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Compelling Landing Page Design Is Not Formulaic

Good design is the unsung hero of conversion optimization.

Too often, when the topic of landing page design comes up, it’s dismissed superficially with canned prescriptions. Use an image of a person. Use bullets. Use video. Don’t use video. Put a call-to-action button in the lower right. Use the color green wherever possible.

Such fortune cookie advice is bunk.

There are no simple recipes for universal landing page design. To the contrary, the possible ways in which one may design a compelling landing page are unbounded. That’s why design is “creative,” and not merely paint-by-numbers.

Although there’s no magical formula for cranking out spectacular landing pages, I can share with you a few principles that will make you more savvy in managing design in your conversion optimization projects. More than anything, I want to instill in you a sense of possibility—because ultimately, that’s your greatest competitive edge.

Actionable design is like architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater

There is a misconception that design is art, like painting, where all the designer is concerned with is how something looks. In truth, landing page design is more like architecture. It must balance both functional and aesthetic objectives.

Sure, you can downplay aesthetics. There are plenty of cookie-cutter homes and office buildings that are indistinguishable from one another. Similarly, many landing pages follow the same boring template of a headline, hero shot, three bullets and a call-to-action—but they too are forgettable and undifferentiated from the competition. They may not be awful, but they’re not very good either.

If you want a building—or a landing page—to stand out, make a statement, and have a visceral impact on the people who interact with it, aesthetics are paramount. And as a marketer, you absolutely want to resonate with your audience at an emotional level, not just an analytic one.

The key is to integrate aesthetics with the function of the design. A beautiful building is no good if it falls down under a stiff breeze. Similarly, a gorgeous landing page that respondents find hard to understand is a functional failure. But using examples of poorly designed landing pages to spurn design entirely is a fallacy.

Justin Talerico, my co-founder at ion and a pioneer in web design, calls the pursuit of conversion-oriented aesthetics actionable design. Says Justin, “Affective design and conversion optimization are not mutually exclusive. They’re symbiotically entwined. Design lets you communicate meaning and value in ways that mere words cannot.”

All images are not created equal

Everyone says a picture is worth a thousand words.

But let’s reflect on that more deeply. Wikipedia states the adage “refers to the idea that complex stories can be described with just a single still image, or that an image may be more influential than a substantial amount of text.”

The key ideas are stories and influence. Is that not what marketing is all about?

Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen Design, says, “Vision is our most powerful sense. Therefore, designing messages that include images is a highly effective way to get people’s attention and help them understand and remember your content.” In psychology, this is known as the picture superiority effect.

So using images is good. But imagery is more than just an image.

There’s another aspect of the thousand-words aphorism. A thousand words chosen from even a 12,000 word vocabulary is (12,000)1,000 possibilities—more possibilities than atoms in the known universe. The point is that you have an astronomical number of potential choices for images, each with its own story, feel and meaning.

You’re not limited to a handful of reused images from your existing web site. Sites like istockphoto.com and fotolia.com put millions of photographs at your fingertips. They can be cropped and altered to evoke different sentiments and significance. You can use your own original photography or illustrations. And you have incredible design power with how you decide to place them on the page.

All these degrees of freedom give designers a broad palette, which can be highly effective—if used properly. For example:

eMusic microsite

“Images are important,” says Justin, “But it has to be the right image.”

“For instance, it’s an over simplification to claim that pictures of people work, with the implication that any image of a person is fine. Men, women, young, old, at work, at play, what they’re doing, how they look—human beings are magnificently diverse and expressive, and their photographs communicate a vast array of concepts and emotions.”

“If you blindly plug a photo of a person into a page as a formulaic gesture, without thinking carefully about what that image says in relationship to your message, for your particular audience, you actually risk creating the wrong impression and hurting your conversions.”

Notice that in this example, it’s not just people, but deliberately chosen peers:

New England Journal of Medicine landing page

Don’t let eye-tracking throw you off track

With improvements in eye-tracking technology, as well as new image processing programs that attempt to simulate live studies, there’s a resurgence of interest in using eye-tracking to inform conversion optimization.

These can be great tools, but with one big caveat: eye-tracking is not brain-tracking.

Jakob Nielsen, arguably the preeminent authority on web usability, has run more eye-tracking studies than just about anyone. In his latest book, Eyetracking Web Usability, he is quick to disclaim, “By itself, eyetracking can do one thing and one thing only: discover what users look at. But a pure count of fixations can’t tell us whether users are productive, happy, or confused when they look at certain things and not others.

“For example,” he adds, “Users may look a great deal at a certain paragraph of text because the content is relevant and interesting. Good! Or maybe it’s because the writing is convoluted and hard to understand. Bad!”

Some people argue that anything that attracts attention away from the call-to-action must be bad and should be eliminated. But by that logic, you can end up with a plain white page with nothing but a “buy now” button. Yes, that button will dominate the fixations in your eye-tracking experiment, but your conversion rate will asymptotically approach zero.

Having people look around the page is a good thing, if it helps them synthesize the essence and value of your message and offer. The goal is not just clarity—but compelling clarity. Like this:

SK-II landing page

But what if I’m not a designer?

By now, you may be thinking that the design of good landing pages is more complex than it’s often made out to be. If so, then you’re on the path to greatness.

See, a little complexity is not bad. If landing page design were formulaic, then all landing pages would look the same, and it would be nearly impossible to distinguish yourself from the competition. It’s because of the creative potential of design that marketing has an opportunity to make such a significant impact.

If you’re not a designer, that’s okay—as a marketer you don’t have to be. But you should know when to use a designer and how to direct them to achieve your mission. In the case of landing pages, employing a designer for even a few hours, to help with better layouts and imagery, can greatly improve your outcomes across a variety of campaigns.

Again, more than anything, I encourage you to open yourself to the possibilities. Thanks to the power of A/B testing, there’s little downside—and tremendous upside—to experimenting with bold designs.

The greater risk, if you don’t even try, is to end up as a post-click marketing wallflower.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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