A common problem of business websites is the complete lack of a strategy for the home page and how it aims to convert traffic into sales. This is fundamentally a huge problem to tackle as having an aimless home page could be detrimental to the entire performance of your website.

With just about any brochure type or small business website, the home page is likely to be the main landing page. It is therefore key to ensure that cold traffic understands what your company does and how to take the next step in their exploration of your website. If you are ambigious or you don’t make this first step obvious you will more than likely loose that user as they bounce off to another website.

Your homepage is also likely your one and only shot at building an ongoing relationship with that user, but their decision to stay or leave will be made in an instant. If they leave straight away it’s unlikely they will come back to make a purchase at a later date.

So how do you go about making a home page that works?

Start with a goal

Having a goal is probably the single most important thing in developing a home page that converts because without one you will automatically fail. You can’t possibly improve your home page without a goal because you need something to measure your changes by. A goal will give you a target to reach and will allow you to evaluate what works and what doesn’t in your pursuit of improvement.

A goal does not have to anything too complicated or specific. For example, a good goal could be, “I want to increase the signups to my online application”. With this goal in mind we now have a clear objective to achieve and we can start working backwards to find a solution that works.

When choosing a goal, you want to make it ambitious enough that it will add real value to the bottom line of your business. For example, increasing the number of people who follow you on Twitter, or comment on your blog might be good for increasing your vanity metrics, but it won’t add real value to your business (unless you plan to utilise those conversions later down the line!).

Choose something like “increase signups to our application” or “increase purchases from our ecommerce store” or “increase enquries about our consultancy services”. This way you know you will be making your home page better by the increase in new business and all your hardwork, time and effort will be rewarded with real tangible value.

Developing hypotheses

Now that you have an ultimate goal in mind, you need to start thinking of ways to achieve the goal and improve your website. These will form your hypotheses that you must test systematically in order to find what works for your individual goal. I’ll talk more about how you do this later in this post, but for now let’s look at how to form hypotheses.

For the purpose of this example, let’s pretend my goal is “I want to increase signups to my online application”.

The goal in this case is to increase the number of people who sign up to become paying customers of the application. Let’s assume this involves directing traffic into a sales funnel that will lead them through registration.

Our goal therefore is to inform cold traffic of the benefits of our application and get them into the funnel when they are ready to buy.

With our goal in mind, we now need to think of all the possible things we could test in order to improve our conversion rate (conversion being the percentage of new visitors who land on the home page that become paying customers). Examples of things to test at the top level are;

  • Copy
  • Graphics
  • Video usage
  • Charts and graph usage
  • Use of a form to sign up straight away or a call to action to a second page
  • …and the list goes on…

Next, within each of these top level tests, further hypotheses must be formed to further test each component. For example if you found that having a form on the homepage did increase conversion, next you must test what fields to use, how your validation works, what your sign up button displays and so on.

As you can imagine, with just about any goal, there are many posibilities and even more possible tests you must conduct in order to find what works for you at this granular level.

As you start to brainstorm ideas for how to achieve your goal, start making a record of all your notes that you can expand later once you start getting the results of your tests. Believe me, if you organise your testing now, it will make your life a lot easier in the long run. With everything organised you will then be able to start spotting patterns and combinations that will give you the best results for increasing sales.

How to test your website

Now that you have your big list of things to test you need to start actually taking action and find out what works and what doesn’t. In my previous post How to make decisions based on data, rather than assumptions I cover some of the basics of testing your website to reveal valuable data to make decisions, but I’ll go over them again here.

Set up Google Analytics

The very first step you must take is to ensure you have Google Analytics set up to track how your website is doing right now. Setting a baseline is very important because you need to know how your changes are effecting your website as it stands. Without a baseline you may aswell be walking into this blind. It’s ok if you have Google Analytics installed on your website but you haven’t really scratched the surface yet. Google Analytics is a big package and can be a little overwhelming to people looking at it for the first time. But once you start drilling down through the layers, it can reveal some incredibly valuable data that will give you huge insights into your website’s performance.

Set up Google Webmaster Tools

Webmaster Tools is another very valuable application from Google that will shed light onto the performance of your website. Although Webmaster Tools won’t directly help your testing, you should still set it up and have a little dig about to see what data it will surface and what you can do to improve your website generally.

Set up Goals and Funnels in Google Analytics

Goals and Funnels allow you to track very specific actions that users take on your website. For example, you might want to track how many people add your product to their basket, fill in their details and then click to purchase. Google Analytics will break this down into each section so you can see how many people started the funnel and where they dropped out. This might reveal that one of your forms or the button to move to the next stage is too ambigious and so you should run tests to improve it. Goals and Funnels are very powerful and they will give you a huge amount of insight into the performance of your website and how you can improve it. Increasing the number of people that actually make it through to a completed purchase will add real value to your bottom line so it is well worth the time and effort to set this up properly.

I won’t go into the details of setting up this part of Google Anayltics because it is outside of the scope of this post, but you can find a wealth of great tutorials with a quick Google search.

Set up split testing

And finally, yet another free Google application to use is Website Optimizer. This allows you to set up experiments that will allow you to serve sections of your traffic with slight differences in your pages. This enables you to see the performance of two different versions of the same page side to side to find which works best.

For example, on one you might have your homepage with three different options whilst at the same time your show a section of your traffic your homepage with only two options. An outcome of this experiment might be that the page with only two options performs better because there is less confusion from cold traffic.

Don’t be overwhelmed by split testing, I promise you Google Optimizer makes the whole process easy. This kind of testing is very powerful and will be critical to finding a homepage design that works best for you. Don’t neglect it just because it’s new to you.

The role of user personas

Now that you have an overview of how to set goals and hypotheses, and you know how to run tests and make incremental improvements, it’s time to start working on your strategy.

Having a strategy is another very important aspect of developing a home page that works. Without a strategy your home page will just become a random collection of things without a purpose. I believe a really successful homepage should have a single narative that speaks your goal to your potential audience. Websites without this narrative often feel clutted, messy or confusing.

Back to your goal

The first part of crafting your homepage narrative was choosing your ultimate goal. With this in mind, we know explicitly what we are looking to achieve and so it should be easier to focus on this end goal. This should prevent some of the clutter creep that can effect website homepages that do not have a goal. Now, whenever you add anything to your homepage you can objectively look at it an ask the question, how does this aid my long term goal? Believe me, this alone will keep your homepage clean and tidy!

User personas

The next part of your strategy should be to break your audience down into user personas. A user persona is a fictional character used to represent the different subsets of your audience. You give each persona a name, personality, desires, needs, fustrations, goals and other emotions to tailor your website to the different types of people who will be using it. This allows you to better target certain profitable customers, enables you to build better solutions to their problems and allow them an easy to follow and clear route to becoming a new customer.

Back to our example of an online application where we want to increase sign ups. Imagine that the application allows small teams of accountants or individual business owners to manage finanacial data, tax and invoices. So now we have our two main user persons, small teams of accountants and small business owners.

Now that we have the two distinct user personas we need to understand their needs and desires. You can make this process easier by giving each user persona a personality, but just for this example I’ll illustrate my point with a brief list for each persona.

Small teams of accountants

The goals of small teams of accountants are:

  • Work collaboratively to complete the various tasks for each client.
  • Able to present the accounts to their clients easily
  • Able to import and export data

Small business owners

The goals of small business owners are:

  • Track incommings and outgoings
  • Manage payroll
  • Automatically calculate tax owed

Obviously, when you create your user personas they need to be in much greater depth than this. I’d advise brainstorming with your employees or collegues on who are your typical customers and what are their goals and requirements. You should easily be able to fill a page of A4 with details of each of your customers.

As you can see from my quick example, the two user personas have very different goals and requirements, but what is clear is that our homepage needs to explicitly target the requirments of these potential customers if we are going to have any success in converting them to paid customers.

Creating the first step

How many websites do you look at for the very first time each day? And how many do you really take the time to understand what the website is about before moving on to something else? Ambigious homepages are one of the chronic mistakes of 99% of all small business websites. If you don’t make it obvious for new traffic to take the first step to satisfy their curiosity, they will leave, never to return again.

When someone lands on your website for the first time it’s because they were brought by curiosity of what lay behind the link or search engine result. It is your task to satisfy that curiosity and provide a clear and logical route to navigate your website.

Fortunatly, you’ve already crafted your user personas so you know exactly who are the types of people who will be landing on your website and you already know their desires, requirements and goals.

It is therefore logical to design your homepage to answer the buring desires of these target user personas. If one of your user personas is “People who want to find out more about my product, but aren’t ready to commit to buying” then obviously you need to a provide a clear route to the page that answers that question.

It really is that simple. By following the steps that I’ve outlined in this post you will find yourself with a homepage that is not only better designed, but every aspect will have logical reasoning for it’s position and prominance on your website. You’ll have the data to back up your decisions and you will be in a position to further test your assumptions to further increase your conversion rate.

In conclusion…

Creating a good homepage shouldn’t be as difficult as it some people make it seem. By following a process of testing, experiments and learning to reach an ultimate goal, you will eventually create a homepage that works for your business. As I’ve wrote in the past, conversions are the foundations of a business website and there is so much value out there for business owners who are dedicated to following the right path.

Business owners are quick to dismiss their website as not being able to generate new business, or even worse, throw money at SEO to try and solve the bigger problem. Outsourced SEO consultancy can be like throwing fuel onto a raging fire, but it won’t start a fire if you don’t already have the raw materials in place to start with.

With the huge amount of data and analytics available online, and the exact feedback loops that have have already been established through tools like Google Analytics, there is absolutly no reason why you should be making decisions about your homepage without clear data evidence. Instead of making subjective changes, or wasting time debating the merits of a pointless change, follow the process I’ve outlined in this post to make a homepage that works.

What other things have you found that work for your home page and how did you find them? Is there anything I’ve missed?