Window of opportunity

Home page fashions come and go, but making the most of this still crucial ‘window on your world’ depends on the answers to fundamental questions, Jason Sumner says. 

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Unilever Total
GSK Qualcomm

The home page may be all but dead in some corners of the web, but certainly not for corporate websites. As we maintain in our new research report (sample PDF opens in new window), released today, for most corporate websites the home page is the single most visited page. Our own analytics data shows that seven in 10 visitors to corporate websites arrive via the home page, and web managers around the world have said to us that their internal data show similar figures. So in terms of the power of the home page to communicate with important stakeholders, it is arguably the most valuable piece of real estate an organization owns.

However, as we scan the home pages of the biggest corporations in the world for our annual ranking in the Financial Times, we see lots of evidence that, despite their significance as communication tools, home pages in general are not nearly as effective as they ought to be.

What is a home page for?

In the report we outline the three fundamental roles of a home page – which will be familiar to frequent readers of this column – a set of signposts, a billboard and a magazine front cover. The signpost role is the most straightforward – get people where they want to go on the website as efficiently as you can. Innovation with signposting is possible – eg, well-thought-through short cuts based on in-depth knowledge of audience needs – but often just gets in the way. Any signposting innovation must be weighed against the power of conventionality in helping people locate content quickly.

The signpost role is demand driven. You are giving visitors what they want. The other two roles – the billboard and the magazine front cover – are supply-driven. You are giving them what you want. The billboard role is most important in the first few seconds of an initial visit. What messages do you want to transmit? For example, the Qualcomm home page, which we analyse in detail in the report, has a single image and slogan designed to create maximum impact. The magazine front cover is a useful idea because it tells the company to make the home page useful and engaging, and it makes the concept of the web much easier to explain to print-driven colleagues. Energy companies are particularly well-suited to the magazine front cover role. Because they are engaged in complex feats of engineering such as drilling wells 5,000 metres under the sea, they tend to have rich content that is interesting to a wide audience. A good example is the Total home page, which is very much the front cover of a publication, posting stories under the ‘Our Energies’ banner.

Who is your audience and what do they want?

Although it is poor (and more often just mediocre) practice that prompted us to write the report, there are of course many gems out there, and I had the pleasure of interviewing several digital managers for the report that we felt were getting it very right.

Web managers at Siemens, GSK and Unilever, for example, believe the fundamental role of a corporate website home page is to send visitors where they need to go within the site, but they also use their home pages to convey corporate messages, and reinforce or help shift the image of the brand. They use a combination of precise metrics and editorial judgment to shape home page content according to the needs of their visitors. GSK, for example, has a primary audience of jobseekers (20% of visitors to the home page). A second audience is seeking information about products (12%), and a third are ‘corporate’ stakeholders, or ‘informed public’ in GSK parlance (15% combined). Each home page iteration over the last few years has shifted emphasis away from serving the ‘corporate’ audiences towards the first two audiences. Sustainability messages that will appeal to jobseekers, for example, go above the scroll line, as does other billboard or magazine-style content. Information for corporates (signposting for media, investors, etc) usually goes below the scroll line, on the assumption (correct in our view) that they are more likely to search for it.

To scroll or not to scroll?

One section of the new report is devoted to current issues, trends and fashions in corporate website home page management, to help you decide if they are right for your organization. One of the most prominent of those questions is – should a home page scroll?

It’s clear from the interviews, that agencies are still pressing the case for scrolling. Two of the eight companies we spoke to, Unilever and IBM, are planning to move from home pages that do not scroll, to introduce more scrolling. Extra real estate is the primary reason, along with agency assurances, in the age of tablets and smartphones, that, ‘people will scroll’. The danger of placing content below the scroll line has not gone unnoticed though, and the two organizations are putting a lot of thought into how best to signpost the content they want visitors to scroll down to see.

Agency assurances to the contrary, we believe that billboard and magazine-style content should be held above the scroll line – if you want visitors to click inside the website or to absorb a brand message, do not expect them to work for it.

Do press releases belong on the home page?

An upcoming Unilever relaunch will ‘dial down the importance of news on the home page’ and we think this is an idea to be emulated. Press release headlines, in particular, so often found on mediocre home pages, do not fulfil any of the three roles. They are not a good set of signposts because journalists can be directed to a media area much more clearly. Nor are press release headlines – which are often dull and internally focussed – a good advertisement for the company, nor do they encourage non-journalists to click through to something more interesting. The subjects of press releases, such as a clean water initiative in the developing world, are often worth highlighting, but the press release is the wrong format. All the better that at Unilever, news will be served to visitors within the site itself, alongside more relevant content where it will be more ‘meaningful’ for visitors.

The answers are unique

We go into more of these granular issues in the report – mobile optimization, social media icons and the use of video, etc. However, more important than any feature or set of features on the home page, is the thinking behind them. Have you asked how the balance of the three roles applies to your organization and the audiences it is trying to reach? Who is using your signposts and are there shortcuts to get them to their destination more quickly? What is the most important message you want to communicate with your billboard? Do you have magazine-style content that would be interesting to jobseekers, customers and other stakeholders? The answers will be unique for every organization, but continuing to ask the right questions will lead to a home page that, even if not perfect, is ‘appropriate’ for your organization and its audience.

You can download a sample of the home page report (PDF opens in new window).

To get the full report contact Dan Drury


First published 21 January, 2015
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