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Guest Post by Eric Holter: Agency Website Gaffe #2 – The Splash Page

Now that Eric, our former CEO, is off to new heights in his career, I’ve invited him to contribute a few guest blog posts. This is the seventh of several that he’ll share in the coming months.

After studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Eric Holter worked as an engraver and illustrator for Pagano, Schenck & Kay Advertising, then as a web designer at Leonard/Monahan. He founded Newfangled Web Factory in 1995.

It’s 2009 and sadly I still need to write about splash pages–an unfortunate stronghold of advertising agency websites. The use of the “splash page” has a long history (long in Internet years anyway). Back in 1999 I wrote an article for Web Techniques about the appropriate and inappropriate uses of website splash pages. Today that article is moot. There are no appropriate uses for a splash page.

A splash page uses a website’s home page to make a visual impact rather than provide basic information and navigation. Splash pages are usually animated sequences that precede the actual site home page. Sometimes the splash page will transition into the homepage (sometimes seen in Flash based sites) but others require a click through to the home page after the sequence completes. Most splash pages (at least those with a modicum of courtesy) will provide a “skip intro” link so you can abandon the animation and go straight to the actual site.

Splash Page Abandonment
There are some significant misunderstanding of web strategy that cause agencies to utilize splash pages. But before I address those misunderstandings let me share some factual data that I hope is enough to dissuade you from this practice. My analysis of website traffic reports over the years has consistently shown that at least 25% of all site visitors abandon a website at the splash page. At Newfangled we used to have a splash page our site. In fact we spent months building it. But once I saw the abandonment numbers, I dumped it.

Impact–the wrong place at the wrong time.
Agencies are prone to the use of the splash pages because they feel that they make a strong visual impact–and they do. Splash pages, as creative expressions, can be very cool. Unfortunately, when it comes to web strategy, this impact just gets in the way.

Because agencies spend most of their time helping their clients compete for attention in a crowded marketplace, they must exert significant creative power to capture attention before they can get a message across. But when it comes to the web, attention can be assumed. People don’t navigate to a website by accident. Websites aren’t pushed in front of them; they go to them on purpose. They find them in search results, or type in a URL, or click on a link on another site. Attention is gained before they get there. How the site looks, or how impressive an animation is, has absolutely nothing to do with a decision to visit a site.

Agency Sites are B2B, Not Entertainment
When a prospective client goes to an agency website, they want information–quickly and easily. They certainly don’t want to sit through an animation before they can start looking. An agency website is a business to business marketing tool. It’s about information–not entertainment. So splash pages just get in the way and annoy.

Creative agencies sometimes feel like a splash page, or flashy website, is a demonstration of their creativity. And I suppose it is. But creative firms have plenty of creative work in their portfolio section to demonstrate this. It’s a mistake is to think of the site as another opportunity to be creative, rather than a means of showing your creative work.

Are You Being Strategic?
Let’s think about this impulse some more. In fact, let’s hold it up to the claims most creative agencies make for themselves. Every agency claims not just creativity, but creativity as a mean to an end–the client’s marketing goal. They say they’re experts in helping clients use the right tool for the right job. They guide clients strategically. They would never, for example, produce a creative television commercial for every assignment because television makes the biggest impact. That would be stupid. Instead they devise campaigns that work for best in each particular case.

Is a splash page the right tool for the maximum effectiveness of a business to business website? Is turning 25% of visitors away necessary? Is significantly hindering search engine optimization a smart use of the web? Certainly not. What the agency says by the use of a splash page is that they are willing to ignore the best practices of at least one medium (the web) for an opportunity to demonstrate creativity.

Let’s be honest
We’re creatively wired. We love what we do. And who doesn’t have a million stories of clients that picked the worst logo, or the safest (not best) ad, or watered down the concept of a brilliant campaign? It’s frustrating when our creativity gets down-shifted in the real world of clients and corporate politics. But nobody can tell us what to do on our own website, right? Finally, an opportunity to go all out, to give full reign to our creative powers! We’ll get that Communications Arts profile or One Show award for sure!

But at what cost? We may tell ourselves that we’re being strategic about our creative splash page, that we’re making an impact or demonstrating our creativity. But really we’re making a strategic mistake–improperly employing a medium and using creativity in the wrong place. Not a good start for when we want to then persuade a client how smart we are, how expert we are at employing the right marketing tools in the right way for the right goals.

This is the creativity barrier in action. We forget we don’t need to employ creativity to get the click. We just need to fulfill the visitor’s expectation for information. And we want an opportunity for unfettered creative play on our own sites so much that we’re willing to ignore best practice.

All things considered a splash page is a seriously bad idea. I can’t think of any upsides and there are serious downsides. The numbers don’t lie, and our true motives betray us. If you haven’t already, it’s time to dump the splash page.

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