Privacy Matters

Online consumers value their privacy, which is why your Web site needs a highly visible privacy policy that puts their mind at ease.

October 1, 2008

Privacy is one of the most important things you can offer to your Web site visitors. Why? It's all about trust. Buyers love to use the Internet because it's convenient and they can do it anonymously—no strings attached.

The vast majority of consumers who send you a legitimate online inquiry are just in the information gathering stage, not fully ready to make a purchasing decision or even ready to look at homes in person. When they fill out a form on your Web site or send you an e-mail, they don't want to be bombarded with solicitations, phone calls, and e-mails asking for their business.

As the Direct Marketing Association accurately says: "Privacy policies put consumers in charge of their information."

Anything you can do to on your Web site to reassure prospective buyers that their anonymity will be preserved during their home-search process will help you convert them to clients when they are ready.

An effective privacy policy builds trust and provides reassurance your prospects. And yes, people will actually read your privacy policy, so it is important that it appropriately addresses the actions that your site will take when someone visits.

5 Ingredients for a Smart Privacy Policy

So what should your privacy policy include? According to Truste, a San Francisco-based company that helps companies develop privacy policies and display them online, these are the most important components:

  • Notice. This covers what information is collected by your site. Web sites can collect information passively (without visitor knowledge or action; for example, cookies) and actively (such as through forms).  Notice also covers what you, as the site owner, will do with the information collected. Do you intend to share the information with third parties or not?
  • Choice. Your privacy policy should give visitors a choice as to how their information will be used and disseminated. It should also give visitors the opportunity to opt-out of having their information used in any way not associated with their direct requests.
  •  Access. Sites should provide a way for visitors to access and update the personal information they previously provided to you, or at least give request the updates be done for them.
  • Security. If your site collects highly sensitive information (which most real estate sites don’t) your privacy policy needs to address how this information is secured.
  • Redress. Your privacy policy should provide the means by which visitors can contact you about any concerns they may have about your privacy practices.

(For more on these, Truste has created a handy PDF, "Your Online Privacy Policy" with more helpful how-tos.) Clearly, each of the above issues must be written specifically for your Web site and how it operates.

As with many aspects of doing business, it's not necessary to reinvent the wheel when writing a privacy policy. Take a look at what other real estate Web sites have done to get get ideas for what to include in your own policy. But steer clear of copyright issues; Never use another site's privacy policy (or any content, for that matter) without written permission from the site owner.

As you're investigating other privacy policies, you'll undoubtedly see examples of what not to do, as well. I once visited a practitioner's Web site that simply posted the words "Privacy Policy” as the sum total content of her privacy policy. Needless to say, anyone who had an interest in what the policy actually was would have found that to be less than fulfilling.

Keep It Simple, Visible

The Direct Marketing Association also has developed guidelines for making an effective privacy policy. It should be easy to read, easy to understand, and updated to stay current with changes in your business. Once you have created a first draft of your privacy policy it is a good idea to have your attorney look at it and give their final blessing.

Last but not least, the policy must be easy to find on your Web site. After all, if you have a great policy but no one knows about it, what good does that do?

To get the word out, tell your colleagues, clients, and prospects about the policy. Include a brief article about it in your customer newsletter and be sure that your personal assistant and other coworkers know the policy's details so they can answer questions.

On your site, offer a link to your privacy policy on every page. Most sites keep their privacy policy link as a footer link. This way it is always accessible to visitors no matter where they are on your site.  

Another great place to have a link to your privacy policy is at the top of each and every form, along with copy such as:

“We understand you are in the information gathering process and may not be ready to open up about who you are at this time. Be assured that this is perfectly OK and that my staff and I will completely respect your privacy. Please review our Privacy Policy for further assurance of this.”

Incorporating this copy (with the link to your privacy policy) at the top of each of your Web forms will make a huge difference in the quality of the information you receive when the form is submitted.  It also sets the stage for trust with that consumer which is crucial if you want to ever eventually do business with them.

Not an Afterthought

Privacy should not be an afterthought to the way you do business online.  It is an integral part of successfully speaking the language of the online consumer. It literally forms the foundation of trust that equates to converting more online leads into closed transactions.

Michael Russer, a.k.a. Mr. Internet®, is CEO of Russer Communications. He is a leading speaker and author in the real estate industry and has been writing about Internet marketing and virtual outsourcing since the dawn of the commercial Internet.