Before we get started I need to issue a disclaimer: I love brands. I use only Apple computers, even when it requires special cables and software to use my telephone and computer together. I have a design degree, for God's sake. But, I am a little frustrated about branding online.
Online marketers protect their brand message so diligently that they're missing the opportunity to increase sales substantially. Home pages could sell far more effectively if a marketer would give in to the whim to test sales messages without worrying so much about the sacred brand.
Call me controversial, or call me totally cracked, but give me a chance to explain. Then, I'll walk through a process of experimentation that you can try-- without fear of damaging your brand.
Don't throw the brand out with the bathwater
I don't mean that you should abandon your stewardship of the brand when designing or redesigning a home page. But holding firmly to the belief that a home page should be primarily about branding could be costing you a ton of money.
I challenge you to ask three questions:
- What do I want to be online (a branding company or a direct marketer)?
- What is it costing me to choose one way over the other?
- Can I become willing to experiment, perhaps drastically, with important branding elements on my home page (the logo at the top left, for example) in order to increase sales?
A three-step process for experimentation
Difficult questions? Yes. So try this. Think about your explicit (or implicit) home page "grid."
Most home pages have a logo at the top left, with branding elements across the top, a navigation bar down the left or across the top (sometimes both), and some general text at the bottom of the page. The marketing "story," lifestyle photos, products, promotions, et cetera, generally share a biggish space in the middle and to the right.
Now imagine that each of those elements (the branding, the nav bar, et cetera) is a separate box. This is your "grid."
Look at each of these boxes and determine its purpose: branding, direct marketing, general information. You'll likely have a mix of both.
Now, in order to find out what it's costing you to choose branding over direct marketing (or vice versa), you have one of three options:
- Option #1. Keep branding as is. (Don't worry, there's still room to play with the page even if this is your ultimate answer.)
- Option #2. Experiment with hierarchy of the page (keep elements the same but explore placement options).
- Option #3. Throw out all pre-existing notions of what your brand needs to be and experiment with the entire page.
Option #1. Keep branding as is
You decide the branding elements on your site need to remain. Let's assume you want to keep the nav bar, and the branding across the top of the page the same. You want to keep your large lifestyle shot, and you want to keep the text at the bottom of the page that tells what the company is about.
That still leaves a good center section of the page with which you can (hopefully) experiment.
Even if you want to keep most of the content focused on branding, you can likely find one portion -- say, 25 percent -- that you're willing to experiment with. Take this area and begin testing to see if you can improve its performance. How much can you accomplish with that 25 percent?
Try a sales pitch, a new call to action, a customer review or a rotating list of best-sellers.
Don't want to "risk" your brand by screaming a sale? Siphon off 10 percent of your traffic and serve the test content only to that group. It's a low-risk way of testing an idea while being able to compare apples to apples. See if clickthroughs, conversions, average order value or other metrics increase.
This works the other way, too, by the way. Target, for example, is promoting its college essentials and offering free shipping as back-to-school season begins.
Is that sale working? Pottery Barn could test switching the sales pitch with the photo that evokes a peaceful, quiet summery afternoon complete with comfy chaise lounges and umbrella. Which sells better, solitude or a summer sale? Test it to see.
Option #2. Experiment with hierarchy of the page
If you're willing to branch out a little more, consider playing with the elements of your grid. Perhaps you don't want to get rid of any branding elements, but you're able to rotate them into different spots.
Consider experimenting with where the branding elements versus the direct marketing elements go. Place the products higher on the page. Give them the bolder, brighter treatment. Try moving the branding elements below the fold.
For example, the Orvis home page includes a lovely photo of a lake at sunset.
Below that, Orvis attempts to show the depth of its product offerings by dividing the page into several rectangles, with each showing a different category: fly fishing, distinctive home, dogs, men's, women's. The text in these boxes competes with the colors in the photos, making it difficult to read, and the lake view does nothing to make a sale.
In fact, the home page does have a number of sales going on-- a shirt sale, a swimsuit sale, a tent sale and a sale of 25 percent off certain fly rods. They're below the fold, and I never noticed them the first time I visited.
Orvis could take those sale items and mix up the hierarchy: try them above the product photos, or below those photos but above the mountain shot.
(Again, you can test changes such as these to 10 percent of your traffic if you're worried about damaging your brand.)
Option #3. Throw out all pre-existing notions
Here's where it gets fun. What if you didn't need to take up the entire upper left corner of the page with your logo? What if you lowered the left navigation bar so it began just above the fold, and used the center section of the page for some serious selling?
And what could be more fun than testing an entirely out-of-the-box concept of what a home page has to be?
With testing technology, these don't have to be risky decisions. You don't have to create separate pages for differing content. Rather, you designate different areas of the page as content slots and rotate the content in and out depending on the visitor group (part of the 90 percent or part of the lucky 10 percent who get to see the exciting new ideas).
Consider freeing yourself from the restrictions of the old home page grid. Shake things up. Ask different people within your company for their ideas. See what happens.
Some of the new ideas will fail. Some of them may fail spectacularly.
But the web is changing, and consumers are searching, seeking and buying in new ways. Companies must keep up with them or risk catastrophic failure. I'm willing to bet that testing drastic changes will help you find brand new ways to sell that can increase your bottom line more than you imagined possible. The risk of staying the same, at this moment in the web's history, is far greater than the risk of shaking things up.
Jamie Roche is president of Offermatica. .