Words Determine Design, Design Determines Use
First, let’s talk about language. Many things determine design decisions, including how we talk about our websites and the people who use them. Words determine design, design determines use. In other words, how you talk about your website can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One hidden flaw in the assumptions mentioned above is buried in language. When discussing the information architecture of a website — the way information and pages are arranged — people refer to “users.” Once they capture information about those users, they refer to them as “prospects.” Let’s cut to the chase. If your website’s purpose is to attract, inform, and engage the sort of people who need your expertise, you should consider every user a prospect and make design decisions accordingly.
Given a large enough audience, you could gather plenty of data about how “users” experience your website. These are the people who discover your website, find its information to be relevant, but will never hire you. But, making design decisions based upon their patterns will actually reduce your website’s effectiveness for prospects. Do not do this!
Use-pattern data can be very informative, provided you can parse that data by segments of users that align with your target audience.
Prospect Behavior Isn’t Predicted, It’s Designed
Consider this: Do you know your audience well? Do you know who your prospects are, what they struggle with, what they perceive they need, and what they need to learn in order to better understand your value proposition? If so, then you probably don’t need use-pattern data to inform your design decisions. Prospect behavior isn’t something you need to predict; you create prospect behavior by designing according to what you know they need from you and what you need from them. This principle is going to inform how you understand the function of every page on your website, not least of which is the home page.
Where Prospects Begin
An effective website that markets expertise contains a lot of expertise. That’s what content marketing is all about: sharing expertise in a way that nurtures prospects to better understand the nature of their problems and, over time, their need for you.
What this results in is a website that has far more pages describing the nature of their problems than the nature of your firm. In other words, an expert’s website contains more article pages than pages describing the services or the experts who deliver them. And there can only be one home page, which makes it the tip of a very large iceberg. Except in the content marketing world, an iceberg is the wrong image. It’s a metaphor that sets up a misunderstanding about home pages.
The whole idea behind the iceberg image is that what we see — the portion above the surface of the water — is misleadingly smaller than what lies beneath. And for anyone who did begin their time on your website on its home page, that would be an apt metaphor. The mass of material beyond the home page would be a surprise to be discovered.
However, discovery is what often catalyzes a prospect’s time on your website. They discover your content because they searched for something they think they need or are wondering about. Or, they discover your content because they saw it mentioned on social media. They may also discover your content because they saw an advertisement for it. All of these discoveries lead them to the base of the iceberg, not the tip.
Using Analytics to Understand Prospect Starting Points
So far, this is common sense. Of course a website that regularly grows as you create new content to share your expertise will be more likely to attract prospects to its articles first. It’s basic arithmetic: if any page can be a starting point, a starting point is most likely to be the most common page. Your website only has one home page, but it should have hundreds (if not thousands) of articles.
If there are any doubts about a common sense approach, they can be dismissed by use data. I’ll share some from this website as an example.
Our Top Landing Pages Report
Over the last six months, 85% of our top 100 landing pages were article pages. For us, that amounts to 40,359 unique visits that did not begin on our home page (including pages about our services, open positions, etc.) compared to 6,231 visits that did.
Now, the home page’s number of unique visits happens to exceed that of any other landing page over the past six months. But that is not always true. We’ve had numerous articles “go viral” such that they dominate the landing pages report for months.
There are a couple of factors that are pushing the home page’s landing page performance up for these six months, but in the aggregate, article pages are turning this iceberg upside down. A recent article, for example, has been the starting point for 353 sessions since I published it in July. Not viral by any means, but that’s just one of 85 individual pages welcoming prospects our website!
One surprise factor that is bumping up our home page’s role as a starting point is the pandemic. Over the last six months, we’ve been using Zoom more than ever — just like you, probably. And a funny thing about Zoom is that when you run a corporate account, it will automatically pull up your website for attendees outside of your domain. In fact, Zoom is the #2 referrer to our home page.
Along with our marketing automation sweet and a smattering of other common referrers like UXPlanet.org and Medium.com, outside referrers direct almost 40% of the traffic to our home page.
So what’s the conclusion here? The majority of prospects begin their sessions on pages other than the home page.
The Home Page’s Role in a Good Prospect Session
If the most common misunderstanding most people have is about how their homepages are used, the second is the belief that prospects return to their home page again and again.
The simple answer is that prospects do not do this. No one does. Except, of course, for us, on our own websites. Chalk it up to anxiety or vanity or whatever you like, but we do this, and ultimately, it makes no sense. Are we waiting to be surprised by an update? Hopefully not. If you refresh your home page and see something you didn’t put there, call someone: you’ve been hacked.
Though they may not be bookmarking our home pages or obsessively refreshing them like we do, prospects do view them. In fact, prospects will view your home page at a very critical point in their time on your website.
The Orientation Pattern
As we’ve already learned, most prospects begin their sessions on lower-level pages, like articles. Prospects tend to do one of two things next. They will either view another piece of similar content, typically directed there by a list of “related articles,” or they will click the logo and navigate to the home page. If they do visit another article page, they will typically navigate from there to the home page. That means that a typical prospect pattern is to begin on an article page and then reach the home page within two clicks. I call this the Orientation Pattern.
When a prospect clicks the logo in your header after viewing one of your article pages, they’re looking to orient themselves to your website. They want to understand the context of the information they’ve just read. Who wrote it? Why? What is the purpose of this website? When they click home, they’re hoping to answer those questions. Other than when they contact you directly, this is arguably the most important point in a prospect’s session.
Moving from the School to the Store
Think of your entire content repository as a school. What you share in the form of articles, white papers, webinars, podcasts and the like maps out a theoretical universe for your prospects. This connects their questions and exposes them to aspects of their problems and your expertise that they never knew about before. If done well, they will learn from you, though not so much that they don’t need to hire you.
But if your website does not quickly move prospects from the school to the store — the pages on your website that describe how you customize your expertise to them for money — then it is not doing its job.
The orientation pattern, if true, takes care of this for us, right? Wrong. It does take prospects out of the school, but if your home page isn’t designed to introduce them to the store, it will fail.
This is why your home page’s only job is to clearly identify the intent of your business and then direct the majority of prospects that ever view it to the section of your website that describes your capabilities. Your positioning should be clearly expressed on your home page — what you do and for whom — and it should be accompanied by a clear call to action — “learn more” or “learn how” — that links to your capabilities landing page.
Any other information your home page contains is of far lower priority. And since we already know that our home pages aren’t being viewed again and again by prospects, the job of the home page isn’t to tell them what’s new. It’s to tell them what’s true about your firm.
The Data Tell This Story, Again and Again
When I view the session data for our current prospects, I see the same thing over and over again: they begin on a lower-level page, orient on the home page, and then explore the positioning-focused content of our website.
Sometimes, it’s exactly as I planned it. A prospect discovers our site through a search on Google, begins on an article, orients on the home page, clicks to our “What We Do” page, reads through our services and case studies, and then gets in touch. It’s incredible how often that happens.
But then again, I’m a believer in designing for the outcomes we want.
As often as that happens, I also see sessions that follow the general pattern, but not exactly. For instance, I just reviewed the data we have on a prospect who began using our website in 2013. This prospect started on an article about writing better emails. As predicted, they ended up on our home page within two clicks. But their next click wasn’t to our “What We Do” page. It was to a featured case study. They read that, then clicked a link to a related service and read that page. Then they read two more case studies, returned to the home page, read some articles, etc. etc. until they converted… three years later.
Sometimes the ideal school-to-store flow takes much longer than our simple 4-5 step design. But that’s OK. In this case, though it took the prospect three years to finally fill out a form, they did move from the school to the store on day one.
Again, we must design for the prospect behavior we need. Why would we want a prospect repeatedly returning to our home pages, anyway? What good does that do them, or us? No, we want them to quickly move through the home page — from the generalized expertise of our content repository to the pages that explain how we structure and customize our expertise for paying clients. Your website is a marketing machine, and your home page is a critical switch in that system.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note one exception to this perspective. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor exception, as it relates directly to the first assumption, not the second.
If you invest in Google Adwords, it’s likely you are running many campaigns that direct traffic to your home page. And if your keywords are performing well for you, then you likely have a much higher number of first time visitors landing on your home page.
One of our current clients outspends the vast majority of our other clients (by a factor of 10x) on PPC, and as a result, they have a much higher number of qualified prospects who begin their sessions on the home page. But, this doesn’t change the one job the home page has to do. These prospects have read a tiny headline on a tiny Google ad. This means they depend even more on the home page prioritizing and clearly articulating this firm’s positioning and directing that audience to their capabilities landing page.
While the particulars of your audience acquisition may vary, the role your home page plays in moving them through the qualification process is exactly the same.