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First Impressions Last

By Jennifer Johnson

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

Sure, it’s a hackneyed phrase. It’s also true.

Have you looked at your site lately? No, I mean really looked at your site – in particular your home page – and tried to envision it the way it appears to a first time visitor?

Stealing a phrase from "Men in Black", your front page is sometimes your "first, last, and ONLY" chance to make a good impression.

Remember the blind dates you’ve had? Your first impression probably played a large part in how well you and that person got along later and it more than likely was a major factor in the decision whether or not to see the person again.

It’s a stretch; it’s corny, but I’m going to use the first date analogy to help you determine what kind of impression you may be making on your new visitors.

So, grab a pack of Dentyne, practice your "winning smile" in the mirror a few times, and let’s get started.

Looks aren’t Everything…

Sorry to burst your bubble Skippy. Online, looks may not be everything, but your site’s appearance plays a HUGE factor in your visitor’s overall perception of your company.

You open the door to find some mammal that has almost mastered walking erect and has multiple body piercings. In a language strikingly similar to your own, he manages to communicate that he is your date for the evening.

You tell me – do you overlook his appearance? After all, when you asked if he was cute, your best friend did say he had a *great* personality. (Of course that was right after she said "define ‘cute.’") Or do you feign an epiphany that the cause of your hamster’s recurrent hairballs is the fact that you’ve neglected brushing his coat and must get on that right away?

Your site’s appearance, especially the front page, can have the same effect on your visitors.

You may have the best content on the planet, but if something causes your visitors to mouse away before the front page finishes loading, it means nothing.

What are some things you can do to make a good first impression appearance-wise?

Professional appearance is a *must* for business sites. Choose your background and text colors wisely! I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I think, as a general rule, patterned background tiles belong on personal pages, not business sites.

Never sacrifice readability for a "look". Make sure your text, LINKs, and VLINKs are visible against your background color or image. This seems self-explanatory, but it is an all too common problem.

Try to keep image and file size to a minimum in order to speed download time. For every tick of the clock over a certain point, you’re losing a segment of your potential visitors. You might know it’s "worth it" to wait, your visitors don’t – and they usually don’t care. I shoot for 10-15 second download times on a 28.8. If you can do better and still have an aesthetically pleasing page, you’ve done a great job!

Avoid "splash" pages if at all possible. Don’t make your visitors jump through lots of hoops to get to your information. For those of you who don’t know what splash pages are, I’m referring to front pages that usually have some large graphic and one of the most annoying sentences in the online world: Click Here to Enter!!!!! If you are using one of these, I would strongly suggest dropping it if it has no value other than being a "gateway" to the main part of your site.

Spell check your pages before uploading them. Proofread them and try to catch any grammatical or HTML errors *before* the public does. (Trust me, they will.)

"You can put you’re confidence in us!" I don’t think so, Chester. Imagine your online credibility as a drop of water. Goofs like the one above are a red hot skillet for your poor little water drop; poof! your credibility is gone in an instant.

OK, OK, it may not be that bad, but you’ve chosen to enter an arena where you’ve got to prove you’re not going to show up on the CrimeBusters Most Wanted list next week before most people are willing to do business with you. Why not do everything in your power to show your visitors that you are a legitimate company and you’re serious about doing business online?

In a way, you’ve got a strike or two against you from the start; don’t GIVE anyone a reason to distrust you.

Can I See You Again?

You’ve reached the end of the blind date. Do you bide your time waiting for just the right moment to bolt for the door; when he’s putting the car in PARK? Hopefully, our visitors won’t have the overwhelming urge to vacate our sites cursing us and vowing never to return.

Let’s think positively; I’m confident that all of you have developed great sites. A better analogy in that case would be that you’ve reached the end of the date, can’t believe you were lucky enough to have met this person, and can’t wait to see them again.

How do you get that second (and third, and fourth, etc.) "date" set up with your visitors?

Simple, give them a *reason* to come back to your site.

One way you can do this is by developing interactive areas such as chat rooms, message boards, etc.

People, for the most part, won’t come back week after week just to read and view the same ol’ information. A second, and probably THE most effective, way to encourage return visits is to keep your content fresh.

Add new articles or areas frequently and when you do, let your visitors know about it.

I’ve had an experience with this myself recently. I update my site every Monday or Tuesday, but many people weren’t aware of this because, at first glance, it basically looks the same. Josh Reimer of Promotion World, suggested I add a "What’s New" section to keep visitors abreast of the new content and areas. This is a simple and effective way to allow return visitors to quickly and easily access new information.

Another way to encourage return visits is to start your own newsletter or mailing list. As great as your site is, maybe your visitors forgot to bookmark it or they just haven’t thought about visiting you lately. If you offer a free newsletter, you can keep yourself "on their mind" without sending them unsolicited email.

With a little thought, I’m sure you can devise a few other ways to encourage return visits.

Our story ends here; I can’t think of an analogy to make if you and your blind date hit it off so well that you decided to get married. Maybe a merger or something…

Jennifer Johnson is the owner of onMessage Graphic Design and specializes in logo design, business card design, and letterhead design for small business owners. Online portfolio of 480+ logos.

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