“…looking at a company’s homepage is like reading its palm…”
This truism appeared in a recent Business Week article about Yahoo. The author goes on to say that Yahoo’s relatively static, but crowded, homepage suggests infighting beneath, as corporate departments battle it out for lucrative positioning.
Too many Fortune 500 homepages suffer from the same malady. They reflect too much of the dysfunction behind the scenes, and not enough of the companies’ intended brand messages.
Every large corporation has a marketing strategy that outlines what it wants to say to customers, but many of them still aren’t using their homepages effectively to highlight that message.
Why It Happens
Mature marketing mediums — like television, magazines, and direct marketing — have had executives’ attention for fifty years or more. The Web is obviously catching up in this respect, but it’s still decades away from being well understood by marketers. Other electronic mediums, like podcasting for example, are even further behind.
It’s natural then that many large corporate homepages reflect the immaturity of online marketing. Some executives aren’t yet aware of how urgent it is to put marketing resources behind their homepages. Again, even companies that have clearly defined marketing plans sometimes have no process in place to implement those plans online.
How It Shows
So how can you tell if your company isn’t using its homepage to best advantage? One symptom is a failure to trust your own navigation and architecture systems to direct customers to valuable information.
Compare the following screen captures of homepages from Johnson & Johnson (Figure 1) and Qualcomm (Figure 2), both of which are on the Business Week list of 50 Best Performers.
Figure 1: Johnson & Johnson homepage (click image to enlarge).
Figure 2: Qualcomm homepage (click image to enlarge).
The Johnson & Johnson homepage, shown in Figure 1, has an overwhelming number of links, and no clear path for the eye to follow. Obviously, folks who represent different divisions within Johnson & Johnson are fighting for space on the homepage.
For example, the Investor Relations folks have a large chunk of the upper left real estate, with six lines that show the stock price and a link to their section of the site. The branding folks managed to get four lines of text for the Credo that appears in the upper right. Below that is a link to Our Videos, without any indication of how the videos might help users.
There are links for nurses, healthcare professionals, partners, employees, inventors, patients, students, and suppliers — so each group supporting these audiences has its own place. The only things on the page that change are the News links, which scroll swiftly in a little window, and the Today’s Features links, which show a generic link to Products and a topic-less link to a webcast. The overall Johnson & Johnson brand message is lost in the fray.
How to Do It Better
Now take a look at Qualcomm’s homepage. Qualcomm devotes space to four images, each of which has a dynamic visual appeal that projects the company’s brand. Each image represents a different marketing theme with content that changes over time.
The images link to landing pages that cover things like media attention, and product announcements. One of the images links to a separate site for a particular product line, but other sites are featured there throughout the year.
Below the images is space devoted to announcement links that are updated daily. A Spotlight feature shows quick links to the most popular areas of the site. There is an award image, which presumably appeared the day the award was announced, and it leads to a landing page with more information about the award.
Qualcomm’s homepage content maximizes its brand and allows for evolving information. The company shows confidence in its global navigation system, letting visitors find product datasheets, contact links, and company information on their own.
Users understand branding messages. They know that the message you display at any given time isn’t the only message from your company, just the most important message right now. Once they’ve seen the message, if they’re not interested in it immediately, they can look to navigation to find out how to accomplish their original goal.
Six Steps to Help Your Homepage Grow Up
Getting a handle on your homepage marketing will take time, but that’s no reason to delay. Here are my recommendations for working toward a more mature homepage.
Understand your yearly brand directives. Meet monthly with the team responsible for messaging on those directives. Ask for their help in planning campaigns for your website, and start with the homepage.
Think of every pixel as dynamic content. Very little on your homepage — besides the navigation and logo, of course — should be considered permanent. Some items will occupy space longer than others, but as the years roll by, everything should shift and change according to brand directives, seasons, events, mergers, and changes in product offerings.
Divide the homepage into sections representing some of your brand directives. Anything that appears in a section, for whatever period of time, should represent that particular brand directive. For example, a quote from a forum about solving a problem, with a link to the answer, would support a “we share our expertise” directive.
Be concise and direct on the homepage so that the amount of content doesn’t overwhelm users. There are other places, such as section homepages, where you can put additional content.
Assign a marketing manager to each section. Let her run themes, one per month or quarter, with supporting content and links. Assign her parts of other pages, too. This lets her emphasize and balance topics in her sections and experiment with campaigns.
For example, the theme for Product X could be “we support the growth of your business” for the first three months, then “we support your multiple locations” for the next three months, and so on. Supporting content like testimonials could change according to the theme.
Consider creating a section for quick links. Watch your logs and note the most popular destinations according to a predefined metric. Change the quick links to reflect these top destinations weekly or monthly.
Don’t feel obliged to list products. Trust your navigation and product-finder tools. Visitors will know where to look for what they want. Just because you get thousands of hits a day for Product Y on your homepage doesn’t mean you will lose that traffic if Product Y doesn’t appear on the first page a visitor sees.
This living-and-breathing approach will keep your product pages from going stale.
Maturing the Practice
Once you’ve established an online marketing effort on your homepage, you can move on to deeper pages. Perhaps introduce specific-use advertisements in appropriate places, add contextual links to related products, and look into personalization.
It takes time to get people, workflows, and money behind online branding and marketing, and it takes a solid plan. Moreover, someone at the executive level must set up a process to replace the continual political fighting, or the homepage will remain a wasteland of pixels fiercely guarded by internal teams, but mostly skipped over by customers.
Indi Young is a founding partner and the Director of Mental Model Practice at Adaptive Path, a leading user experience company. She has been consulting for over a decade, and is creator of the acclaimed mental model diagram and gap analysis process. Clients include Agilent, PeopleSoft, and Schwab.