By Mark Sherbin published September 8, 2012

Breathe New Life into Your Home Page, Gain Loyal Readers

Image via Remodelista.

How many times have you closed your eyes, rubbed your temples and wondered how much easier life would be if you had a background in layout and design?

Even with armies of designers at their disposal, content marketers are often forced to direct overarching layout and design concepts. The home page is arguably the most crucial focus of design energy. According to one expert, a well designed home page may be the key to coercing members of your audience away from their Twitter feeds and back into the role of “loyal reader.”

A truly engaging home page keeps visitors hungry for more material. While catchy headlines and high-quality content play their own roles here, the key to retaining readers is to keep them plowing through more content on your site. One of the best ways to accomplish this is with a home page that simplifies the way your audience finds (or stumbles upon) content.

Major publishers on the web experiment, test, and retest to make their home page layout as engaging as possible. What can content marketers learn from them to build a great home page?

More than just a “print” legacy

Publications that started off in print before migrating to the web are sometimes bound by their “print legacy.” Alex Schleifer keeps that legacy at arm’s length, using it to shape content strategy sparingly.

As creative director for Say Media, Alex’s daily routine impacts editorial direction and flow, website design, and overall vision for dozens of Say Media online publications. “Lots of publishers operate under the premise that the web is new and we’re reinventing everything,” Alex explains. “Common though it is, that kind of thinking has actually led us to many accepted strategies that need to be rethought. Rethinking those practices is a crucial part of how we keep our sites fluid.”

In fact, the rapidly evolving nature of the web has conceived many “best practices” that few are willing to challenge. To Alex, questioning successful layout and design practices is the best way to break through the noise and spur innovation.

Say Media puts this theory to the test through sites like Remodelista. The online magazine covers all things interior design, making it a fitting platform for a unique home page design testing ground.

According to Alex, the value of the home page has collapsed beneath the weight of curation tools like Twitter. “We need to make the home page worthwhile again,” he elaborates. “These days, readers tend to get their news from social networking feeds. Spending extra time on the home page makes it easier to gain loyal readers and keep them interacting on the site.”

Remodelista is a captivating example of how home page design livens up the experience for readers. Alex and his team chose to focus on big, vibrant, and high-quality photos, complemented nicely with bold headlines and brief article summaries. The magazine’s simplistic design is echoed by targeted social sharing actions, leading the charge with Pinterest.

For content marketers, Alex details four strategies to feed a healthy home page.

1. Build around the audience. The Say Media creative team places every home page layout element with a calculated focus on the publication’s unique audience. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, especially when it comes to design,” Alex says. “We design each publication with the audience as the defining factor.”

Remodelista

Remodelista, for example, features an eye-catching, chic look to target an audience that values these elements. A picture-heavy publication, promotions tend to revolve around Pinterest, chosen for its popularity with the magazine’s audience. And expectations of audience behavior never focus on the device readers use to view the home page.

“I’d rather have the audience in mind than the type of device they’re using,” he explains. “Content should be adapted to the reader, not the medium.”

2. Testing is the key. Constant experimentation is how good publications become great on the web. To weigh the effectiveness of experimental elements, publishers like Say Media test often to see how audiences react to change.

“We’re in a learning phase as an industry,” Alex says. “We’re dealing with fragmented platforms and devices, and testing helps you learn what works and what doesn’t for your audience.”

Remodelista sidebar

Perhaps the most elegant (and experimental) portion of Remodelista’s home page is the right sidebar. As readers scroll through content, the right sidebar (as seen above) moves down at a slower pace than the main content on the page. “It’s been a successful experiment that keeps ads visible longer without impeding the browsing experience,” Alex says.

Change is scary, especially for large audiences, says Alex — but in a rapidly evolving web environment, it’s absolutely essential. Determining the efficacy of the change requires constant testing through strong engagement analytics.

3. Change the way you measure success. Still measuring success by the click and a page view? “Tricking people into clicking is easy,” Alex says. “True engagement, on the other hand, is hard to fake and a much more effective success metric.”

Of course, measuring engagement is a tricky thing unto itself. But for marketers, quality traffic is much more valuable than a larger quantity of clicks. It means you’re drawing in leads — not just random sources of traffic. And more readers following content from the home page to the article page means your home page is working correctly.

According to Alex, measuring engagement helps put the audience back in the center of the decision-making process. With this perspective, on-site participation (comments sections, surveys, etc.) gets more weight when it comes time to measure success. Home page engagement can be measured by analytics like frequency of visits, bounce rates, recency of visits, depth of visits (how many pages readers view on a particular visit), and the time spent on-site.

4. Focus on the future. What are tomorrow’s home page trends? Do they make sense for your audience? To stay on the cutting edge of publishing, content marketers must look into the crystal ball.

“Part of my role is to look 1 to 3 years ahead and anticipate how publishers will refine the browsing experience,” Alex explains. “We use responsive design now because, from our perspective, it’s the strongest way available for us to unify our brand across different platforms and devices. But who’s to say something more advanced won’t come along?”

Marketers can learn a lot from Say Media’s brand of top-level oversight. So where else can we find inspiration?

Intuitive home page design eases how readers consume information

In 2010, Gawker underwent a redesign that hasn’t changed much over the last few years. That home page design has helped solidify the publication’s number nine slot in the Technorati Top 100.

Gawker

Say what you will about the publisher’s ethics and content — but the designers sure know how to drive traffic. Gawker’s home page is effective for five crucial reasons. Content marketers can apply the same tactics in their own publishing efforts:

  • Simplicity: Rather than overloading the home page with categories and navigation, Gawker applies a simplistic design that shortens the gap between the reader and compelling content. Advertisements aren’t overwhelming, and the home page features one popular article at the top, with other posts called out in less domineering ways below.
  • Rich media: Pictures and videos live large on the front page, immediately providing the visitor with an engaging visual experience.
  • Working parts: Gawker’s version of navigation is a simple vertical page division. On the left (and dominant) part of the page, readers can scroll through a couple of highlighted stories. On the right, you get a selection of content that’s much easier to scan, so depending on the reader’s motivations for visiting, there are two easy options for finding information.
  • Page hierarchy: The dominant left portion of the home page is organized with a top (most popular) story, followed by two smaller (but also popular) stories below. The bottom, which doesn’t require the reader to scroll much to get to, features four popular categories and articles related to them.
  • Callouts: On the right sidebar, search is simplified with red callouts that act as precursors to headlines. They’re enticing and easy to scan.

Gawker put all of these elements in place based on a clear understanding of what its audience wants. For content marketers, understanding the motivations of visitors is crucial to applying these best practices in a way that makes the most sense for your market.

Below are a few other great ways to beef up your home page content:

  • Use large text: Ever end the day with a severe case of eyestrain? You’re not alone. Plenty of scientific reasons support why you should use a bigger font. But, when it comes to the home page, it helps make your content pop. Wired accomplishes this with eye-catching aptitude.
  • Feature headlines and article summaries: When readers visit your home page, they may be looking for more than just the most recent post. That’s why it’s important to include snippets of posts, rather than the full text, if you want to simplify how readers find information. Take a look at how BuzzFeed does it.
  • Logo goes in top left: Almost every popular publisher on the web shares at least one similarity: the logo is clearly displayed in the top left portion of the screen. Some publications use a static bar at the top so the logo displays whenever readers scroll down. Place your logo in the top left at the very least.

Are there any other aspects of home page layout and design that major publishers get right (or wrong)? Share them with us in the comments.

Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Mark Sherbin

Mark Sherbin is a freelance writer specializing in technology and content marketing. He shares occasionally insightful information at Copywriting Is Dead, where he promotes authentic communication between organizations and their audiences. Contact him at msherbin@gmail.com.

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