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When someone shows their trust in us, we tend to trust them in return. This neat psychological truism has been (mis)applied by con artists for generations… and can work equally well on your website.

Just to demonstrate how it works, let’s first consider the dark side: how you might — if you were a con artist — use this technique to steal a camera while on a tropical holiday. Eight easy steps:

  1. Bring your own camera to the beach on a nice hot day.
  2. Look for your target: a sunbather whose camera you’d like to steal.
  3. Position yourself near your target, sunbathe for a while.
  4. When the moment feels right, approach the target and ask if he wouldn’t mind holding onto your camera while you go for a swim.
  5. Go for a swim.
  6. Return from swim, retrieve camera from target and thank him politely.
  7. Go back to your towel and resume your sun bath.

That’s really all you have to do. The target will take care of the rest. Because at some point, he’s probably going to want to go for a swim.

And what do you think he’s going to do with his camera before going for his swim? He’s going to ask someone to watch it for him. Someone he trusts.

And whom does he trust? You: the polite person who just demonstrated trust by asking him to watch your camera. Diabolical isn’t it?

The final step is the best and easiest: Enjoy the smug, slightly sinister satisfaction of knowing you could leave with the target’s camera if you really wanted to. (Hey, you’re not actually a camera thief, are you? If so, please erase steps 1 through 7 from your memory.)

What’s this got to do with Persuasive Web Design??

You can use this same principle to make your website appear more trustworthy. Simply demonstrate that you trust your visitors. “Free trials”, where appropriate, are one way. But the simplest and most effective application is often in your return policy.

Restrictive return policies — including short time limits and nasty restocking fees — are a real turn-off. They demonstrate that you don’t trust your customers… making you look less trustworthy, even downright sneaky.

Generous return policies, on the other hand, make you look like a star. Consider the return policy at the men’s pant store,

Any pant, any time, any reason. We’ll pay for standard shipping both ways.

Wow. In theory, I could buy a pair of pants, then return them five years later — after I’ve gained 20 pounds and they no longer fit. And occasionally, someone will do just that. But the vast majority of people won’t.

The folks at Bonobos are clever enough to realize that by allowing the occasional customer to take advantage of their generosity, they are making themselves appear much more trustworthy to all shoppers. (Plus, they’re showing confidence in their products’ quality.)

Of course, not all businesses can afford to implement quite so generous a return policy. But think twice before getting too restrictive. Do some arithmetic. Ask yourself if it’s worth alienating the majority of shoppers, just to protect yourself from the occasional dishonest one.