The web isn't the only avenue for developing and building a successful brand, but it's increasingly becoming the most important for an array of businesses big and small.
Consumers considering a purchase now turn to the Internet like they would to a trusted confidante. Separate surveys this spring suggest that anywhere from 75 percent (Deloitte) to 97 percent (BIA/Kelsey Group) of consumers go online for product or company information before pulling the trigger. More than ever, cultivating a powerful, credible and authoritative brand online is a critical element of long-term competition, no matter the field—and that's why the look, the feel and the focus of your website is so important.
How couldn't it be? Scores of prospective consumers are streaming online in search of information, of reassurance, about your products and services. A shoddy, ill-conceived or simply unappealing website is one of the quickest ways to scare off potential customers.
Consumers and the search engines alike reward strong branding. Entrepreneurs and business leaders who fail to reconcile the critical role website design plays in establishing and then reinforcing a business brand flout common sense at their own peril. Here are four considerations in the pursuit of better branding.
Win the First Impression War
Content may be king, but appearance is still everything. Perception is reality when it comes to credibility online, and a site that looks unprofessional or still stuck in 1998 broadcasts all the wrong things to prospective consumers.
A site visitor who couldn't tell a U/I from a UFO can spot a stale, cluttered or otherwise problematic website in fractions of a second. Compounding the peril, usability studies have showed that those snap judgments can affect all future perceptions of your site. Science folks refer to the concept as confirmation bias and it basically means this: If you think a site is bad, you'll look for evidence that confirms your first impression and ignore the good stuff that contradicts it.
Here's the bottom line for business owners: Don't lose the first impression battle, because it's really a one-battle war. Hire a web designer. At the very least, shell out some cash for a more specialized template like the Thesis Theme framework.
Develop and Strategically Display a Logo
"A first-time visitor to your site should be able to make an immediate connection to your logo, understand what your company is about and remember it," says Adam Strong, co-founder of Logo.com, an online service that provides custom logo design. "Color, fonts, placement, scale — all of these play a role in conveying that message."
So, first, invest in a quality logo, whether it's done in-house or beyond. Second, recognize the reality that where and how you place that logo on your site is almost as important as its appearance and potency.
Consumers don't read web pages; they scan them, like a highway driver reading billboards at 60 mph. Multiple eye-tracking studies have borne out a general pattern of eye movement, known as the F-pattern. Keep your logo in that field of view. Make it large enough to clearly identify but not overpowering to viewers. Use it to draw viewers to your pertinent content or calls to action.
Color and the Call to Action
In short, color matters, from the dominant ones that enliven your site to the shade of your "Buy Now" button. Colors affect emotion. Does the Facebook logo swathed in red connote a different feeling than its standard blue? How about a green Target logo instead of the ubiquitous red?
Consider the meaning and potential effects behind your color choices. At the same time, color can also prove a key tool in the fight to maximize conversions. Test different colors on buttons and calls to action (bright colors often work best). Use color strategically, consistently and with an eye toward provoking a specific response.
Consistency Across Media
Strive for uniformity, from your color scheme and fonts to page organization and image sizes. Visitors find comfort in the familiar and can quickly orient themselves if moving among multiple pages. Repetition also aids memory, and that consistency exudes a sense of order and authority.
Make sure those core design elements make the leap from the web to traditional print materials like brochures and business cards. The last thing you need is a logo or color discrepancy between business cards and your website.
"A lot of businesses begin as web-only and designing a logo with that in mind gives them a greater amount of freedom," Strong says. "They may soon discover that logo doesn't work too well offline."
Your home page doesn't have to be all things to all people. In fact, it shouldn't be. Create uniquely tailored landing pages that retain the core design and branding elements running throughout your site. Test and tweak these like crazy, playing with the size and types of images, fonts and colors (as well as their absence). Keep a similar sense of continuity between your advertisements and your landing pages.
These targeted destinations are crucial in terms of both branding and the bottom line.
Chris Birk is director of content and communications for VA Mortgage Center.com, the nation's No. 1 dedicated VA lender. A recovering journalist, he also teaches at a private Midwestern university. Follow him @cjbirk.
Time for a brand makeover? Learn more about how your brand can represent – and shape – your business in the Project RE:Brand webisode series by American Express OPEN. Project RE:Brand follows five small businesses as five creative agencies help them re-envision their brands