Newspapers have adapted beautifully — if slowly — to publishing their content online. They’ve embraced social sharing, robust in-site search, and adapted their business models to use either advertising or subscription-only content, or both. They’ve adapted their mastheads to include typical navigation items associated with online content. These content-rich, content-focused sites have found ways to work with the new medium they’ve been forced to embrace.
Knowing that, why on earth are web strategists and designers all still using a phrase from the days of yore, when paper newspapers were the only way to get the news each morning? That phrase is above-the-fold.Above-the-fold refers to the space on a print newspaper that is visible when the paper is folded in half and stuck in a newspaper box behind a plastic window. Back in ye olden tymes, if the content above-the-fold in that print paper was compelling enough, ancient man would put an ancient metal coin known as a quarter into the slot above the window, which allowed the box to open and for ancient man to remove a newspaper.
Above-the-fold was a SALES TECHNIQUE. For paper. So what are the benefits of using it on the web? I’ll admit that there are some, but I contest that a paradigm shift is occurring that will soon make it meaningless.
Following closest to the original newspaper model of above-the-fold is the concept of linking to your most recent blog posts in the top half of your home page. There’s more variety in placement and layout of this content, but generally, web sites which link to their blog posts on the home page are doing it in three different ways:
- A list of recent posts in the right sidebar of the site, largely because this became an accepted convention with the prevalence of WordPress blogs;
- Image thumbnails with a blog post title and the first sentence of each post and the words “read more” linked to the full post; and
- One big image and a linked header with the name of the blog (“Weekly Hair-Don’ts: Our Styling Blog”)
Argument for Above-the-Fold Placement: Assuming you write regularly — at least twice a month — linking to your recent blog posts prominently near the top of your home page is a great way to advertise several things. First, it tells your users that you are regularly engaged with improving your business, your communication, and your commitment to the industry in which you work. Second, it tells your users that you are thinking about them and how you want to engage with them on a regular basis. These are fantastic messages to highlight.
Argument Against Above-the-Fold Placement: If you don’t blog regularly, sharing your four-month-old blog post on your homepage sends decidedly different messages. It tells them that you begin projects and then drop them. It tells them that you don’t care who knows how little you’ve done. It tells them that you’re not engaged with your industry or your customers and that you aren’t working to improve your business. Important to note that none of that is necessarily true — you might be very engaged with your customers and your industry and be totally committed to improving your business, but the fact that you’ve chosen to highlight a neglected project on your homepage negates all of that in the mind of a brand new customer.
Giant Emotional Image
I admit that I’m a sucker for a giant emotional image. You’ve seen them – just below the navigation, there’s a big photo of a mother and child in a field of daisies or a tree-lined road leading to a mountain or a runner on the beach or a friendly-looking doctor with a clipboard. They take up easily a third of the page and immediately tell you something about what the web site owner wants you to feel about them.
Argument for Above-the-Fold Placement: If you want to pack an emotional punch, this is a great way. Especially if you’re selling an intangible product — like a service — this image tells your users how you’ll make them feel, and that’s very effective. Even better is if you can layer some powerful text over the image that explains how it pertains to your work. That beach at sunset gets very concrete when the words superimposed over it say “We can make you feel this relaxed.”
Argument Against Above-the-Fold Placement: If there’s no strong and immediate connection between this image and your product or service, it’s just plain confusing. If you are an accountant and your home page opens with a photo of puppies wrestling, that’s perplexing and, frankly, weird. It doesn’t matter if they are your puppies — most people don’t choose their accountant based on her choice in pets.
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If those commands above — known in marketing-land as “calls to action” — sound familiar, that’s because they are all the rage in web design and strategy these days. Every content marketing thought leader on the web is insisting that you use them on your site to encourage visitors to do something, and every content marketing thought leader on the web can’t be wrong. Here’s an article with some recommendations and examples. My concern about these calls-to-action is that they are taking up real estate at the top of the page that, if you’re not ready to take action yet, just eliminates available space for interesting content. In addition, they’re becoming so ubiquitous that we’re starting to ignore them.
Argument for Above-the-Fold Placement: If your user has been to your site many times before, they don’t need to remember where or how to take the next engagement step with you. After all, you’re telling them how via a big red button in the top third of your pale-blue-and-cream home page.
Argument Against Above-the-Fold Placement: If your user is new to your site and wondering if there’s anything interesting to read there, this button tells them that you’re all about SELLING. After all, it’s one of the first things you chose to share.
These are those little squares with a bold header and a sentence about each service you provide. There are usually either four or six of them — one of our favorite WordPress theme companies, Themeum, offers themes that include these kinds of slugs built in. A couple of examples are below:
Argument for Above-the-Fold Placement: If the name of your web site is Susan Smith Dot Com, no one has any clue what Susan Smith does. Service slugs will give people an immediate sense for what you do and, even better, what you do that you think is the most important. Even if your provided services are unambiguous because your web site is called Springfield Friendly Dog Walkers Dot Com, it will be helpful to your potential customers to see right away that you walk dogs morning and night, offer doggie massage, and provide your own leashes.
Argument Against Above-the-Fold Placement: If your services are so specialized that a quick slug on the homepage won’t even cover the surface of the service, then all it does is make your users feel dumb. For example, if you are a financial advisor and your service slug says “Tactical Asset Allocation,” and if your potential clients are regular Joes looking for someone to manage their money, their immediate reaction is likely to be “huh? what?” If they can’t understand your service slug, they’re going to look for someone who speaks to them in plain English.
Whatever you put in that first screen-worth of content on your home page, be sure that you’re aware of your goals and your limitations. Use that space knowing that your users may not have the same needs, knowledge, or goals that you do, and be aware of the messages you’re sending them with your choices. Also worth noting is that what is on a user’s first viewing of your web site varies WIDELY with the technology they’re using — first scroll on a desktop computer vs. first scroll on a phone can mean the difference between your user seeing your Big Emotional Image and your Service Slugs or just your logo. They’re getting used to scrolling. Just make all your content valuable, and they’ll keep reading.