Getting someone to your website is only half the battle. After that, the real pitch begins. Advertisers have been making pitches for decades, and the print ad embodies their collective wisdom in an easily digestible form. Like a website, it uses both visual cues and text to get its message across. When building and branding your website, there is a lot to learn from a careful analysis of print advertisements–do so and maybe you can become the Don Draper of the web marketing world.
Lesson #1: Structure Can Be Copied
In ad school they teach you that there are certain layouts that print advertisements follow: traditional, mondrian, clean and simple, axial, etc. Prospective students are taught to copy these styles – like English you can break the rules only after you are familiar with them. What does this mean for the web?
It means don’t be afraid to copy the structure or layout of other websites you admire. Figure out what makes them good, and apply it to your own website because it is much easier to start from a blueprint than to start from scratch. The end user doesn’t care if you baked that cake using a box mix, provided it says “Happy Birthday So-and-so” and tastes good. Provided the content is unique and relevant, it’s not stealing. It’s learning, and everyone does it.
Lesson #2: Knowing Your Audience is Key
Think of an ad that you hate. “What were they thinking?” you may ask yourself, and shudder. It could be a bad piece of advertising – there’s enough of that going around these days – but maybe it’s not. Maybe you just aren’t part of the target audience for the ad. Every ad is targeted toward a specific demographic or user group, usually backed up by market research.
Print ads in particular are carefully designed to appeal to a particular group, both in the context of the magazine or newspaper chosen to run it and the content itself. So when designing your website, design it for a specific group of people. You can’t make everyone happy, so don’t try. From the URL to the font, everything should be designed to appeal to a single audience.
Lesson #3: One Page = One Idea
Print ads generally have a single, 8.5″ by 11″ page to get across their message. This means that the message needs to be simple enough to explain in just a sentence or two. The best print ads deliver this message in a clever or interesting shell, but they all revolve around a single idea. If the ad is not focused, then you run the risk of confusing or alienating your audience. What does this mean for a website? It means don’t abuse the unlimited space that the net affords you.
Think of every page as an 8.5″ by 11″ piece of paper (or maybe a 1024 x 768 screen – the lowest common resolution people still use), and place content appropriately. If you have a killer picture or headline, place it at the top, and make sure the rest of the content supports your lead. Avoid the temptation of adding a second or third or fourth idea to the page. If they are important, give them their own page. Otherwise, drop them. There are a lot of good ideas; it is the great ones which stand out.
Lesson #4: People Trust Attractive Things
If there is a common denominator in all good print ads, it is that they are aesthetically pleasing. It’s not enough to have an idea, you have to package it in an attractive package. From layout to font to pictures, every visual aspect of a print ad is chosen carefully. It is meant to be enjoyed, and eye-catching.
This can be applied to website design as well. You don’t want a website that looks like it was designed by someone who picks random html colors, or mistakes flash animation for sophistication. It will destroy your credibility. There are a variety of good design principles one can apply here from print ads: use white space, keep headlines seven words or shorter, decide on a dominant element. Ask yourself: is this attractive? Would I buy something from here?
Lesson #5: Leave Them With Your Brand
You can have the greatest website ever, but if people don’t remember it’s yours, then it won’t matter. This is the risk marketers take when they try and use humor to sell products: the joke or gag may be funny, but if your brand is not an integral part of it then it won’t be remembered. In print this is generally combated by placing the company’s logo or a picture of the product in the bottom right of the page. This placement means that it is usually the last thing that readers see before leaving the page, since we read top to bottom, and left to right, here in the West. Make sure your brand is always prominently displayed somewhere on every page, and the more consistent the placement the better.
By looking to print ads, we can easily see various design and marketing strategies reduced to their purest form. So next time you’re flipping through a magazine, stop and study an ad. You may be surprised by what you learn.