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Does your website really need to stand out from the crowd?

Do you need to differentiate your website from others in the market? Graham Jones looks at the psychology behind attracting and keeping visitors on your site.

This week I spoke at a conference about the subconscious signals given off by websites. Afterwards, a couple of people from the audience came up to me and asked about a comment I had made and wondered if their approach to their website was wrong.

The point I had made was that people have pre-set ideas as to what they expect to see when they land on a site. Neurological studies show that if people don’t see what they are expecting in less than one second, these visitors disappear, bouncing out of the site, looking for something else.

The example I gave was a bride looking for a wedding venue. If she lands on a hotel website and the images are all of business people in suits, she instantly thinks “this is not the hotel for me”, even if the venue does offer weddings. The bride expects to see images of people like herself, instantly. If she doesn’t see them in half a second, she perceives that the site is not for her, even before she has started to explore it.

Another example I gave was of a garden centre website that was told it needed to look different to all the others so that it “stood out”. Their web designers told them that almost every garden centre website used green as its principle colour. So to stand out from the crowd, the developers suggested pink. The garden centre site was transformed, but sales plummeted. Why? Because the bounce rate rocketed, as people do not associate pink with gardening. People expect a website that is focused on gardening to have a lot of green in it. When they don’t see that, they think “this is not the right site”, and they bounce out, looking for an alternative that matches their expectation.

The problem with not providing what people expect leads to a phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance”. Essentially this is your brain going “this does not compute”. In other words, there is a mental clash between what we see and what we had expected to see and our brain gets stuck in a rut trying to sort it all out. And when a website visitor’s brain gets stuck in that rut the easiest solution is for them to leave the site, thereby eliminating the problem for them.

So, I told the members of my audience who were asking about their “wacky” approach to their website that I did think they had got things wrong. Like many website owners, they thought that with so much material available online that they needed to “stand out” and be different. That is often what businesses are told by web designers too. They say that their client shouldn’t be a “me too” website, looking like all the others in the same category.

That is old-fashioned thinking, though. When you had time to explain to people why your company brochure was printed sideways, or why your corporate colours were pink and orange instead of green, then they understood and remembered you for being different. But nowadays you don’t have time for people to understand the differences. Instead, they need to know, in an instant, that they have landed on the right kind of website.

If you are a taxi firm and your site doesn’t look like a taxi company’s website, you will have driven away your visitors. Similarly, if you run a local stables and your website doesn’t seem to be about horses, off trot your visitors to another site. In other words, the most important thing to do these days is to be the same, not be different.

Yet, of course, you have a strong instinct to want to stand out and be different. The answer to that is to make the difference in what you DO, not what you LOOK LIKE. Your visitors will have cognitive dissonance and get confused if you don’t look like all the other websites in your sector. Be the same as everyone else and your visitors will stay on your site. Then they will notice how different you are if you do things others do not do, such as in having a vast vault of useful content, or providing plentiful downloads, and so on.

So, guess what, the couple who approached me after my talk the other day have now gone off to revamp their website and make it like the others in their sector. But as we chatted we hit upon something their website can do, that the other sites do not. That’s a result.

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