Why home page ads may be more valuable than story page ads

All web activity is intention driven.

People visit web pages, whether arriving via search, a link or a bookmark with a specific intention.  That intention might be to read a specific story, see what’s on sale, scan headlines or connect with a friend.

How well a web page helps a user satisfy that intention determines whether a user will return to that page or recommend it to others.

The page may not efficiently satisfy a user’s intention — the web world is full of poorly designed pages that survive by providing a marginal benefit to users, newspaper.com sites chief among them — but so long as the user is free to focus on that intention devoid of distractions or unexpected interruptions, the user experience will be OK.

Much has been made of eye track studies that demonstrate banner blindness. What’s interesting is the only "banner blindness" eye track reports I’ve been able to find demonstrate banner blindness on story pages.

I’ve never seen such a study — and if you have, please let me know — on a newspaper.com home page.

The banner blindness studies support, I think, the proposition that user behavior on the web is intention driven.  When a user clicks on a link — whether from aggregator, search engine, blog or newspaper.com home page, the user has expressed an intention to read a particular story or post. The user is solely focused on that task, so she ignores the banners.

But what is the intention of a user visiting a newspaper.com home page?

I do not have available to me an eye track study to support my theory, but I do have years of experience studying heat maps of user behavior on home pages in Ventura, Bakersfield and GateHouse Media, and I believe the user intention is to scan the newspaper.com home page looking for something interesting.

Notice, I didn’t say "something interesting to click on." Just "something interesting."

Users visit a newspaper.com home page not so much because they want to dive deeper into the site, but because they want to see what is new.

We can debate whether the typical newspaper.com is doing well at satisfying that intention, or more importantly, whether that is the right intention to meet, but I believe that is the typical user intention.

Most such well-intentioned users are most likely looking for the latest news, or other new content, but I would contend that a scanning user is a user who is more likely to take in the full breadth of the home page — they’ll see your top nav links, your promos for your special features and, most importantly, your home page advertising.

This is why it’s probably a mistake for newspapers not to put more advertising on their home pages. The home page audience is more likely to notice a home page ad than an story page audience. (I know there are studies that contradict this theory, that more ads on the home page lead to less effective ads, but I don’t believe this proposition has been fully and fairly studied at the community news level, where local ads tend to be highly relevant to local users.)

And it’s also why newspaper publishers should think about how to get more visitors to the home page. That’s where the money is, and that’s best vehicle for generating audience growth.

Conversely, story pages need to be parred down to the essentials. Banner ads on story pages are a waste. Contextual ads might have some value, but the best move a publisher can make with story pages is use single-focus pages as a vehicle for promoting other content.

By visiting a story page, a user has expressed at least a marginal interest in the content you have available. Use the story page to present more content, be it top headlines, most e-mailed stories or "related stories."

I’ve seen page views increased by 10 percent with the introduction of a pretty low-tech "related content" widget.

Giving users more content choices on a content page works — more advertising choices, not so much.

Your goal as a newspaper.com publisher is to increase user loyalty. Your ideal user visits multiple times per day, ideally by constantly refreshing your home page to see what is new.  The more you can entice the occasional visitor into reading your content, the more likely that user is to become a frequent home page visitor.

If your advertising is highly relevant to that user, he is more like to take notice and also be inclined to support the businesses that support your news operations. It becomes a virtuous circle.

When designing your web strategy, think constantly of user intention. Ask, how are people going to use this page? Then design your page strategy around that intention so that both the user’s consumer needs and your business needs are satisfied.

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  • joeybaker

     Wow, you’ve gone from 0-60 on your blog here in short order. :)

    I too would love to see an eye-tracking study of the front page of a newspaper site, but I don’t think it matters. Advertising online is fundamentally flawed because users describe it as obnoxious and obtrusive. Where as print ads are described as "informative."

    The solution isn’t to pile ads on to the homepage and make the user experience … obnoxious. The solution is to have ads that are relevant to the reader that they might actually want to see, story page, section page, home page, whatever.

  • Howard Owens

    I think banners can be "informative," … one of the mistakes that ad designers, marketers, advertisers and the people who advice them make is try to make ads "eye catching" to over come banner blindness.

    I say, make them more informative. Drop the rotating gifs and flash (there are exceptions, of course) and tell me something about the company and where to find it.  Link the ad to something, but don’t even count click-throughs.

    We’re going to kill, btw, even using an ad server on The Batavian. It just slows the page load.

  • joeybaker

     Sorry, confused: you’re gonna kill what Howard? Animated ads?

    I’m with you on that if so. It is possible to do good animated ads (I recall a good Apple ad on the homepage of the New York Times), but they’re rare, and actually interesting to watch.

  • Howard Owens

    Joey … I dislike animated ads, if that’s what you mean. I think, unless well done, they tend to have opposite of the intended effect, meaning they contribute to banner blindness rather than over come it.

    But what I was referring to is killing off using an ad server.  On The Batavian we sell fixed positions, meaning as an advertiser you buy a fixed position and there’s no rotating with an other advertiser in that position, so you get the benefit of every page view.

     

  • Dave Bullard

    I absolutely agree with this.  We’ve always put as much advertising on the home page as possible, because it’s where most of our traffic begins and ends.

    Also, the competition for some relatively better positions has created occasional competition for the space among advertisers, which is good.

    We use static and animated ads, and are patiently awaiting the day that something better comes along.  I agree that animated ads are hard to do well, but in small spaces, it’s what you’ve got.

    We’ve surveyed our readers a few times over the years (we’re 10 years old in April) and find that a majority like the ads and a significant number report using the ads to make buying decisions.  I suggest using questions like these on a reader survey to generate some useful data for potential advertisers.

    We also try to sprinkle our ads throughout the home page, to combat banner blindness.  Why should ads be confined to a right-channel "ghetto"?  If our job is to generate attention for advertisers, putting their ads in with the scannable news content is the best thing we can do for them.