Website first impressions matter. But not as much as you think.
Most of us have heard so many clichés about the importance of first impressions that we’ve probably never questioned their worth. After all, we know from our own experience how quickly a bad impression can put us off—a person, a restaurant, a brand, you name it.
But there’s another side of first impressions that doesn’t get as much attention, and it’s this: they don’t last. Unless that first impression is backed by something of substance and quality, it will soon be dismissed.
I noticed this recently when conducting some competitor research for a client. My process is to compile a list of competitors, then look at their homepages. I open each in a new tab, take a quick screen shot, and then click around the page to see what else they might be doing of interest.
For this research project, I noticed that many websites looked impressive at first glance. They did a great job in the first few seconds of creating a strong impression for the visitor. I started to get worried: what if the competition was really tough?
And then after scrolling around for a bit, I noticed a common trend. Most of these websites devoted the bulk of their attention to creating an attractive landing screen. The more I used their sites, the more frustrated I became. Only one website followed through on the promising user experience their homepages hinted at.
Clearly, these websites hadn’t thought passed the first impression, and that’s a big problem.
First impressions matter less than they used to.
Back in the day, it’s possible that most brands made their bread and butter off those initial seconds of contact. Consumers simply didn’t have much more to go on.
But today’s consumers are savvier than ever, and they do their research. If your homepage does its job, they’re going to be on your site longer than six seconds, reading your content and learning more about your brand. That’s only a good thing if your website follows through on the good impression you made at the beginning.
There’s a saying that the fastest way to kill a bad company is through good marketing. If you put all your budget in the packaging and none in the product, your customers will notice and it won’t take long for your brand reputation to plummet through the floor.
Design deep: carry the original impression through to the end.
There’s another critical error in the strategy that over-invests in the homepage to the detriment of the rest of the site: not every visitor to your site will see your home page. More and more, entry pages are blog posts, service pages with high-ranking SEO, or landing pages promoted by AdWords or social media. This means that those businesses that put all their energy into 6-second website first impressions are neglecting other entry streams.
So, how can you make sure the first impressions you make on your website lead to the outcomes you want?
- Focus on overall usability. You want your users to have a good experience on your site. That means giving TLC to every part of your website, not just the most attention-grabbing parts.
- Look to your personas. Think about who’s visiting your site, and where they need to go. One of the key tasks of your home page is to help direct visitors to other parts of the site. Make sure it speaks to your entire audience.
- Think about your website holistically from a conversion standpoint. Your home page won’t close a lot of sales—but that’s OK. It can divert traffic to pages that are more suited to the task.
- Have consistent messaging. If your headline is bold and splashy but the rest of your site copy reads like an instruction manual, the contrast will be noticeable to your visitors.
A first impression will keep you in the game. It won’t close the sale.
The mythology of the all-important first impression needs to die—or at least get modified a little. A good first impression will certainly help you start a relationship with your best foot forward, but it won’t get you across the finish line. For that, you need to be able to back your bluster with competence.
This is essential for your website as much as it is for life. Those first few second visitors spend looking at the top screen of your homepage (or any other entry page) are important, particularly for keeping visitors from bouncing. But it’s not your main tool for conversion.
To convert, you need to think of your website holistically, including all the different ways that visitors may find it, and the visitor path they’ll take one they’re on your site.
Anything less is too shallow to do you or your visitors any good.
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