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It’s a situation that happens to everyone: you’ve found a link to an exciting piece of content that you can’t wait to check out, from a new site you’ve never heard of. As you click the link and your browser begins to load, you’ve got high hopes that the information you’re about to consume will be valuable and helpful.

Then it happens.

Five seconds pass, then six, and the page still isn’t loaded. Or maybe it has loaded, and there’s a broken script throwing some gobbledygook code language at you. Perhaps the image file for the infographic that you really wanted to see is broken.

With a sigh of frustration, you click the back button and continue searching the web for what you needed. So much wasted potential.

Even if your site doesn’t have any broken scripts or unloaded images, there’s a chance that visitors can have an experience like this simply because your page isn’t set up the right way. And for first-time visitors, the stakes are even higher: most people checking out your site for the first time will make a judgment very quickly about whether or not the page is worth staying on. Once they make that judgment, it’s extremely difficult to change their mind.

Whether you are developing a new app, selling products in an eCommerce store, or looking to gain subscribers, it’s crucial that your site is able to retain first-time visitors and make them come back again and again. Luckily, with some planning and creativity, you can have a site that enthralls first-time visitors and keeps them coming back for more.

Want to know what your new visitors are thinking about? Download our first-time visitors cheat sheet to find out.

Define Your Goals

Before you can decide what you want first-time visitors to get out of your website, you should take a step back and think about the main goal of your website. Do you want these visitors to come back often to check out your blog? Or are you looking to add subscribers to your e-mail list?

The thing to remember here is that success is defined differently for each type of website. If you are a startup getting ready to launch a new product and your entire website consists of a “coming soon” graphic and a newsletter opt-in, you might be okay with people leaving after just 15 or 20 seconds, as long as they sign up for your newsletter before they go. As Kissmetrics points out in a blog post about bounce rate, sometimes your goal for first-time visitors is to get them off the initial page: if that’s the case, it means people leaving your site quickly could actually be a good thing.

Also keep in mind that these goals may change over time. You should re-visit them periodically – the startup that only wanted email subscribers in their pre-launch phase might have very different goals for page visitors after they launch.


The Design Confidential links to a dedicated page for new visitors in the upper-right corner

Consider a first-time visitor funnel

You’ve probably seen it lots of times – a menu option, clickable button, link, graphic, etc. that says “New here? Start with this,” or something similar. If you’re using card-based design, consider creating a card specifically for first-time visitors. If you have a complex website with several different layers and sections, this option can be a saving grace for new visitors. The first-time funnel can also be used to guide them towards completing a desired action, whether it’s to register for a demo or order one of your products.

Keep in mind that in an ideal situation, your page’s design should speak for itself and lead people where you want to go without them having to visit a separate guide or page for new visitors. You must consider the balance between ease-of-use and making sure they aren’t confused by your site. Is it worth it to have new visitors go through the trouble of loading a new page to help them learn about how to use your main site? Only you can decide.

Work your way backwards

If you’ve been in business or promoting a product for any significant length of time, there’s a good chance that you have a few regulars who visit your site often. These people have already traversed the funnel that you want to move first-time visitors through, so take advantage of it. Ask them how they progressed from being a first-time visitor to someone who loves your site and visits often. What specifically drove them to come back? What elements do they consistently enjoy? And on the other side of the coin, what could you do better? It might sound counterintuitive, but information from regular visitors can be extremely effective in designing your site for newcomers.


Sharpen your copy

In the rush to improve things like navigation menus, visual design, and CTA buttons, many website owners forget about the importance of the actual words they put on their site. If you want to do a better job of engaging first-time visitors, stop using unnecessary words, blocky paragraphs, and meaningless adjectives. A first-time visitor doesn’t care about your holistic approach to a synergistic workplace of empowerment and enrichment. They aren’t interested in the story about how you met your business partner at a local coffee shop when you both ordered the same type of latte.

[tweetthis]The first-time visitor cares about one thing: finding what they came for.[/tweetthis] If you want to go more in-depth into this type of background information, save it for subpages like your “About” or “Biography,” pages. Your homepage should be focused solely on engaging visitors – otherwise, you are going to bore and/or confuse people away.

Run A/B Tests on Everything

A/B testing is the backbone of excellent web design. When you run an A/B test, you make only one change on your website and compare how the site performs before and after the change. This allows you to learn about the impact of making specific changes on your site. It helps you determine what is and isn’t working using hard data that comes right from your visitors. There’s no other way to get conclusive evidence about what works and what doesn’t for your website.

If there’s any type of “catch” to running A/B tests, it’s that the testing will take some time. It’s not an instant fix: you have to give yourself enough time to gather the data about each element you want to test, from the color of your text to the placement of your CTA. Also, you should only be doing A/B testing for one element at a time – you can’t run tests for everything at the same time, because you won’t know which specific elements caused your traffic to go up or down.

Having said that, it’s still very worthwhile to conduct A/B testing. Talk to your web development company and get input from them about it. They should be able to make suggestions about which elements you should test first, giving you the best possible chance of making tweaks that will engage first-time visitors.

When all is said and done, first-time visitors to your website are looking for the same thing that regular visitors need: value. The two big differences between these types of visitors? First-timers still aren’t sure that your site can provide value, and they aren’t sure how to access that value. With a well-designed site that engages the user and helps them find what they are looking for, you will see many of your first-time visitors turn into frequent ones.

Need a handy guide for first-time visitors? We’ve got you covered. Download the cheat sheet here.



Cody Landefeld

co-founder at Mode Effect. ECommerce consultant. Coram deo.

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