Landing pages have become the Omega-3's of Web marketing: If you're not using them and optimizing them ad infinitum, you're squandering your online ad dollars. Or so the landing page optimization crowd would have you believe.

Like most good ideas that get hyped into panaceas, landing pages have grown larger than life, overshadowing the real source of value—a respondent's holistic landing experience.

In the spirit of probing the pros and cons of this popular post-click marketing format—and, okay, doing a little tongue-in-cheek myth busting—we offer our take of the top 5 best and worst things about landing pages, in contrast to multi-page landing paths.

(Just to clarify terminology: Every landing experience obviously begins with a page, where respondents land after clicking an ad or email link. But the term "landing page" specifically refers to a one-page post-click marketing format, where the entirety of a campaign's pitch is squeezed onto that one page.)

The top 5 best things, real or imagined, about landing pages:

  1. Landing pages are quick and cheap. That's not a putdown—fast, inexpensive experimentation is very important in this landscape of a thousand niche marketing opportunities. But "cheap" should be measured by CPA (cost per acquisition), not absolute dollars. If you spend twice as much time on a three-page landing path, but it generates a 5-times factor in your conversion rate on the same ad dollars, that's a good investment.

  2. Landing pages can be "matched" with advertisements. Huge benefit! (Although not everyone using landing pages takes advantage of it.) Arguably the power of message match, where content a respondent sees post-click is tailored to the promise of the specific ad they clicked on, is the primary reason why landing pages have improved conversion rates. This principle is a keeper for any good landing experience.

  3. Landing pages can be tested and optimized. Absolutely: test, test, test. One of the problems with big Web sites is that they suffer from inertia. Online direct marketing campaigns thrive on rapid experimentation, and landing pages have enabled that... to a point. You can experiment only so much within the box of one page ("let's try every color in the Web palette as our background!").

  4. Landing pages are easy to manage. Maybe. One page may be easy to manage, but many, many different "one page" variations are not. You've no doubt run across a lot of outdated or link-broken landing pages. As you scale up to running dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of targeted landing experiences of any kind, the content management challenge is daunting. Good software and processes can make this manageable, but that's not an exclusive feature to the landing page format, and by no means a given.

  5. Landing pages are friendly for respondents. Well.... message match is friendly, to be sure. But there are three cases of how a one-page format can be used:
    • A simple but compelling idea, applicable to all respondents, is well presented on one short page.

    • A more complex idea with different benefits for different respondents is all jammed onto one long, crowded page shoved at everyone indiscriminately, leaving respondents confused or overwhelmed.

    • A more complex idea with different benefits for different respondents is artificially edited down to one short page—but loses fidelity and becomes less compelling.

The dream of friendly landing pages for respondents is only materialized in case 1, but there are a heck of a lot of direct marketing campaigns that don't fit that mold that end up being shortchanged as landing pages in cases 2 or 3. Trying to squeeze a Labrador Retriever into a Chihuahua's carrying crate is just not pretty.

And those are the good things!

The top 5 worst things about landing pages (and tips for how to fix them):

  1. Sagging Page Syndrome (SPS), also known as "the kitchen sink." Some things in life really are so simple that one short page sums it up nicely for everyone. But for the far majority of products and services in the world, there's more to it.

    Trying to cram as much as possible onto one page puts the burden on the respondent to sift through it. Unfortunately, most of the time, they're just not that into you yet.

    If you've got that much to say, and it's valuable, then break it into digestible chunks across a multi-page path, ideally in a way that lets respondents choose which chunks are most relevant to them.

  2. Rushing for the close. Landing pages that immediately present the respondent with a form to fill out—to subscribe, get a download, request more information, etc.— often reach out too far too fast.

    A respondent clicked on your ad by expressing a modicum of interest, a willingness to consider what you have to say. If you immediately demand a commitment with their name, email address, or more, it's like strolling into a store and having a salesperson instantly thrust a purchase order in your hands. Not surprisingly, this approach has a low conversion rate.

    Good post-click marketing should build trust with a step or two of a "conversation" before popping the question, as any good salesperson would.

  3. No segmentation—clicks are treated as a commodity. Not all clicks are created equal. Ad response traffic often contains a spectrum of different audience segments. They clicked on the same ad, yes, but not all for the same reason, not all with the same needs.

    The one-page format of landing pages makes the same pitch to all of them, oblivious to their distinctions. If the page focuses only on one segment, it disenfranchises others; if it tries to speak to all segments at once, its passion and relevance to any one segment are watered down.

    A better approach is to use a landing path where the first page induces a one-click directed behavioral segmentation choice from respondents—a branch in the path depending on the segment the respondent selects—and then you can speak with conviction and authority to each segment's specific interests on page two.

  4. Optimizing the deck chairs on the Titanic. Landing page optimization is not unlike Henry Ford's original production line: You can do any optimization you want, as long as it's on this one page. Hey, we're fine with testing which combination of headline, image, and offer button works best, but you can waste a lot of time on minutia ("does this work better with a comma or a semicolon?").

    Instead, you should be testing much more important elements of your campaign—such as your audience segmentation and the sequence of your pitch.

    With so many niche marketing opportunities out there competing for your attention, you need the big hits far more than the microscopic tweaks.

  5. Giving bad brand. Collectively, all of the problems above contribute to making landing pages bad branding experiences. As noted earlier, landing pages are quick and cheap—which is good—but they often look quick and cheap, which is not good. Not good at all. Because it signals quick and cheap for your brand, and unless you're the Dollar Store, that's not a good image to put in people's minds.

    A landing experience should look and feel and behave so as to signal two important things: (a) you care about the impressions of that respondent who just clicked, and (b) they can be assured that you take pride in everything your organization does.

    If you need more than one computer-assembled page to send the right signals, it's worth it.

* * *

The good news is that fixing these problems in post-click marketing really isn't that hard. Stop thinking at the page level, start thinking at the path level. Leverage audience segmentation. And remember that your brand never gets a second chance to make a first impression.

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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.