5 essentials for an effective event homepage

I sit down to write this blog post in a mood that fluctuates between righteous indignation and profound discouragement.

We’re well into the second decade of online communication and yet we still have homepages for major community and commercial events that fail the basic effectiveness criteria established by a paper flyer for a community center rummage sale.

Unless yours is a limited-attendance, exclusive event that wants to discourage inquiries from the riff-raff, it’s essential that the homepage of your event website contain some basic information to assist potential attendees. That’s because your online visitor is busy, busy, busy and his or her decision to attend your event may well be made based on a 10-second scan of your homepage. Why do so many event homepages make that 10-second visit an exercise in hair-ripping frustration?

If you want to be kind to your potential attendees, here are five things your homepage needs to tell them:

Who?

People need to know who is hosting your event because they want to know if it’s being put together by a reputable organization or some fly-by-night franchise.

What?

They need to know what it is (beyond the cutesy, artsy, or edgy name you’ve given it, such as “Frolic in the Park”). It’s tough for event organizers, who’ve been up to their ears in planning for months, to grasp that not everyone knows the event is “all-day” or “for kids and their parents” or “free.” Yet descriptors like these are essential for the homepage, particularly if you want people to be able to describe it to third parties (aka, “word of mouth advertising”). So is cost. I’ve come to the conclusion that an organization that puts the admission price of the event on their homepage instead of burying it somewhere on a “Registration” page deserves the sainthood.

When?

People need to know when your event is. You might think that putting the dates on the homepage (“December 8 and 9″) is enough, but that’s barely a “2” on the scale of effective communication. That’s because it doesn’t include the year, and think how many times you’ve reached an event’s homepage only to discover it’s for last year’s event. How about “Thursday, Dec. 8, and Friday, Dec. 9, 2011″? You’re getting warmer.

Times are important, too. Can people go there with kids after school? Is it a late-evening event? Does it include dinner? Give the potential attendee a break, right there on the homepage. Get rid of some blathering marketing copy they aren’t going to read anyway and put in the times: “Thursday, Dec. 8, 3 – 10 p.m. and Friday, Dec. 9, noon to 11 p.m.” Whew! That wasn’t so hard to do, was it?

Where?

Particularly when people are trying to decide if they are going to attend your event, they need to know where it is. Is it convenient? Is it familiar? Or are they going to spend 30 minutes driving up and down some main drag peering at address numbers? Oddly, the “where” is the area in which most event websites rate a big zero.

Amazingly — astonishingly — many of them give no indication on the homepage of where they are — not just in town, but in the world. No, they think they are the only “Frolic in the Park” in the universe. Is your event in Vancouver? In Everett? In Portland? Do people have to hunt around for your Contact page to find out? (And then discover it consists of somebody’s email address?) If you are having an event, you need to put the location right up there on the homepage.

And just the address (including the city) is not sufficient. There needs to be lots of additional information, including the name of the building (“Town Hall” or “Mary Foster’s house”), the neighborhood (“in North Cedar Heights”), and some landmark directions (“just around the corner from Safeway” or “five minutes north of the fairgrounds”).

A picture of your location is surprising helpful if people need to identify a building when they arrive. If your location is obscure, it’s just about essential to have a link to an interactive map, such as Google Maps. If you’ve checked out maps on other websites, you’ll know that some mapping services are pretty much useless while others are helpful. Take the extra time to figure out how to link to a helpful one.

Why?

You’re all excited about your event, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is. And that’s generally because they don’t know what the benefits of attending your event are. Is it relaxing? Educational? Useful? Will they be able to meet people they couldn’t meet other places? It can’t hurt to put in a sentence to let them know. Right there on the homepage.

Looks aren’t everything

One final remark. The design of your homepage — its aesthetic — tells people quite a bit about your event. Most organizations put a lot of time any money into graphic design — beautiful backgrounds, distinctive typefaces, and eye-catching photography. Oddly, this often detracts profoundly from how well the homepage communicates vital information — the sort of information that enables visitors to decide if they are going to attend. Perhaps the most fatal design mistake is a dark or black background with all the information in white type. Many visitors like to copy and paste information (particularly that address information) into their calendars or into an email to friends they’d like to attend with. If your website type is white, and people paste it into an application, it’s going to be invisible. Sure, they could go to all the trouble of figuring out what on earth went wrong and then figuring out how to apply color in that app. But they’re not going to bother. Oops.

If you simply must have white-on-dark design, make sure you have widgets at the top of your homepage that will allow visitors to email a link to your site, post a link to it on Facebook, or tweet it on Twitter.

Bless their hearts

Here are a few links to events whose plain, simple homepages are doin’ it right when it comes to communication:

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