The key to success for modern marketing has been right in front of us for over 10 years, yet we seem to collectively not get it. There is one key maneuver that I am absolutely convinced will make or break your brand and it is not even part of our typical industry conversations.
The key is visual hierarchy which, simply put, is the amount and prioritization of information that is on your website.
If you sell a product that has any degree of involvement in the purchase process, which is virtually any product over $100, it is extremely likely that customers visit your web site before making a purchase. The key question to ask yourself is: What is your web site saying about your brand?
As new tools and technologies emerge, companies continue to look for the Holy Grail that will lead their brand to industry dominance. It's not about social media. It's not about targeting technologies. It's not even about breakthrough creative. It's about clarity of your brand's offering.
Brands must make it a top priority to immediately convey their key message when a consumer lands on their homepage, yet so few have streamlined their site to project the message that is critical to the brand.
Let's examine Google for a moment. It was not even close to the first company offering a solid search technology. But, it was the first to streamline the experience. Many rave about its incredible search technology, but I think the true key to its success was the guts to eliminate everything from the site but one core function. Yes, it had a technological advantage for a while, but do consumers really care about finding 30,000 listings in .84 seconds instead of .96 seconds? I would argue that it is the streamlined experience and clear brand positioning that put it light years ahead of Yahoo and Microsoft, not its raw technological capabilities.
Or consider Apple; look at its home page and how masterful it is at focusing on one key message. Apple's product line is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from 99-cent songs to $3,000 desktop computers. But, it only focuses on one product on its home page. In fact, its newest design doesn't even have any navigational options for the first few moments. Whether it's The Beatles, the iPad or the iPhone, Apple "leads the dance" by focusing exclusively on one core brand message. While it takes risk to hide products deeper in the site, Apple recognizes that if the overall visual hierarchy is clean, it doesn't matter that it requires an extra click for consumers. By controlling information overload, it eliminates site users' need to think when they get on the home page.
Now, let's consider your brand's web site. Is it clean and clear or does it suffer from information overload? Is there a clear navigational path or are pages overloaded in an attempt to make everything one click away? Are social features cleanly integrated into the experience or are they dominating the brand positioning?
There are typically two problems that cause information overload on web sites. The first is that websites are an external manifestation of the internal machinations of a company. If a company's organizational chart is very product-focused, there is a tendency to try to showcase all of the available products on the home page rather than focusing on a single umbrella brand message that benefits all products. If the brand is managed by a siloed, top-heavy organization, you often see conflicting content as each executive fights to keep specific messages on the home page. Having a notorious tyrant at the helm actually has helped Apple, because there is only one voice presented on the site. While I don't recommend reorganizing your company into a dictatorship, it is critical to recognize that design is not a democracy. There are only two voices that truly matter: The voice of the consumer as an input and the voice of the brand as an output. Anything beyond that dilutes the message.
The second problem that leads to information overload is the natural inclination to decorate with all of the shiny new objects. Right now, social media is growing at an exponential rate and brands naturally want to integrate social tools into site functionality. While this is an absolutely critical tactic, when the social tools inundate consumers and create information overload on the home page, the brand no longer stands for anything. Again referring to the Apple example, social functionality is critical to its success -- it drives the entire hierarchy and information within iTunes and the App Store. But, the social tools are in their appropriate place, not right on the home page.
Try this exercise: Go to your brand's web site. Scroll up and down (scrolling could be the first hint that something is wrong). What does the site say about your brand? Is there a core message that elevates all of the products? Try the same exercise with some acquaintances from your target audience that will give you honest input. Ask them for their immediate reaction and what the core message is. Watch their face and see how long it takes them to generate a response. If they can't generate an immediate understanding of what your company offers and how to access more information, you have a major problem and should engage in some honest internal conversations. The first thing to do is solidify your key message. What is it about your brand that is most compelling to your target audience? What is the one thing you want your visitors to know immediately, if they could know only that one thing about your brand? Then, get visually creative. How can that one message be conveyed in a simple manner that grabs their attention right off the bat? It could be an image, a video or just a single line of text in bold font. Brainstorm, get your hands dirty, test out several ideas and gauge the response. Then, prioritize from there and continue this exercise on every page of your site. Don't include content on a page just because it is interesting, include it because it fits into the natural navigational flow of a site visitor. Argue internally about why information should not be on a page rather than why it should be on a page.
This may seem like Web Design 101, but it's a basic that most have forgotten. So many companies are falling into the trap of information overload that there is an opportunity to create a competitive advantage by simply keeping things simple. As your competition gets increasingly distracted by decorating their site with all the bright new shiny objects of social media and technology, you should focus on simplifying the consumer experience and integrating new tools in the natural user flow. The time is now to focus on streamlining the experience, not inundating the audience.