If you are designing a web site for which the achievement of high conversion rates is a priority, focus your design efforts on showcasing and highlighting the content and copy.
For sites where conversion rates are a priority, the primary purpose of design should be to present the message in such a way that it delivers the maximum impact.
>> So "good" design doesn't matter?
That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that design serves a function. For an entertainment or arts site that primary function may be to present images in an attractive way. That's fine.
But for a site that is created to generate sales, the text must come first. Everything...from the architecture of the site to its design must work towards supporting your message and delivering people to the final checkout page.
>> Sounds obvious. Why make the point?
I make the point because the presentation of the message is often the last thing on the minds of web groups.
Web designers are higher on the food chain in these groups. All too often the writing of the message becomes a secondary consideration. "The site will look like this. We'll arrange the pages like this. And by the way, we need someone to write the words."
This attitude of "text comes last" is nonsense and it has been from the day the internet first went commercial.
Hundreds of millions of visitors have always known that their primary need on arriving at a site is to find the key messages. "Am I in the right place? Will I find what I want on this site?"
Our visitors know that the words are the most important element on a web site.
Google knows that the words are the most important element on a web site. (Unlikely aside from the Googlebot: "Cool design. Better rank this page higher.)
The only people who haven't understood this so far are web group managers and web designers.
Even marketing people insist on just dropping in for-print-approved text on their sites, without any thought as to the special needs of the medium. (Would they create a radio ad simply by using the sound track from their TV commercial? I don't think so. Every medium has its own demands when it comes to the words, the web included.)
>> How to design to showcase the message
The first step is to bring the writer in at the beginning. The designer will find that the writer has a number of priorities and needs in mind. He or she might say:
"This is the page's primary message. We need people to really get this on the first screen."
"We have three separate audience needs to address here. I need these three headings to have equal emphasis, preferably on the first screen."
"This message is just the first step in converting a visitor to a buyer. We need a strong pathway of three levels before he or she is ready to buy."
"This sales message is complex, it will take some space and longer copy. We need to format the text so that people will keep reading. We need strong subheads, some indented passages and emphasis at the following points."
Once the writer has outlined the needs of the copy, the designer can then focus on showcasing the key points in the message, giving the correct emphasis to the various headings, subheads, body text and links.
The designer's job here isn't to make the page "pretty", it is to deliver the message with the right emphasis, and with each point in the correct sequence.
>> How does a designer know what to do?
In some senses, this is new ground for designers online. Until now, too much emphasis has been places on design for its own sake, instead of using it to support the copy on a site's pages.
If a designer wants to know how this works, he or she should go sit next to a direct marketing designer/copywriter team while they work.
See how the team communicates. See how the designer listens to the writer and places a great deal of emphasis on the type. Watch how the designer spends a lot of time selecting the right font, the right type size and color. See how a conversion-focused designer pays massive attention to the placement and appearance of every element of text.
Why? Because in direct marketing the response rates are intimately connected with the presentation of the copy. It matters where on the page each text element is placed. The font and its size and emphasis matters. The final formatting of the text matters.
Online? When you are building pages with a view to maximizing conversion rates, you become a direct marketer. That means thinking like a direct marketer, writing like a direct marketer and designing like a direct marketer.
>> Concluding points...
As it stands on the web right now, we have a couple of groups of designers.
There are the general web designers who create beautiful sites, without regard to how the copy should and can work harder.
And there are the online direct marketing designers who design single page sales sites that are created to maximize sales.
At some time in the future it would be good to see these two groups learn more from each other.
It would be good to see the general web designers learn more about increasing conversion rates by learning some of the skills of the online direct marketing designers.
It would be good to see the online direct marketing designers expand their skills beyond the scope of single, scrolling sales page.
And it is essential that every online designer pays a great deal more attention to the writers and the showcasing of every page's message.
Nick Usborne is a freelance copywriter, author and speaker. For more articles and resources on writing for the web, visit his site, http://www.excessvoice.com.
To find out more about designing for high conversion rates, read his review of AWAI's course, Graphic Design Success.