topic. And so, you’re skimming for what you don’t know. And this is this is another thing I took straight over a research session where someone was talking about Googling around about a specific medication or how to you know, manage a complication of their disease or something like that. And they were reasonably well informed, they don’t need to know the basics, like what is this, they already know what it is, they’re just looking for some more specific piece of information to fill up their understanding. And so, I think it’s very easy to operate in a vacuum, where you will rightly assume that, okay, if I’m going to write about a particular topic, then I need to cover that comprehensively, or at least give someone a good introduction on the basics. So that what I’m saying makes sense. And that someone who’s totally new, maybe newly diagnosed, they can get up to speed on that. But you also have to assume that there’s also going to be skimmers or people who already know that and they’re going to jump further down. So how you organize your content, I’m talking about the headings that you use and bullet points and formatting like bold things like that. If you organize that very well, then people are going to be more likely to stick around and to trust you in a way because if you outline your content well, then people are going to get the gist of it. And they’re going to say, Okay, right, this heading this heading, the setting, they’re covering this topic, this is stuff that I know, hey, this is something that I don’t, I’m gonna go here. So, it literally helps outline your knowledge, which increases trust. And it also, frankly, helps people stick around because they’re gonna want to probably jump to the thing that they don’t know, the thing that they are trying to find or the question that they’re trying to have answered when they’re when they’re searching on Google. So that’s number six, content organization.

26:38 Takeaways

Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of things here. If you’re still sticking around, then the six again, are first author, then peer validation is number two. Third is source and intent match. Fourth is reading level. Fifth is design gut check. And number six is content organization. So that’s a lot to think about. I’d say if I were to wrap this up in some takeaways for listeners right now, I would say the first thing is just have a good understanding of your audience. I think that that comes down a lot to just simply that all of the things that I observed and I broke down, were literally because I sat on behalf of Brooks Digital’s clients, and they get this information as well, in sessions, researching a particular type of person that has a health condition, and developing a deep understanding of that audience and how they search for and consume online health information. And so, if you know your audience, and if you’ve taken the time to sit down with them, or have someone else, sit down and do that research on your behalf, then you’re going to get a really good idea of the pitfalls and just the inner workings of the mind of someone who’s searching for that information. So, I think that’s step one.

And then step two, another very practical takeaway is, as I mentioned, have your audience members, evaluate your website, I think that’s just one of the quickest ways, is to go to the source. Show them your website, show them screenshots and ask them questions about things that you might not be sure of. So, it could be as general as tell me your first impressions of our website design? Or how likely are you to recommend this website to a friend or a colleague? It’s kind of like a variation on the NPS, the Net Promoter Score. If you’re familiar with that, or just again, ranking your website’s trustworthiness from 0 to 10, something like that, you’ll get some really interesting information out of people. And so, I could really just summarize with those two things and say, go to the source, start having conversations, ask people, and you’re going to find out a lot of really interesting stuff when you do that.

29:11 Outro

So anyway, thank you for tuning in to this episode of Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing. I hope you enjoyed the solo episode. And if you have any questions about that, feel free to send me an email. It’s Spencer@brooks.digital, Spencer with a C, and be happy to clarify anything that wasn’t clear to you. Again, check out the six trust signals article on the Brooks Digital website. That’s great. I think there’s also an article as well, that is I think the Complete Guide to Nonprofit User Experience and that actually talks in way more detail. But it talks about the process of finding out information about your audience and so like how to do the polls and stuff We’re base and actually how to improve the user experience of your site. Trust is one of those factors in there as well. So, I’ll link to that in the show notes as well. And yeah, like I said, if you like this, if you have questions or comments, feel free to just reach out via email or on social and I’d love to hear from you.

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