First Things First (Applying the Basic Lessons from Traditional Direct Marketing to Home & Landing Pages)

First impressions matter. And it’s not any different for marketing consumer-facing services on the web.

Back at Sombasa Media, we published a series of consumer e-mail newsletters, each with their own website focused on convincing people to register for them. A lot of the lessons which we learned about marketing them were borrowed from traditional direct marketing, and I believe that these can now be applied to the emerging crop of web services today. All of the below seem like extremely basic rules to follow, but it surprises me how many new consumer services marketed on the web do a sub-par job at effectively communicating the right message to the right people to induce the appropriate desired actions.

The following are some ideas to keep in mind when designing consumer web home and landing pages:

Not all traffic is created equal. Just like the mailing recipient lists in traditional DM, web traffic quality differs dramatically depending on its source. Natural search, paid search, blog, banners, etc. traffic will all have significantly different attributes. The key is to understand where traffic is coming from and direct users to landing pages appropriate to their source. While a general home page is fine for basic traffic, companies should create a series of landing pages which address the frame of mind of the users matched to their traffic source. For example, if you’re running a few paid search ads, the messaging on the landing page should match that of the ad copy. Likewise, if you’re running a blogging PR campaign, your external message should match those talking points.

Communicate benefits, not features. This difference is a subtle, but important distinction. While techies will appreciate a laundry-list of acronym features of the service, when trying to leap from “digerati-facing” services to consumer facing ones, it’s important to communicate the why of the service you’re offering, not the what. Consumers want to know what’s in it for them when making the decision whether or not to explore further.

Clear call to action. Lead people where you want them to go. Is the primary goal for people to search for something? Register? Contribute a piece of content? Browse existing content? It may be all of the above, but deciding what is most important and emphasizing that on the page is key. While you obviously want the user to perform all of these actions, there should be one that serves as a good start to introduce him/her into the service.

Test, iterate, and retest. One of the great things about the web is the ability to dynamically change content and measure the effectiveness of this modification. All consumer-facing web services should be taking advantage of this capability. It continued to surprise me how small changes in layout, copy, and graphical treatment considerably changed the response/conversation rates for the same basic offer. I am not advocating constantly changing your home page, but rather continually experimenting with new landing pages and applying those lessons whenever major site overhauls are completed. Then, you’ll have metric-driven support for what changes need to be made and why, as opposed to relying hunches and guesses. And in the meantime, you’ll have a portion of your traffic converting to your desired action at increasing rates.

Keep it simple, stupid. The final thing to remember is to keep the message as clear-cut and uncomplicated as possible. Users will eventually discover the subtleties of your service, but the first impression isn’t the time to tout them. If you over-communicate the key benefits and the desired call-to-action in the beginning, you’ll entice the consumer to begin a relationship with your site, as opposed to intimidating or failing to excite them. If users are interested early, they’re more likely to return and remain active for a longer duration.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.