In the beginning, your company created a Web site. And it was good.

But then it grew. And grew. And grew. Until it encompassed the heavens and the earth in content. Something for everyone. Everything for someone. And it ceased to be a coherent presentation to anyone.

It became Encyclopedia Corporatica—a massive tome of information that includes press releases from five years ago. An impressive body of work, to be sure. But as a sales tool, as a marketing vehicle, it sags under its own weight.

In the lightening-paced world of online marketing, your Web site has actually become less nimble. Before you can run with a daring new idea, you now have to make sure it fits with your existing information architecture, look-and-feel, and IT feature set. While those constraints are important for your corporate site, they severely restrict more tactical Web marketing campaigns.

You can break free of this paradox by separating the two: maintain a full, rich corporate Web site, but also use independent Web marketing paths—small sequences of Web pages that make a focused pitch—to target key product and field marketing opportunities.

Compared to working inside the box of your corporate Web site, these lightweight Web marketing paths are faster to produce and easier to change, increasing your agility and reaction speed.

Such paths are often an ideal next step for respondents to online advertising and email marketing. As "landing experiences," they are more than a landing page but less than a full-scale Web site. At the critical post-click marketing stage, where a prospect has given you one click but is still skeptical of your relevance, this clarity of purpose and message can be just the right size.

A Web marketing path starts with a landing page, but instead of trying to cram an entire pitch and offer into one screen, a good path will use that first page to gently segment the respondent. It gives them 2-3 choices of what to click next—a branch in the path—to identify what's most relevant to them. The second page of the path then delivers on that promise, providing a deeper and more targeted presentation.

Depending on what you're selling and who you're targeting, a given path might have 2-5 steps that visitors walk through. It can branch again to further sub-segment audiences or filter key prospects through a qualifying process. In a lead generation campaign, it will typically culminate in a conversion offer that captures contact information in exchange for a meaningful deliverable.

The right balance is to have a path that's deep enough to be valuable, yet small enough to be digestible. Paths don't replace your Web site; they preface and supplement it. Paths certainly can—and should—direct visitors to your main Web site, but that's usually best near the end, after you've made your pitch, to deep-link into highly relevant content.

For example, imagine your company sells research reports and consulting services. You might be running ads for a new report you've released, but you're hoping it will appeal to several different types of customers. Let's say it's a study on click fraud, which could be of interest to both advertisers and site operators.

Here's how a three-page Web marketing path for this product marketing opportunity could be constructed:

The landing page of your path would start with a message aligned tightly with the ad or email that generated the click and give respondents a two-way choice: "findings of most value to site operators" and "findings of most value to advertisers."

With their second click, respondents go to a page that lives up to that promise, presenting the most relevant highlights of the report to each segment. At this point, you offer to email a free executive summary—again, tailored to their segment—in exchange for their contact information.

The final page of the path, after a respondent takes the offer on the previous page, thanks them, lets them know that their fulfillment is being emailed to them immediately, and now presents them with a mini-portal of segment-specific deep links into your corporate site. (The choices a respondent makes at this point may further suggest their sub-segment or lead-quality grade.)

Respondents may have had the option to jump to your corporate site at any point in the path—it's best when paths are presented as voluntary for respondents who receive real benefits from them. But now those respondents have their perceptions framed according to the campaign that won their click in the first place.

Keep in mind that your corporate Web site is chock-full of distractions, places where people can wander off to read about where your CEO went to school. That sort of free-form exploration is wonderful at a certain point in the marketing cycle, but it saps momentum early in the process—there is simply too much content speaking to too many different people. A good path sets the stage so that prospects surf your site with a clear idea of what's in it for them.

A key advantage of lightweight paths is that they're easy to produce, often at a fraction of the time and overhead required for corporate Web site changes. Since the marginal cost of creating path variations is relatively low, you aren't constrained by the one-size-fits-all approach of a big Web site. It becomes practical to pair different ad campaigns with their own tailored landing experiences, increasing "message match" synergy between them. It also becomes feasible to run more tests, experimenting with multiple ideas to determine which is most effective. Both of these optimization techniques can deliver significant lift to your conversion rate.

In our example with the click fraud report, you might try several variations of your offer: only require their name and email address, include a 10% discount code for the complete report, or a 15% discount that expires in one week. Which of these generates the greatest number of qualified leads? Which has the greatest impact on short-cycle sales? You may even want to experiment with different segmentations, perhaps to marketing-oriented or IT-oriented readers, or a special segment for SEM and advertising agencies.

To enable this kind of rapid-fire testing of alternate paths, it helps to create "frameworks" of path templates that you can quickly customize and deploy. It's worth investing in good frameworks so that your paths maintain high standards in image and brand.

However, because Web marketing paths are independent of your primary Web site, visibly delineated even in the minds of your audience, it's safer to try bold, innovative ideas with them. Paths don't have to match side-by-side or preserve the paradigms of your main Web site—each one is a clean slate. If something doesn't work, it's easy to swap it out. This creative freedom can be inspiring, revitalizing the energy of your online marketing.

Of course, paths should absolutely uphold your brand integrity. But it is important to remember that your brand is bigger than your corporate Web site. Given the weight that Encyclopedia Corporatica drags with it, your brand is almost certainly much bigger.

Your palette is broad, and "the" Web site is only one canvas. Web marketing paths and meaningful landing experiences in your post-click marketing let you paint a wider world.

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image of Scott Brinker

Scott Brinker is co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, a provider of landing-page management software and conversion-optimization services. He also writes a blog on marketing technology called Chief Marketing Technologist.

Twitter: @chiefmartec.