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5 secrets to designing content that converts

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

As a web designer, it can be easy to think of yourself as a visual artist instead of a business strategist. While it’s true that web design involves creativity and artistry — and that is an integral and valuable part of web design — truly effective web design isn’t just pretty websites. It’s effective websites. And effective can take on varied shades of meaning.

Some view effective web design as sites that are visually appealing and easy to navigate. People hire web designers every day to make sites that look good and are easy to use, with pleasing color schemes, navigation that makes sense, and consistent branding. Presentation and navigation are certainly two important aspects of user experience, the metric by which any website is evaluated. The better the user’s experience, the more successful the design is.

Good web design is more than just UX

Designing a user’s experience with a website goes beyond visuals and mechanics, though. There’s often something a site owner wants the site users to do, and convincing the user to do that thing (whatever it may be) is the process of conversion.

Conversion is about the user, but ultimately it’s about the site owner’s goals for interaction with the user. A large portion, if not the vast majority, of sites being designed these days have the purpose of converting visitors and users from passive viewers to active participants in the site’s goal, whether that goal is selling a product, generating leads, or collecting registrations. Turning a visitor from a passive viewer to an active player is the process of conversion, and it’s a critical but often misunderstood part of any website’s success.

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A good conversion rate boils down to effective content, presented effectively in a website design. It requires excellent design built around content that converts. The two — design and content — are inextricably entwined, and for one to be effective, the other must also be. While designers don’t have to be copywriters or photographers, they do need to have a good grasp of how to present a site’s content in a way that’s both attractive and effective for conversions.

To get you started, here are five “secrets” to designing content that converts.

1. Ditch dummy text

Many designers will often come up with a web design and use Lorem Ipsum dummy text to flesh it out. This is absolutely not how to work if your goal is conversion, though — it’s critical to have your content in hand before setting the design. Otherwise, your design is simply a hypothetical “this would be a nice website” project and not the highly nuanced form of art you’ve been hired to create. The content needs to dictate the design. Otherwise, you run the very real (and often realized) risk of elements in the design that are superfluous, the need to shoehorn content into a design that doesn’t quite fit, and an overall presentation that completely fails at emphasizing the right content at the right time.

A simple website that presents its content well is going to convert better than a beautifully designed website that fails to highlight key pieces of information and obscures others. Designing with hypothetical text and images is just setting yourself up for a design that the client might fall in love with, but ultimately will fail when the real content is put in. Sketch your ideas if you need to, but before doing any serious brainstorming or putting together wireframes, know exactly what you’re working with and what elements need to be featured. Designer Jeffrey Zeldman said it best back in 2008: “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

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If you offer copywriting services along with design services, you may be able to sculpt your copy around your design ideas (or vice versa), but you still need to have a good sense of what you’re presenting before you can figure out how to present it. No shoehorns allowed in this game.

2. Do the sitemap before the site

A really good sitemap is a fantastic gift you can give any website’s users, especially if there’s a lot of stuff to navigate in the site. What you may not realize, though, is that a great sitemap can also be a gift to yourself, and to your client. If you’ve got a sitemap in hand before beginning a design, what you’ve essentially got is an outline to build the entire structure of the design. As Cameron Chapman wrote for KISSmetrics, a good sitemap is “a centralized planning tool that can help organize and clarify the content that needs to be on your site, as well as help you eliminate unnecessary pages.”

In other words, the sitemap is kind of like the roadmap for your website. Creating one doesn’t invoke any design skills at all, just organizational ones. That means laying out the sitemap is a responsibility you can leave to your client, collaborate to develop, or take on yourself. If you’re responsible for the sitemap, be sure the client does a thorough evaluation before moving forward; sitemaps often evolve over time, but the less it changes along the way, the better off you’ll be.

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A sitemap clarifies what content needs to be and where, without being cumbersome or difficult to put together or adjust. It eliminates the possibility of inefficient design or navigation because you can see where each piece of content needs to go and create helpful internal links, rather than duplicating information. No more duplicated content means no more wasted time for you or the site’s users.

Another perk of the sitemap is that it helps crystallize the scope of the project right from the outset, which you and the client would probably both appreciate. The real logistical benefit of the sitemap is that it can serve as a tracker for the parts of the project you’ve finished and the parts that are still in progress. Keep it digital and be sure everyone with input into the sitemap and the site design’s progress can access it. Use it as a quick tool for keeping your client updated, and keep referencing it any time changes to the content are suggested to save yourself time and headaches.

3. Have a clear call to action

When a site’s goal is conversion (and this is most often the case), one of the most critical elements is the call to action. Frankly, most sites should have some sort of call to action, whether it’s to “sign up” or to “add to cart” or to “view the gallery.” Users should be guided toward some action, and that action needs to be laid out plainly and clearly. It could be a button, a link, or something else. Whatever it is, that’s what we mean when we say “call to action.”

Whether your call to action takes a humorous tone (sign up today or the bunny gets it!), invokes camaraderie (join the cause), or is loaded with urgency (on sale today only!), it needs to be designed in a way that’s compelling to the target audience and consistent with the overall messaging of the site. For some great ideas and examples, check out Helga Moreno’s write-up on the call to action for Just Creative.

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An important thing to note: if your call to action on the landing page is for the user to fill out an opt-in form, include the form on that page. Don’t have the user click a link that takes them to an opt-in. One-step opt-ins have been shown to have much higher conversion rates than two-step ones. Just work the opt-in into the landing page. And while you’re at it, make sure the form is only requesting the information you actually need — the less it requests, the higher it converts.

4. Make sure the headlines are good

Any web writer worth their salt will tell you that headlines are critical — and it’s true. We all joke about annoying clickbait and short attention spans these days, but research shows that any website has all of eight seconds to capture a visitor’s attention before that visitor bounces. Eight seconds is not a lot of time, and it’s safe to assume that the majority of those seconds are spent scanning the headline. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that anything even remotely headline-like in your site design is strong: only a compelling headline will keep a user on your site long enough to have the opportunity to convert.

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If the responsibility for generating the headlines and other H1 text in a design ever falls on your shoulders, you need to sharpen your headline-writing skills. My two favorite resources are this quick-tip post from Copyblogger and the free Headline Hacks PDF from Jon Morrow. Both of these resources were developed for writers, but they present the basics of writing good headlines in a way that anyone with English fluency can absorb and put to use pretty much immediately.

5. Use versatile images to capture and keep interest

There’s a science to the art of images (and other visual elements, like logos and standout fonts) in web design, and it would behoove you to have a keen understanding of what exactly makes a good image selection — especially if you’re layering content over the image, or tying in a critical headline or call to action. Most actual web design takes place on a desktop or laptop computer. When compared with all the screens in our lives, these computer monitors are spacious, relatively low-lit, and most often indoors or, at the very least, shaded from direct sun or other glare. But that’s not the only environment in which images are viewed on the web these days.

Images that look great on the hulking iMac in your office aren’t necessarily going to look as good — or even show up — on the screen of an early-model smartphone being carried down a brightly lit street. And neither of those will compare to how a horizontal mini tablet displays the image. The nature of connectivity and technology today requires that you take into account all kinds of monitors and viewing scenarios when you build your website.

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Your images need to be striking and scalable to accommodate different monitor sizes in different environments: think 4 inches in bright light overhead to 40 inches indoors with indirect sunlight filtered in. If the image is compelling because of its nuance or intricate detail, it’s probably not the right image to use. Tweak any images as needed, if the tweaks can make them feasible (or if the client requires their use), and focus on contrast to render high clarity.

The keys to copy that converts

While these five “secrets” aren’t really secrets at all, it can be easy to overlook or completely miss these key elements to creating content that converts. Websites are the vehicles for presenting content, and the users must be taken into account with any web design. But, as these tips have demonstrated, effective web design isn’t just about making a website nice to look at and easy to use. There’s often another purpose: driving conversion. Mastering and using all five of these areas of web design workflow will go a long way in your ability to create websites that are truly effective in every sense of the word.

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