The fragility of credibility: 5 fatal mistakes that destroy credibility with prospects - The Write Idea

The fragility of credibility: 5 fatal mistakes that destroy credibility with prospects

By Renae Gregoire

When credibility takes a hit, trust does, too.

A new study by the UX design folks at Nielsen Norman Group confirmed what I already knew: to sell successfully in the online space, your website must give readers a sense that your company is credible and trustworthy. 

Although the study focused on B2B buyers in China, its findings are relevant to all sellers, from Vancouver to New York and from Berlin to Puket. 

In this post, I'll tell you about five of the mistakes I see repeatedly, mistakes that seriously damage credibility and trust. But first, I want to talk to you about two reasons why avoiding these mistakes is so crucial: the negativity bias and the halo effect.

The negativity bias: Taking up too much room in your brain
The negativity bias: Why problems on your website damage credibility

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to remember a single put-down versus a handful of complements? Or how a poor experience in the world or online tends to stick with you, whereas a good experience just "is"? 

How about the strange feeling you get when your partner gives you what looks like a frown?  Maybe your stomach clenches. "Is he angry at me? Did I do something wrong?"

According to psychologist Rick Hansen, author of Hardwiring Happiness, these effects are caused by the negativity bias, which is built into our brains.

The alarm bell of your brain — the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory — in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. In effect, as I wrote in my last post, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. 

Can't you just see it?

A visitor pops onto your site, and is immediately hit by a demanding pop-up requiring that she create an account or register BEFORE being able to shop.

Or perhaps instead of being required to register, a new visitor is hit immediately with a vague offer to buy this thing or that.

The same is true of an over-abundance of typos or grammar mistakes, forms that don't work, an unprofessional design, and garbled content. 

Each negative experience is like a gut punch to an unsuspecting prospect. And worse, the punches are cumulative, with each successive punch wounding your credibility more, and leading to yet another reason why you must eliminate such trust-busters: the halo effect.

The halo effect: Seeing good or bad where it might not exist
Credibility - how the halo effect causes warped perceptions

Have you ever been wooed into a purchase by a beautiful website, but then found that the product or service was terrible, or that customer service was non-existent? 

Or, how about this: you attend a networking meeting, and notice a scary-looking dude in the back of the room. (Scary is subjective, so I'll let you imagine what it means to you.) Later, the two of you wind up talking, and you find that he's a soft-spoken gentleman--AND your ideal client! He needs what you offer, signs up with you or buys your product, and becomes a source of much revenue and many referrals.

Why do these things happen? Why do we sometimes assume things about people or businesses and then later find out that our assumptions were false?

The halo effect might be to blame. 

According to a piece on the halo effect from the Economist

[The halo effect] is the phenomenon whereby we assume that because people are good at doing A they will be good at doing B, C and D (or the reverse—because they are bad at doing A they will be bad at doing B, C and D).

The halo effect explains why we might think that a celebrity is smart, successful, and happy just because she's beautiful, or why a recruiter might hire a well-dressed, well-mannered man who turns out to be unreliable. It's all about first impressions.

The same concept applies to your website and marketing content. If it LOOKS good and READS well, then people may ascribe good qualities to the rest of your business, ultimately deciding to choose you over others.

Alternately, if your website and marketing content look like hell holes and read like crap, then people may ascribe hellish and crappish qualities to your product, service, or company--even if your product or service is truly the best on the planet. 

5 fatal mistakes businesses make to destroy credibility with prospects

Now that you know how important it is to avoid issues that shred credibility, here are five common things businesses large and small do to send website visitors and content readers packing.

1. Using corporate speak

Unfortunately, the sin of corporate speak doesn't plague content for corporations only. I've seen corporate speak on the websites of solopreneurs, start-ups, and professional services firms. (For some reason, professional services firms tend to use corporate speak the most.)

What do I mean by corporate speak? Here's an example:

"Our depth of experience allows us to provide the best service possible, satisfying the specific and unique needs of each individual client. We understand clients’ needs and business, and provide informed, proactive communication."


Corporate speak also refers to business jargon. For instance, according to Forbes annual Jargon Madness competition, company founders are guilty of spewing words like disrupt, synergy, pivot, paradigm shift, change agent, revolutionary, and scale.

(As a marketing writer who's worked with company founders, I can confirm that this is true!)

2. Ignoring design fundamentals and first impressions

By design fundamentals, I mean things like aligned columns, consistent spacing, proper image wrapping, and ... well ... simply taking the time to make sure your website and content make a good first impression.

People form first impressions fast -- between 17 and 50 milliseconds fast! 

To put that into perspective, the blink of an eye takes between 100 and 400 milliseconds. 

One beat of a hummingbird's wings takes 20 milliseconds.

People form an impression about your website or content a lot faster than the blink of an eye, and just a flap-and-a-half slower than a single beat of a hummingbird's wings.

How fast people judge your website and content

Sources: and

That's fast.

So pay attention to first impressions.

They matter, especially online.

3. Not appearing accessible

By accessible, I mean whether people perceive you to be easy to reach, or hard to reach.

Think about it. Have you ever been on a website, ready to buy, credit card quivering in your hand, when some last-minute question cropped up in your mind? Not a small question, but a big one. A question so big that it stops you in your tracks.

You need clarity, answers, to talk to someone, so you scroll to the bottom of the website looking for contact details in the footer.


Then you scroll back up, looking for a contact link in the main menu. Ah – there it is.

But when you arrive on that page, you find nothing more than a naked form. 

How to damage your online credibility - use naked forms

No mailing address.

No phone number.

No email address.

Not even a short message to say, "Hey, fill out this form to get in touch with us."

I don't know about you, but I have looked elsewhere many times when I could not quickly reach my first-choice company.

Website owner beware.

4. Not testing for -- and fixing -- broken stuff

This point may seem obvious, but I'm shocked at how many website owners miss or ignore the fact that their websites ... YOUR website ... besides looking attractive and easy to consume, and besides sounding professional and lacking jargon ... also has to work.

I'm talking about links, forms, menus, downloads, payment buttons, cart -- it all has to work if you want to hold on to the trust you've won so far.

This is important.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a website and found lots of broken links. Or forms that don’t work — after I’ve taken the time to complete them! Or – and maybe this has happened to you, too – when you click the SUBMIT button on the form, then watch the page refresh and your text disappear, but you don’t get any “thank you” or acknowledgement that your information went through.

Broken websites destroy your credibility

Totally annoying. A trust decimator!

I’ve also run into downloadable ebooks that turn out to be interactive web pages instead of the download I was expecting. And shopping carts that just don’t work for one reason or another.

Ignore these issues at your peril.

The thing is — if the offenses are great, they’ll cost you a sale. So will lots of smaller offenses that happen all in a row.

And even if the offenses your prospects run into aren’t sale stoppers, it’s good a bet they’re trust witherers, and respect wilters, keeping visitors on the leery side of trust.

It’s like buying a cheesesteak from a street vendor in Washington, D.C. or any tourist city. You’re hungry … there are no other options close by … so you pony up the dough and take your chances.

But who wants to do business like that? I’m pretty sure you don’t want your customers ordering from you with the attitude that they’re “taking their chances.”

No. You want them to feel a strong sense of trust that you’ll do as you say and deliver as you promise.

Making sure the stuff on your site works plays a huge role in building that trust and maintaining credibility.

5. Asking for the sale too soon

Imagine this scenario. You're shopping online for a pair of jeans. Or maybe it's accounting software. Pick your pleasure.   

You've just typed your query into Google, and are scrolling the top search results.

"Ad. Another ad. Another ad." 

You pass by the sponsored ads. (Maybe you don't; roll with me for a moment.)

Then your eyes fix on a result that talks about free shipping, high quality, and a first-time buyer's discount. Sounds good, right?  

So you click.

The page loads in your browser, and just as soon as you begin to move about, a huge pop-up appears, filling the entire screen.  

How to destroy credibility by asking for the sale too soon

It says:


Holy moly! 

Um ... it would be nice if you could learn more about the product first, right? Granted, the image I chose here offers the ability to "click" for more information, but the whole presentation probably turns your stomach.

I know the feeling, as that's exactly how I felt when a similar scenario happened to me in 2016. It was so off-putting that I blogged about the experience.

The moral here is that it's way, way, way too soon to be asking a new visitor to your website to part with their hard-earned money--especially before giving them a chance to learn more.

If you ask for the sale too soon, you'll lose credibility. Big time.

And, keep in mind that the ask doesn't have to be through a pop-up. It might be through a website that asks for the sale without taking the time to answer common objections and questions. It could be through a blog post that asks for the sale without first providing social proof. Or, it could be with an email marketing message that says "BUY ME" without first detailing what the reader will get when buying.

To avoid this mistake, put yourself in a prospect's shoes. What process would you follow if you were going to buy what you sell? What process does a prospect follow when she buys from you? Does she tend to read an FAQ or download a trial or click into a detailed landing page? Will he need to speak to a sales rep? Does he need education about the issues?

By asking yourself questions like these, you'll avoid asking for the sale too soon--and perhaps inadvertently making other credibility-busting mistakes as well.


Join my tribe?

Do you sweat the small stuff? Do you want your online presence to inspire trust and confidence? Do you grit your teeth when others don't care enough about YOUR web experience? Are you all about creating an excellent website and excellent content that makes it easy for people to get to know, like, and trust you and buy your stuff?

I think we might be soul mates. And I'd love for you to join my tribe.

When you do, I'll alert you to new blog posts, new programs and products, and new ways for you to create excellent, frictionless, online experiences that lead more people to YES! I promise to be relevant and real, and to send only thoughtful content and advice.


Thoughtful content. Real-world advice. Enter your details to get the next issue when it's ready.


About the Author

Hi! I'm Renae Gregoire, a digital conversion expert improving the performance of digital marketing content, including websites, landing pages, sales pages, online courses, blogs, and email sequences. If you're a coach, consultant, or other expert having trouble getting people to click, sign up, subscribe, or buy, I can help. My work typically involves a blend of strategy, design guidance, and wordsmithing, with a heavy focus on how your materials look, sound, feel, and function—all from your reader's perspective. Contact me to see how I might be able to help improve your conversions.