Three ways to hone-in on a better homepage.

By John Furgurson

These days there are a lot of nice brands that exist only on the internet. They don’t have a presence in the local mall. They don’t advertise in mainstream media. And they don’t have a rock star CEO who gets a lot of press.
Most of those companies have just one way to connect with potential customers. One Chance Only to convey their brand message and entice people to do business.
It’s the homepage of their website.
The homepage is the modern-day business card, storefront window display and company brochure all wrapped up in one. But for some reason, many people have adopted a real estate analogy to help explain homepage planning and design. Like a developer working within a tight urban growth boundary, they believe every square inch is “valuable real estate.” Not to be wasted. So they cram as much as they possibly can into that little 800×600 screen. To them, white space is just as useless as a vacant lot.
I’d like to offer a more constructive analogy.
imagesThink of your homepage as the cover of a magazine… That magazine is sitting on the newsstand, next to a dozen others on the same topic. Somehow, it has to stand out. The cover alone needs to entice people to skip over the competition and take a look. In a nutshell, the magazine cover has to sell magazines.
The same can be said for your website homepage.
So let’s look at the techniques that magazines use to move product off the newsstand shelves. Each of these is directly applicable to good homepage design.
Choose one delicious visual.
Photo editors spend weeks getting just the right photo for their next magazine cover. They look for images that tell a story and convey genuine human emotion. They sweat the details because they know that good eye candy pays off at the newsstand.
Seems like most webmasters use whatever they can find on Google images. Or they do the E-bay thing, and snap a quick photo of their product with a cell phone. How many homepages have you seen with a stock photo of a smiling, happy telephone operator, standing by? It’s ridiculous.
Here’s a homepage that’s worth studying: Patagonia.com. Long before the internet, Patagonia established strict guidelines for their catalog photos. They must be real photos of “Patagoniacs” using the products, pursing their passion or living the life. Thankfully, those same high standards now apply to the Patagonia website. One glance and you know what that company’s all about. It’s a clean, compelling reflection of the brand.
Narrow the strategic focus.
Magazine editors know their readers, and they choose a cover article that will be relevant and compelling to a large portion of their audience. Not all, but most. Then the art director designs the cover around that article. One idea. One main visual element, with just a couple of teasers regarding other content.
On the other hand, most homepages have all sorts of products and links and windows and flash and specials and banner ads and photos and videos and nav options. Unfortunately, all that clutter causes confusion and muddies your brand message.
You only have a few seconds to answer a prospect’s most pressing question… “will this website give me what I need.” “Does it have the content/tools/products I’m looking for?” Trying to sort through a hodgepodge of elements and endless choices doesn’t help answer that. In fact, consumer behavior research shows that when faced with too many choices, people often just disengage.
Limit the number of choices on your home page, and you’ll have better click-through rates. Besides, people don’t judge your entire operation by the homepage, but the DO judge your website from that. So you better make a good first impression.
Tease. Tease. Tease.
The objective of the homepage isn’t to make the sale, it’s to open the door and lure them in. It should entice people to click in and poke around, just as a good cover entices people to thumb through a magazine.
The art of the tease is about leading people deeper and deeper into your site, until they find just what they’re looking for. You want to build in a sense of discovery and drama, revealing a little more at each level. Far too many websites just lay it all out, right there on the homepage. Wham bam thank you ma’am.
Here’s another way to look at it… Imagine you’re a tenant in the world’s largest mall of the future. Your front window display is the equivalent of your homepage. You don’t show everything you’ve got in store, you choose a few really tasty items, and tease them like Victoria’s Secret. You want shoppers to stop in their tracks, admire your presentation, and then walk in the door. That’s all.
But back to the original analogy… It’s ironic that many successful magazines have had a hard time making the transition to the web. They have the content. They have the design sense and the writing staff. But something’s getting lost in translation. They seem to be letting the technology dictate their product. They aren’t employing their own rules of cover design to their homepages. So don’t do as the magazines do on line. Do as they do on the newsstand.

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Wendy Roe Reply

John,

A good post here on the essence of home page design for the web; you should come to our ‘SmartGroup!’ Home page design was a recent topic at this monthly group. Check out that post at: http://bit.ly/HngBs

We’ve touched on some SEO items from the home page design as well. Cheers! Wendy

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