Home Page Improvement

The official Web sites for most consumer brands aren’t very exciting. You can pretty much bet on what you’ll see: A huge photo of the product, a button you click to see a list of ingredients or retail locations, perhaps some company history — and of course the ubiquitous “Contact Us” form. With the exception of some fancy Flash graphics (meant to impress viewers, but more often something that gets in their way), it seems like many home pages are trapped in time — circa 1996.

Frito-Lay’s home page, however, is a notable exception.

Amid a background of simple graphics (an ordinary wall lined with picture frames) is an easy-to-navigate array of option bars based not so much on touting the brand, but on consumer-lifestyle issues. There’s dietary information and recommendations for “sensible snacking.” An “Our Planet” feature discusses the company’s stance on a roster of ecological issues including water conservation and waste reduction. A new “Snack Chat” blog tackles topics like sustainability and health/wellness, while also featuring a Twitter link and a slide show tour of the company’s recently opened “green” distribution center.

Frito-Lay is one of a growing number of major brands that have taken a hard look at their home pages lately, rebuilding them into platforms that shatter the old cyber-billboard model in order to give consumers not just a page to visit, but a portal for learning and interacting. These new-generation home pages are becoming less isolated and more fully integrated into the Web. They feature more social cross-pollination. They also offer a lighter user experience (a refreshingly sparing use of Flash gimmickry) and are more search-friendly. Overall, the pages strive to achieve a greater depth of brand experience, be that selling actual products or simply cementing existing customer relationships. And, according to author and Web-marketing expert Gerry McGovern, it’s a move that’s long overdue.

“I’m amazed that some of the biggest brands are still using their home pages as if they were advertising billboards,” says McGovern, who’s consulted for  brands including HSBC and Microsoft. “That approach simply doesn’t work [anymore] and it’s one reason people are avoiding home pages. A home page should be useful — if you want it to be used.”

Used for what, you might ask. At the moment, the idea seems to be to make the corporate Web page the hub of discussions relating — sometimes loosely — to the brand and establish it as a meeting place (along with a Facebook page) for fans. It’s an evolution from a more static model, though the payoff is far from clear. Will creating a lively Web site move more of a brand’s goods?

Perhaps that’s beside the point. Benjamin Palmer, CEO of The Barbarian Group, whose recent work included overhauling the home page for natural foods brand Kashi, says a home page can “have a loftier goal beyond selling product.”

These home page revamps come at a critical period. Statistically, consumers are spending less and less time on company home pages. Of course, that’s understandable from a technological point of view: Not only have external links and improved search tools allowed consumers to zip right to the specific page they need, it’s also faster and easier to find information and interact with brands through search and social media like Facebook and Twitter than it is to navigate through Flash-fused corporate billboards. McGovern’s proprietary research into the traffic figures for the home pages of major brands (which he declines to name specifically) show a steady decline in visitors across the board. One major company that had 25 percent of its visitors come via the home page in 2005 has seen that number drop to 10 percent for 2010. According to a recent body of comScore data — which measured Web traffic to 50 leading sites from May 2009 to May of this year — some of the biggest brands have suffered dips in their home-page visitors, including Verizon, Target and AT&T, whose traffic had slipped by 3 percent, 3.3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Cause for alarm? Maybe not. As Web marketing has evolved, so has the conventional wisdom that success is measured by sheer number of home-page hits. Michael Lebowitz, CEO of digital creative agency Big Spaceship, argues that page-view numbers are a metric for advertising, but not necessarily branding. Successful home pages, he says, can be just as much about strengthening and deepening relationships with existing consumers.

“Your biggest fans are your brand evangelists,” Lebowitz explains. “So you’re not going for reach, you’re going for depth. You want to create experience and content for your core audience. In doing that you may lower page views — and it’s not to say page views aren’t important — but you want to lower bounce rates and increase the time spent on the site.”

McGovern agrees. “The larger point is that offline marketing and branding is about getting attention — but online marketing and branding is about giving attention. Great home pages are active; you can do something on them.”

The recently revamped Skittles.com site (retooled by Big Spaceship) has become more social, for example, allowing visitors to upload their own videos. (A former incarnation proved a bit too interactive by featuring an unedited feed of tweets that mentioned the candy — a feature that was taken down after inappropriate commentary showed up.) The brand posts more standard product and advertising content on Facebook, where it has nearly 7 million followers, while social media acts as a kind of funnel that directs users to the brand site.

Some retooled home pages are also finding new life by acting as feeders to various brand-sponsored microsites. Pepsi’s home page, for example, aims to show that good deeds can translate into good brand awareness. It acts as a clearing house for Pepsi’s philanthropic activities, including its flagship Refresh Project microsite, where users can submit and then vote on worthy ideas to be funded by Pepsi, an effort that ties into the brand’s larger image advertising. The Pepsi.com home page also links to Rewards for Recycling, to We Inspire (which asks users to share stories about their inspirations) and Yo Sumo, where Latinos are asked to share copy, photos and videos that might be included in a documentary about Hispanic influence in the U.S.

This kind of home-page content enrichment, Barbarian Group’s Palmer says, “engages people with something to do. They understand why the heck brands spend so much time and money on their sites. With a lot of brand sites, you [find yourself asking], ‘What’s the point?’ ” The truly good Web sites, he says, will answer that question.

For its part, PepsiCo sibling Lay’s potato chips launched The Happiness Exhibit in March — which shows up front and center on the Lays.com home page. Developed in conjunction with Flickr, The Happiness Exhibit invited Americans to do something simple, fun and interactive: submit photos of their happiest moments. Selected pics appeared on chip pages and ad spreads in People magazine. A “view results” button on the Lays.com page lets visitors see the most entertaining entries. What’s this got to do with potato chips? Nothing — but it sure gets people to the home page. “We were amazed by the results after we got over 19,000 photos,” says Linda Bethea, Lay’s brand manager, potato chip portfolio (who declined to reveal Web traffic data.)

Soliciting photos from consumers seems like a surefire way to gin up engagement (see sidebar, this page). Domino’s Pizza is also reaching for user-generated photos to draw more home-page visitors. Most people are used to seeing a mouth-watering photo of a steaming pizza plastered across the home page of any pizza chain. Domino’s decided to do away with that tradition. “With pizzas this good,” says the page copy, “we decided to find a new photographer — You.” In the name of honest ingredients and honest pizza for everyone, the chain has pledged to run only photos of actual pizzas taken by actual customers — no food stylists and no airbrushing. “Consumers feel cheated by companies,” says Russell Weiner, Domino’s chief marketing officer. “What you see on TV isn’t what you get when you buy it.” Weiner promises that Domino’s will continue to use only consumer-produced photos on the company’s home page going forward. (At press time, the photo of the pepperoni-and-mushroom pie shown on Dominos.com was taken by one Jessyel G. of Longmont, Colo.) But regardless of what elements are added to the home page, Weiner says, there’s a universal requirement if you expect to draw and engage more consumers: “You have to make it compelling.”

For Jones Soda, that’s taken the form of a rather titillating promise: Get a photo of yourself on the label of our soda. Since the boutique soft drink brand started a program that invited fans to submit their own photos for a chance to be chosen for an actual bottle label, over 1.2 million pics have been uploaded to the site. (Tip: “Use your good taste and good judgment. Remember, your mother or even your grandmother might see your gallery submission online and wouldn’t you want to make them feel proud?”)

While the average Jones consumer statistically stands a small chance of having his photo chosen, the larger point is the increase in traffic to the Jones site — which now gets some 70,000-80,000 hits each month. Jones’ home page also features a Twitter feed, community music, video, games and contests. According to marketing director Mike Spear, keeping the home page popular is all about keeping it fresh and interactive. “You have to be very proactive with content,” he says. “We add new stuff every week; it’s what keeps people coming back.”

For all the efforts that these brands have made to up their home-page traffic, however, experts point out that most brands are still not getting the traffic that they could be getting. Part of the problem may be that while brands are enriching their home pages, they’re doing it with technical navigation input instead of simpler, interactive features that users will enjoy or use practically. “People know what they want when they’re on the Web,” McGovern says, adding that the “essence of the Web is about helping the customer complete tasks as quickly as possible.”

“Brands have made it worse than it has to be,” adds Gene Liebel, director of user experience at digital agency Huge. “They’ve created sites that are a Flash wasteland, which don’t have the very basic features that people need to navigate or use for working search. Users haven’t been getting the tools they need to get simple tasks done and now people are realizing you have to solve user goals to engage them. It’s not just a passive experience any more.” 

Quick! Quick!-Take a Picture!

By Roberta Klara

One of pop culture’s enduring truths is that people like to see their names (and faces) up in lights. It’s what’s kept America’s Funniest Home Videos on TV for a generation, why YouTube exploded and, more recently, why brands have turned to home-page-based photo contests. Lay’s and Jones Soda currently have contests where the winner will get his photo displayed on the product packaging. Domino’s wants photos of the pizzas people get delivered at home. While “steamy photos” in this case apply mainly to the pies, lots of entrants stick friends and family (including dogs) in the shots, too.

Why the vogue for amateur pics, all of a sudden? According to online-contest platform Strutta, there are 10 big marketing reasons for a brand to sponsor a submit-your-photo contest on its Web site. Among them: It helps a brand learn about its consumers; it’s cheap and easy to stage; it increases both first-time visits and return traffic; it furnishes loads of stuff for people to talk about on Facebook and Twitter — and it just makes a brand look cool. Which is to say: Photo contests are essentially free marketing — engaging fun that wraps a brand together with consumers’ actual, daily lives.

Heck, at least we know people like them. Lay’s “Happiness Exhibit” generated over 19,000 photos. Jones Soda’s contest to get one’s face on an actual label filled headquarters’ in-box with over 1.2 million pics. Jones marketing director Mike Spear calls the online photo section “the foundation of our site. It’s our most popular feature.” Go ahead, try to get that kind of engagement with a poetry contest.