Think "Landing Pages," Not Websites

November 10, 2011

Websites or Landing PagesThe decision by Adobe this week to move away from a mobile Flash platform is not only stunning but revealing. Flash has always been a resource hog for web developers, which is why Steve Jobs drew a line in the sand over its use in Apple products. But it's the infrastructure that Flash provided that we're about to see changed most, and it will again disrupt the industry of media. We're moving away from the home website platform to one that is based on landing pages created for a mobile environment, one that includes highly targetable, yet firmly in-control users.

I've been involved in the design and creation of websites for the past 15 years. I'm no pro, but I can write code and stylesheets. I know how the back end works. Flash was a killer app, even though it slowed page load down while doing its thing. It opened up a creative world that we're still enjoying today. Flash was the early, unifying technology that won two significant battles for supremacy in the world of personal computers. One, it became the source of choice in the display of online video. Default video players for media companies became Flash players, and the Internet gods looked down and proclaimed it was good okay. Two, Flash also became the choice of Madison Avenue in the drawing of attention to ads that nobody was really seeing. Banner blindness is the big issue that nobody in the advertising value chain really talks about much, but adding whirligig "rich media" movement to ads made them stand out or get in the way, depending on your point of view. Flash enabled that.

Both of these things helped further the myth of mass marketing via the Web, and we always must remember that this is not natural for the medium. Flash is the go-to technology that runs the ad agency machine that works the same way the old machines have always worked. There's nothing creative about it; it's new wine into old wineskins. It's reach-frequency gone to seed. It's the "second" screen or the "third." Marketing strategy is now all screens all the time, but again, this is not the native value of the Web, and it ignores the reality that advertising is today's content king in a direct marketing, social network universe.

So where's this heading without Flash? If we assume that portability will continue its stunning growth and that most future computing will be on portable devices, can/will HTML5 replace Flash as the unifying technology for mass marketing systems? This the wrong question, because the Web and the people formerly known as the audience are in charge, and they WILL have their way.

One staggering difference between mobile and that big, 17-inch laptop screen is in how content is displayed. The size and power limitations that mobile requires emphasize that which is being communicated over the form that carries it. Plain Jane works best on handheld devices. It loads quickly and is easy to consume, so flashy mass marketing techniques of display and interrupt are not merely aggravating and time-wasting (especially heinous today); they also don't fit the landing page paradigm.

So there's a very real content management issue that must be worked out before we'll see anything resembling universal acceptance of a new, Flash-less marketplace. Media companies are hip to the problem and are offering creative solutions for users via standalone or web-based apps, but the limited structure of display advertising is such that advertisers are confronted, once again, with the realities of banner blindness.

Jay SmallJay Small, who runs the interactive division of Cordillera Communications (an AR&D client) told me that today's media company must provide an everything-for-everybody approach and that's he's working hard to stay on top of emerging standards.

More than 10 percent of our overall web traffic, in good old browsers, now comes from mobile devices. So adaptable web architectures allow us to serve interfaces that work better with smartphone and tablet interface norms. In particular, many current mobile devices have multi touch screens, which make selecting links or buttons a different experience than a mouse and keyboard, and add zoom and swipe capabilities that are not prevalent on personal computers.

Obviously, we want our video segments — key assets to any station.com — to play smoothly in as many devices as possible, too. Using our desktop-sized, Flash-based video player on a mobile device would be awkward if it worked at all, so we made sure we can deliver video in our mobile-friendly sites and our apps.

The Cordillera landing pages that display when someone from a mobile device clicks on a link are not written in "pure" HTML5, but Small says they take every advantage of the key advances in interoperable and customizable interfaces while studying everything new that comes down the pike. This is smart.

The web "site," where users went to find content of any sort is evolving to the world of landing pages, because so much of today's traffic doesn't come in through the front door of our sites. This idea of inbound links was noted in 2004 by Caroline Little, then editor of the Washington Post online, who said, "Coming in through the home page is an old model and coming in sideways is the new method of arrival for most users." This was prophetic at the time, but Ms. Little was thinking within the "site" paradigm. "Side door" refers to a different entry point TO THE SITE. She wasn't thinking of single page distribution.

Even then we knew what the power of search could do, and it was changing the approach to information on the Web, but we've never really approached the fundamental idea of this being the new — even preferred — method of interacting with us online. Landing pages turn that around, because they BEGIN with the end user and work backwards into our content management systems. This gives us the opportunity to rethink everything, and HTML5 is the doorway through which innovation for portable consumption can begin. Media companies need to respond here by moving away from an emphasis on their websites and concentrate almost fully on landing pages, both for portable devices and those that are wired. This is not a choice.

While the idea of landing pages isn't new, Adobe's decision to end its pursuit of Flash for mobile kicks it into high gear, because advertisers, too, are playing with landing pages. The real beauty of landing pages is that no one page needs to be the same for anybody. They're assembled on the fly when a user calls for one by clicking on any form of link. This means the landing page is a stand-alone tool in communicating information, including that which is advertising.

This shifts strategic planning to the dissemination of links instead of "driving traffic to a website," which is now older than dirt in Internet years. Links are portable. They can be passed around. They fit perfectly into that which is in real time, because of their portability. They can be accessed in a myriad of digital ways, including QR codes. Madison Avenue doesn't understand QR codes, and why should they? These little images disrupt their hegemony by by-passing the middlemen they represent — media companies. In QR codes, like everything else that is advertising these days, it's not the code that matters as much as it is the landing page. It is a growing, big-money business.

Interstitial landing pages and preroll video ads are not the solution for media company revenue in a landing page environment, because they interrupt what people want to be a seamless transition from link/headline to the content. This interruption may have worked for television, but it doesn't for mobile devices, because everything on such devices is requested in a time-sensitive, consumer-in-control environment. We should not be surprised. An astounding 96 percent of respondents to a TVGuide/PaidContent study of 5,800 people say they fast-forward through ads on DVR content these days.

The discontent over advertising as a time-waster isn't limited to just the advertiser. The media company that provides the interruption is also held accountable, and on devices that are so personal, this affront is, well, personal.

display advertising fadesBorrell Associates' research guru Kip Cassino touched on this in a piece about efforts by Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL to share unsold inventory in an effort to create the reach desired by Madison Avenue to justify a Madison Avenue approach to the Web.

The big Madison Avenue agencies persist in trying to reshape the Web into another mass media choice. They talk about scalable reach and CPMs — vestiges of the days when reach was measured by audiences, large groups, markets and households. The world of concentrated media is changing to one of fragmented, personal media. If Moammar Gadhafi were still alive, you could ask him.

Cassino offers this chart from Borrell research that shows where online advertising is headed, and it's why I don't think media companies are ready for it. They want the same reach-frequency model that the agencies want.

The chart shows where local online ad spending is most likely to migrate as these trends persist and grow. Itís not that advertisers will stop sending ads to stationary computers. Itís just that most ads will be received by mobile devices.

Advertising to mobile device users follows different rules than the ones set up for the mass media we have all learned to use. In fact, it won't be advertising any more — at least not entirely. It will be a mixture of advertising and promotions that appeals to individuals, not mass audiences.

And I believe it will be delivered via landing pages created by a variety of sources, including the advertisers themselves. And selling the ability to provide access to an advertiser's landing pages is different from selling air, which is the specialty of broadcast account executives.

It's going to be a very different world.