Transcript of General Assembly and Welcome from “Trust or Consequence: Why Credibility Is the Killer App for Online Travel”

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Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings. 

Beau Brendler: I want to first thank you all for being here today. I imagine that many of the comments that you heard those folks make about travel sort of resonated. But you notice that they made them, actually, about a lot of different things on the Web, both positive and negative. I should add that they were unpaid, and all of what you just saw on that video was unscripted.

I should introduce myself. My name’s Beau Brendler. I’m the director of Consumer Reports WebWatch. I think a lot of you know our site already, but I just wanted to point out a couple of things to you. First is, you’re going to hear a lot of talk today, and you’re going to hear the word “trust” over and over again. You saw it on the invites and all of that.

One of the things that we have tried to do at WebWatch over our last three years or so of existence is to try to come up with a way that helps consumers and helps companies address that issue of trust. So you’ll hear people refer to “Taking the Pledge.” On our site now, there are more than 150 companies that have taken the pledge. One of the things that is good to remember is that there are companies large and small on that list, and some of them are here today. Travelocity, Orbitz. This actually is what the pledge is based on: the Consumer Reports WebWatch guidelines. And they’re relatively simple.

A lot of Web sites, a lot of the really best Web sites are already doing these things, so we should just sort of keep in mind as today unfolds. If you want to know more about that, if you want to learn more about the pledge, if you want to talk to other companies here that have taken it, and ask them why they did or if it was an onerous process or anything like that — I’m sure I saw Al Comeaux, there he is. Kendra Thornton, I think I saw. Maybe she’s not here yet. You can talk to them about that.

Let’s go to the home page. I want to just tell you a couple of things about the environment here today. This is a nice place for a conference, I think. I hope you enjoy it while you’re here. We have microphones on both sides of the aisle here, so we want to encourage you to — do we have our staff page? Tracy Ziemer and Ariane Orenstein, we want to take this opportunity to thank them for all the help they gave us putting this together. But they’re also going to be helping us today in making sure we get microphones in front of you when you have questions. And we encourage you to interrupt at any time, and then obviously, as the day progresses, which we’ll talk about in a minute, you’ll want to ask people on panels as they proceed.

I want to mention one other thing to you about the pledge. You can see it there on the Web site. And then in these folders, there’s actually a form in here. If you go on the left-hand side, you’ll find this sheet that has our guidelines on the back. It has a form you can fill out on the front, if you want to take the pledge. Then it’s just a matter, in essence, of us doing an analysis of your site and then appearing on the list, if there are no problems.

And then also, along with that, if you ask yourself questions sort of about: Where do they come up with these guidelines? Who says that consumers are interested in this, that or the other thing? We included a copy of a survey that we published in 2003 that we’re going to be revisiting again this year, that’s a national survey of consumers that, in essence, formulated what went into these guidelines. So you’ve got those.

Just very briefly, I think a lot of you are familiar with us, but there’s more information about us in here. We’re a project of Consumer Reports and Consumers Union. We’re funded by a couple of organizations that do a lot of work in journalism; henceforth, that’s why you’re all here — some firms that people associate with news organizations. We’re a public education project that functions like a news organization. Our mission is to investigate, inform, improve. Be the leader in investigative consumer reporting, and help Web publishers better reach consumers. And when we say “Web publishers,” we mean all of you. We mean folks who have Web sites, folks who have questions about how to make a good Web site, folks who have questions about what’s on consumers’ minds when they think about relatively abstract concepts like trust.

Talking about that research, some of the lessons that we’ve learned over the course of our two and a half years or so, three years: Consumers trust e-commerce sites less than government and large corporations. That actually comes out of the survey that I was pointing to you earlier. Consumers understand and want disclosure. Hide things at your own risk. I think you heard some of the folks in the video talking about the potential of feeling a sense of betrayal can influence whether they go back to a site. And consumers reward sites they trust with continued patronage. I think you also heard that concept brought out by our people in the video.

So how we are communicating this is through the things that I’ve been talking about: Our pledge to uphold the guidelines, our campaign to recognize sites that take that pledge. I showed you the list on our site. And then also probably some of you saw the advertising campaign we ran about a year or so ago recognizing the sites that took our pledge, and then working directly with Web publishers to improve sites. If you want to take the pledge, and want to be part of signing up, we do work with you on a confidential basis if the need arises, and we may say: Maybe you want to think about having an address on your site, and maybe you want to think about a privacy policy. It would be surprising to a lot of us, I think, to realize how many sites forget things like that. And it’s not a matter of trying to hide something, but it’s just something that hasn’t been included on the site.

Today’s agenda, we’ve got a really good day here for you, with some terrific folks on panels this afternoon. We’re going to start out, though, with some research presentations, new research from the U.S. and Europe, and what it means for travel Web sites. And then this afternoon’s panels: “How do top sites address credibility?”

Then we’ll hear from a consumer panel, or folks representing consumers, to talk about consumer concerns. And throughout the day we’re going to try to talk about the issue of how to recognize sites that help consumers, sites that are interested in trying to be as credible as possible. How you can do that and also make money at the same time. So that’s going to be today.

I want to just mention to you a couple of things about sort of the nature of today’s discussions. They are open mike so, as I mentioned, Ariane and Tracy are here to help get mikes in front of you. We were testing the acoustics in here a little bit yesterday, and it can be difficult to hear if you’re sitting in the back. So they’re open mike. Feel free to interrupt. Feel free to stop us at any time. Feel free to challenge.

They’re also going to be taped, so everything’s on the record, for two reasons. Actually, the main reason we want to do that is so that we have a record of today that we can go back and look at, and so that other folks can look at and see what we talked about today. So we’ll be taping the proceedings, we’ll make transcripts, and they’ll be on the WebWatch site in a couple of months.

And, finally, we want to try to be open, and we want to try to create an atmosphere in here where we’re all talking to each other in a way that keeps the bull out. This is sort of a representation of the theme of the ad that we did a couple of years ago. As we continue to talk about trust today, the more of you who want to talk to us about taking the pledge and joining our list, we certainly would be happy to talk to you about that.

Next is a guy who really needs no introduction, I think, especially to many of you here: Bill McGee, who’s been working with us pretty much since Consumer Reports WebWatch began. And he’s going to talk today about the research, lessons that we’ve learned from the research over our time in existence, and also some of the research that I think you’ve heard about.