Well-designed B2C sites can easily explain their products and services in text that is short enough that users will actually read it online. AutoTrader.com, for example, tells us to "Search the largest inventory of cars and trucks on the Internet. More than 1.5 million listings, updated daily." Given this information, most people can figure out what the site does.
Relative to B2C, most B2B sites sell products or services that are much more complex and have less connection to everyday experience. Summarizing a website's purpose is thus much harder in B2B than in B2C. That's why they pay copywriters the big bucks, or so you would think. On closer examination, it seems that most sites pay their copywriters to obscure the site's purpose rather than state it clearly.
Obscurity in action
Here are the taglines from four websites: Angara, Calico, CSG Systems, and E.piphany:
Creating customers online
eBusiness for leaders: Enabling corporations to control the key elements of eBusiness selling
Harness the power of convergence with (company's name)
Software for the customer economy: next-generation CRM software
Can you match the taglines with the company they describe? Can you tell which company does what? Is there a difference between these companies? Do you care?
Regarding the first question: I listed the taglines in the same order as I listed the companies above them. But the real point here, as you no doubt discovered, is that these taglines are basically content-free word count. They do nothing more than clutter up their respective home pages.
Getting it (half) right
I collected the above taglines a few months ago. As I prepared to write this column, I revisited the sites and found that CSG Systems had dropped the tagline "Harness the power of convergence." The company is now wisely willing to tell us what they actually sell: "customer care and billing solutions." Much more specific, and thus more likely to harness the attention of stressed-out business executives looking at the homepage in search of products.
The new CSG Systems website actually does several things right. The home page is reasonably simple, despite an annoying Flash animation that will likely distract visitors. The main text looks like it's written based on my guidelines for online content: Short paragraphs, scannable layout, a bulleted list:
CSG Systems, Inc. is a world-leading provider of customer care and billing solutions for the convergent communications industry -- voice, video, and data.
Our solutions are:
Scaleable and Robust
Modular and Integrated
Efficient and Cost-effective
Unfortunately, when you read the words, you realize that the company is still paying copywriters to avoid communicating with prospective customers. Note how the "solutions" are robust, integrated, efficient, and cost-effective. As opposed to what? A product that was buggy, fragmented, inefficient, and expensive? Given that a website would never advertise such a product, stating the opposite has zero informative value.
Users decide quickly whether to stay or leave a site. To assess whether your homepage communicates effectively to visitors in the crucial first 10 seconds, follow two simple guidelines.
First, collect the taglines from your own site and your three strongest competitors. Print them in a bulleted list without identifying the company names. Ask yourself whether you can tell which company does what. More important, ask a handful of people outside your company the same question.
Second, look at how you present the company in the main copy on the home page. Rewrite the text to say exactly the opposite. Would any company ever say that? If not, you're not saying much with your copy, either.
When I'm attempting to build a shortlist of potential vendors, the experience of looking at home pages reminds me of the frustration I usually feel walking a tradeshow floor. I recently attended an intranet conference that had booths from at least 20 different search engine providers. I simply could not tell the difference between these companies. Who did what? Which technologies would make sense for which type of problem? Which products would fit the budget for which projects? The booths were essentially random designs. While they clearly cost huge amounts of money, they failed to communicate anything distinct to a tired tradeshow visitor pacing up and down the aisles.
Think about your home page as analogous to a tradeshow booth. Why do you stop at some booths and skip others? And, no: having a live magician is not the answer for your home page. Clearly saying what you do and why users should care is the way to go.