Why the best landing page is no landing page at all

If the term “devil’s advocate” didn’t already exist, it would need to be invented to describe Ron, my esteemed — and admittedly cranky — colleague to the east. In my last post I wrote that a landing page is an extension of the ad(s) pointing to it. He called me on it, and in doing so reminded me that not everyone shares this perception. Here’s my clarification, Ron. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

I’ll explain why it is true that a land page is an extension of its referring ad, but also, the landing page should ideally be planned well before any type of ad is ever constructed.

And finally, I’ll explain why, as the title of this states, the best landing page is no page whatsoever.

So what do I mean when I say the landing page should be built first? Frankly, the entire process should be built backwards. It should start with the objective — namely, the action you want your audience to take. Desired actions can include the following:

  • Subscribe to an e-newsletter
  • Register to download a whitepaper
  • Commit to a purchase

Thus, each landing page should have a call to action. What’s the ideal number of calls-to-action per landing page? Exactly one. Any more can diffuse the power of the page.

All efforts should focus on qualifying the prospect and leading that person to a speedy “close.” Although you won’t be able to close every interaction — or even most interactions — your goal is always to maximize the close rate.

My friend Ron used the analogy of a car dealership that serves customers who arrive thanks to an ad. As a way to test my assertion, he said this makes the dealership “an extension of the ad.”

Not quite, because, as he muses later in the comment, entering the dealership “marks the transition from advertising to selling.” The dealership is not an extension of the newspaper ad (let’s say) because the ad already elicited the desired commitment. It brought in the consumer. Mission accomplished.

But this got me thinking: What if the car dealership ad appeared on a web page instead of on newsprint, or in the pages of a magazine? Actually, little changes. If its objective is to simply get someone to come into a dealership (not usually the case in online automotive ads), I could imagine an interstitial or rich-media web ad that provides enough information to get a commitment without ever clicking through to a landing page.

Here’s what I mean by a rich media ad. It’s a fun ad for the Nissan Quest. This one, like most, sends folks to a microsite. But if all you want is to cause a visit to a dealership, I could see a rich media ad that asks for a zip code and returns the nearest dealership information — perhaps even offering a map and driving instructions. This would all be done within the ad, on the web page where the ad appears.

In this way, like its print counterpart, the online ad gets the commitment with the least amount of “friction” by never referring to a landing page at all.

In a perfect world, all banner ads would work this hard. But because most calls-to-action need more information delivered before a commitment can be generated, the friction of landing pages (and yes, also microsites) are necessary. They are essential extensions of online ads.

Testing uncovers 6 keys to landing page success

Landing pages are expansions of ads. Every banner, email offer or sponsored listing worth its salt points to a single, hard working page. What sort of work do these pages perform? Selling, plain and simple. But to succeed, the approach to designing these pages is neither plain nor simple. Tools like Google Website Optimizer allow you to test for yourself. These automated systems help you discover exactly what combination of components works best at converting your page’s visitors into customers or qualified leads.

But what components do you start testing? And what factors should you be paying attention to as you get started?

Luckily, a lot of testing has already been done, and their findings tell you a lot about the complexities of the human mind. Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful report from Marketing Experiments:

Landing Page Performance Elements

Through extensive research, Marketing Experiments has identified six essential elements that affect landing page performance:

Friction — [This is] caused by elements of the page that require a prospect to do extra work and increase the likelihood of abandoning the page due to fatigue or irritation. Incentives such as bonus gifts or special offers can make the offer feel more worthwhile and encourage the visitor to continue.

Visitor Motivation Level and Type— [These] are factors that influence how many will remain on the site or bounce off. The nature and level of visitor motivation is essential to what landing page attributes will prove to be the “stickiest.” If people really want something, they’ll put up with more friction.

Value Proposition — How quickly, clearly, and effectively the landing page conveys the site’s value affects its ability to move visitors to the next step and not abandon the site. [The authors call this level of abandonment the “bounce rate.”]

Anxiety — All visitors arrive at a site with an initial level of anxiety caused by their perceptions of the relative risks associated with the site, the company, and the product.

Credibility Indicators — You can improve click-through and conversion by including page elements that convey trustworthiness through credibility indicators such as awards, privacy policies, certifications, testimonials, and longevity statements such as “serving the needs of ___ for more than 15 years.”

This report also has an excellent exploration of when to use short versus long copy. Happy testing!

Automotive ad dollars rush online

Last week’s post on behavioral ad targeting generated a spirited online dialog. I’d like to thank James and Ron for their thought-provoking comments. The example discussed was online ads in the automotive industry. It was aptly timed.

As this new report from Borrell Associates indicates, there are several firsts for this category of advertising (emphasis is mine):

By 2010 online car marketing will reach $4 billion, says the report, and become the second most-used medium for automotive advertisers, surpassing newspapers, cable, radio and direct mail and trailing only broadcast TV. Budgets for offline auto ads in newspapers, direct mail and directories will decline by 20% each during the same period.

Online will become the top marketing channel for used-car marketers this year at the local ad level, surpassing newspapers for the first time.

With all of these dollars rushing online, the winning advertisers will be those who reach consumers when they are most open to influence. Only time will tell exactly how behaviorally-targeted ads will fit into these ad buys, but clearly there will be much opportunity for innovation.

Of operant conditioning, text messaging and college admissions letters

In a few days I’ll be giving a speech to a group of university and college recruiters. The talk is about new technologies and how they might shape academic marketing and recruitment in the future. I’m fairly sure how I’ll lead off. Not surprisingly, I’ll touch on reaching students through their cell phones. But it got me thinking: What practical advice can I provide recruiters about using mobile marketing?

That was yesterday. It was the same day I received a cheering email from my friend Mike. His daughter has been going to a West Coast college that is extraordinary in the way it teaches. But after a year of this non-traditional teaching approach, she has decided it’s not for her. Instead, she applied to a university in Massachusetts. She was on pins and needles, as were her parents. Until yesterday, when the acceptance letter arrived.

Now, my friend’s daughter didn’t have a second choice. She was willing to take a year off and try again at the same university if she didn’t get accepted. She’s unusual in that regard. Most students apply to several, to see which of them accepts them. To my knowledge, each acceptance (or rejection) arrives by the U.S. Postal Service. I wonder why. And I wonder if a more immediate notification might give the college that uses it an edge over the others competing to be the one they choose to attend.

I’m thinking it might. I’ve been reading lately about why email is so addictive. According to this excellent post, the culprit is operant conditioning.

This phenomenon is the mechanism by which behavior is influenced through outcome. It’s the explanation for “once burned, twice shy,” as the saying goes. And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s why we respond to a teacher’s compliments with harder studying, and to a casino’s winning hand with another gamble.

These last two examples are appropriate because in both, the reward does not come every time. Both teachers and casinos know the same key to success. It’s a secret confirmed by scientists through careful testing.

Namely: That the best way to reinforce behavior is to reward that behavior, but not every time. Instead, you reinforce randomly.

This is why email gets us hooked. We don’t receive emails that reward us every time we check the Inbox. But it’s enough to cause us to check again and again — more frequently than we probably should.

Going to your physicial mailbox was at one time the best example of this virtuous cycle of looking, discovering, and looking again. But the pace of our world has accelerated, especially for those in the school-aged generation, and a U.S. Postal mailbox has lost much of its power. Now we’re a society hooked on email, and computer-based instant messaging, and mobile text messaging – listed in order of addiction intensity. Text messages are immediate, intimate, and the most effective mechanism for keeping a person yearning for the next positive reinforcement.

I suspect some schools already offer applicants the chance to opt into receiving initial news of their acceptance (or rejection) by email. (Official word would still arrive in print, however.)

But I wonder: Why not cut to the chase and use the medium that truly gets students where they live? Why not use their cell phone?

Would receiving word of your acceptance be more of a thrill if it arrived by SMS (i.e., text) message? And if so, would this allow for a more social celebration with peers? And would this high-fiving lead to more students choosing the “text messaging” school over the others?

I know, there are many factors in a choice of college: financial aid, reputation, convenience, friends. But could this message, received  through a student’s most powerful “operant conditioner,” tip the balance when all else is equal?

Please let me know. My talk is on May 23. I’d love to step in front of the group armed with your perspectives.

Is behavioral ad targeting really worth it?

Behavioral ad targeting is the process of predicting who will be most responsive to online ads based on clicks and search behavior. In the mid-90’s, portals and ad networks (primarily Go.com and Advertising.com, respectively), took the first steps in using browsing behavior as a proxy for consumer interest in an advertiser’s products and services. There are many more companies doing it today (and Go.com, after its sale to Disney, is out of the game entirely)*. The whole process has gotten better and smarter. But has it gotten smart enough to earn its keep? 

To understand this type of targeting, keep in mind that these systems are context agnostic. They don’t attempt to judge why more people who viewed a particular sports site and music site shortly thereafter clicked on a banner for car insurance. These systems simply watch and learn.

The promise of behavioral ad targeting is that advertisers will ultimately be able to make ad buys where fewer people may click on ads, but those who do convert to customers far more often. Has that promise come to pass?

An ideal product for this type of targeting is a car. Nearly everyone will want to buy one sooner or later, so the challenge is to talk to consumers when they are in the consideration process. Sure, you can run contextual ads — in other words, run them on a car-centric site, or in online publications that happen to be reporting on cars. That works. But there is far more ad inventory out there, and many people in the market for a car are visiting these other sites, and not car sites. They would never dream of researching their next car online. Contextual ad buys overlook these people completely.

It’s wasteful to advertise in a scatter-shot fashion across sites, but what if the probability of consumers clicking on your car ad could be improved by sprinkling your ads throughout a vast network of sites, and then having the behavioral targeting (BT) system note those sites visited just before one of your ads generates a click?

Which brings us to Jumpstart Automotive Media, which created this microsite to explain BT to potential advertisers. It even provided a case study. Terrific! I’ve been eager to read an example of the huge ROI that modern BT can deliver.

Well, I wasn’t terribly impressed. The case study describes these results:

  • Contextual placements received a 36% higher click-through rate than Behavioral placements
  • The conversion rate on behavioral placements was 42% greater than on contextual placements (conversion is a specific navigation path that takes place on the client’s web site)
  • The cost per action on behavioral placements was 4% lower than on contextual placements

Is it just me, or does this 4 percent reduction in acquisition cost, for all of that extra work, just seem a little … disappointing.

Am I missing something here? Am I missing something period? If you have insights about this case study that have escaped me, or if you have better evidence that behavior ad targeting is really worth the effort, I’d love to hear from you.

* 5/16/2007 Postscript: Today’s New York Times had a good article on the entire field of ad analytics. You’ll find it here, as part of their Small Business special section.