Saying that the web has been challenging the way we think about business is an understatement. Yes, of course, it has opened up new sales channels and therefore a new range of marketing opportunities; and it has made the world much smaller, for better and worse: companies can buy supplies from all over the world relatively easily, but they also have to contend with worldwide competition.
In a world overloaded with information, making sure that your website captures your audience’s attention is vital, but it is a fine balance which it is very easy to get wrong: your website has to be eye-catching, but not so unusual that your customer base can’t recognise itself, and not so clever that the journey becomes too confusing; the content should be optimised with appropriate keywords to help get you ranked well by search engines, but still be clear and relevant to human beings to help convert visitors to leads.
With those imperatives, no wonder that the main purpose of the homepage can sometimes be forgotten – the battleground between web designers who want all the bells and whistles and some SEO consultants who count keywords to fall asleep and are obsessed with google rankings! But getting visitors to your website just because you rank in one of the top spots in the organic search results is of little comfort if they bounce because they can’t work out what to do next, or what it is your business actually does!
So, how do you get the right balance when it comes to making a good impression with your homepage? Always remember that websites should be designed with the customer in mind, be it in their appearance or in their content, and that your homepage should answer the customer’s three basic questions:
1. What does your company do?
2. Do they do it for people like me?
3. Why should I buy from you (rather than your competitors)?
If you have ever written a mission statement about your business, this may sound familiar, as they aim at answering the same questions. If you never have, you may want to switch on your computer and try describing your company with one sentence following this structure. This is a useful exercise that will stand you in good stead for writing an effective homepage.
What does your company do?
There are many fascinating studies that show how the web, in all the ways we use it, has changed our behaviour as a species, on- and offline. With so much information and so many services available instantly, waiting on the phone to speak to a customer representative is a thing of the past, as is queuing to pay for your purchase. As a result, we have become very impatient and expect immediacy in all the aspects of our web surfing – waiting for more than a few seconds for a page to download? Unthinkable! It is crucial, therefore, that your homepage makes it crystal clear that your business offers what your customer is looking for to grab their attention at once and convince them to spend more time on your website.
Some years ago, a design trend saw websites open with a splash page: the main point of entry was, admittedly, a stunning piece of graphic design, but it provided no information about the company, except a logo, perhaps, and an invitation to “enter”. However, with no compelling reason to do so, perplexed visitors were more likely to leave than not.
Luckily, the web design world seems to have cured itself of this particular disease. Unless your business is a household name known worldwide, answering your customer’s question will take more than having your logo and your brand displayed prominently. You homepage needs to articulate what goods or products you provide and their benefits. The language used should be appropriate for your audience, i.e. you may want to be more casual in a retail environment and more formal in a B2B context to come across as competent and knowledgeable.
In all cases, beware of business jargon which isn’t very informative and will either make your customer giggle or feel confused about what you are about. Don’t “shift paradigms”, focus on “core competencies” or “take it to the next level” – just say what you have to say!
Do they do it for people like me?
Once a potential customer has ascertained that you offer the products or services they need, their next step is to determine as quickly as possible whether you do it for people “like them”. People “like them” broadly means two things. On a factual level, it could be whether you supply to individuals or trade only, local authorities, small or large businesses for example. It could also refer to your market positioning, such as being upmarket or not, targeting a certain demographics, etc. If a website fails to confirm this point to them unequivocally, visitors are likely to bounce at that stage.
Now, how do you handle answering this all-important question? You can do it subtly or obviously. Both options are valid and efficient. Being plain has its merits, as there is no room for misinterpretation and you can be certain that your target audience will recognise itself. There is nothing wrong in stating that you serve small- and medium-sized businesses. Relevant information is accessible immediately and clear. Job done.
If your client base crosses several categories, being less explicit may work better as people will identify themselves through sharing a need for a solution. Let’s say, for example, that you provide a cloud-based project management software. It could be relevant to many different audiences: large corporations as well as medium businesses, the service industry and manufacturing, local authorities, charities, and possibly even individuals (as opposed to organisations), for those families who like to be super organised and need to know which child is where when! In this case, identification through a shared need and a shared solution will be more effective.
Whichever strategy is relevant to your business, don’t lose sight of the fact that it isn’t only about saying the right thing, but also making sure that people spot the information in an instant. Eye-movement studies have shown that we don’t read websites linearly, but skim pages in an “F” pattern to extract what we need before deciding whether we are interested and want to read the content in more depth. So use headers, bullet points, bigger font, spacing, etc, to signpost your key points to your visitors.
Why should I buy from you?
Yes… What is so special about YOU? Your homepage should clarify what differentiates you from your competition and why customers should choose you over them. In other words, it should articulate your Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
Your USP isn’t the same as a motto. “Working with you” doesn’t set you apart or explain what makes you unique. Likewise, be wary of marketing platitudes such as “Outstanding customer service”, “Free quotes”, etc. Good customer service is expected nowadays, as are free quotes, and it doesn’t give customers a reason to prefer you.
Your USP isn’t about the features of your products or services, or their specifications either. USPs aren’t as much about facts as they are about the value of your offer. It should make a believable, specific and compelling promise about what you are providing, with benefits so attractive that they convert visitors into customers.
“Will propel you to the #1 position in Google within a month” is both vague and will raise sceptical eyebrows. Seriously, any company that is touting such a thing has no idea about how search engine marketing actually works and should not be trusted.
“Increase your staff’s productivity by 20% by managing their time more efficiently” is more like it, as it makes a reasonable promise, and explain how the product/service will achieve it.
You must also make sure that your audience can’t possibly miss your USP, and this is when intelligent design will support your marketing efforts. People reading webpages in an “F” pattern, as we discussed earlier, means that headlines at the top of the page are one of the best places to state your USP as it is the most looked-at part of the page.
So sharpen your pencil and get ready to distil your company’s benefits into a pithy, powerful one-liner! Ah, yes, but there is something else – answering those 3 questions is absolutely essential, but even if you have done everything right, gaining customers will still depend on a single condition: can they trust you?
Trust is one of those intangible, fluid things that are nevertheless a pre-requisite to win a client over. Fortunately, even through a virtual relationship, there are many ways to demonstrate that you are reliable and trustworthy, which you can convey on your homepage: – Good design matters. Poor design reflects badly on your business, and it has been shown to damage people’s perception of companies and their trustworthiness in their eyes. So don’t hurt your chances with an amateurish looking website put together at the weekend! Make sure your homepage looks professional.
Contact information should be easily available, as it reassures customers that you are a legitimate business and won’t disappear with their money overnight (like some of those dodgy SEO companies that are forever spamming you with their gmail address from god only knows where!). So have your contact details, phone number and address, displayed prominently.
Testimonials – nothing will convince a prospect like the testimonial of a satisfied client or product reviews, so make a point to actively gather them and post them on your website.
Case studies, when relevant, are likewise very useful, as they enable potential customers to identify and see how you managed a project or challenge. Numbers are solid, rational, and appeal to our logical selves. So if you have proven metrics from case studies for example, use them: number of members, growth or reduction, percentages, etc… they will help people justify to themselves purchasing your goods or services.
As we discussed previously, your claims and promises must remain believable. If you are a small- or medium-sized business, you are unlikely to be “the nation’s favourite” or “number one” company, and claiming so will damage your budding relationship with your visitors. You have to ride the fine line between being too modest and making your products and services sound highly desirable with compelling arguments.
The skilled and proper use of SEO techniques and selection / integration of keywords is essential to being discovered by new customers, but it is too often seen as the “be all and end all”. Online business is a bit like trying to sell a property. Getting a prospective buyer to the front door is only the first step, but if the paint is flaking, the estate agent unable to give them relevant information and point out the benefits of the property, and the rooms untidy and poorly decorated, they are unlikely to make an offer.
So have a good hard look at your homepage. Is it doing your business justice or would a bit of sprucing up be advisable?