Is Your Firm’s Website Leaving A Bad First Impression?

Posted by Michael Kitces on Tuesday, April 17th, 11:36 am, 2012 in Practice Management

The importance of making a good first impression has long been recognized - often influencing advisors regarding how they look, how they dress, and how they design their offices and conference rooms. Yet in an increasingly digital world, the reality is that by the time a prospective client actually shows up in your office to see it and meet you for the first time, the true first impression has long since been formed... by your website. And recent research shows it takes just seconds for clients viewing your website to form a first impression - one that may impact your relationship with your client, or worse, turn a prospective client away for appearing unprofessional. Yet advisors have generally spent little time and focus on the quality, look, and appeal of their website, and what time is spent is generally spent on the written content, which matters, but only if the website is already visually appealing enough to make a good impression! As a result, it may be time for many advisors to consider a website makeover, in recognition of the fact that looks do matter for first impressions, yet you as the advisor are rarely your client's first impression, anymore.

The inspiration for today's blog post was a recent study released by Missouri University of Science and Technology researchers Sirjana Dahal and Hong Sheng, who used eye-tracking software to understand how people take in information when first visiting a website. The basic results were quite striking - it takes the eye less than 0.2 seconds to form an initial impression of a website, and about 2.6 more seconds for the user's eyes to then land on an area of the website that most influences the first impression.

The reason why this is important for advisors is not merely that first impressions of a website are formed quickly and then influence subsequent behaviors and decisions. It's important because it means the first impressions are essentially formed before anyone reads a single word of substantive content actually written on the site!

And the impression your website leaves matters because for more and more clients, the website really is the prospective client's true first impression, in a world where it is almost automatic to check out the website of someone you're referred to before ever giving them a call or meeting with them. In other words, the advisor's website is increasingly replacing the advisor's office and the meeting with the advisor as the first impression a new prospect gets... or put more simply, you personally are not your client's first impression! Yet advisors seem to dedicate remarkably little effort and focus to the look and visual appeal of their websites to set a good first impression.

Which Parts Of The Website Impact The Most?

Using eye-tracking software that measures how long eyes fixate on various parts of the screen, the Sheng/Dahal research examined which sections of a website tended to draw the most interest from views. The image to the right shows a sample of one website that was reviewed; overall, the research found the website sections that drew the most interest from visitors were:

- Logo. Users spent about 6.48 seconds focused on the logo before moving on.

- Main Navigation Menu. Almost as popular as the logo, users averaged 6.44 seconds viewing the menu.

- Search Box. Admittedly uncommon on financial advisors' sites, users focused on the search box for just over 6 seconds.

- Social Networking Links. Recognizing the rapid rise of social media, users spent about 5.95 seconds viewing the part of the site with links back to Facebook, Twitter, etc.

- Main Image. The site's main image draws the user's eye for an average of 5.94 seconds.

- Written Content. Clocking in at a mere 6th, users spent only about 5.59 seconds scanning a site's written content in forming a first impression.

- Bottom of the Page. In drawing in a holistic view of the entire site, users spent about 5.25 seconds scanning across the bottom of the landing page.

The researchers also specifically noted that main and background colors should be pleasant and attractive, with a text color that contrasts for easy reading.

Implications for Advisors

As the financial planning profession continues to enter into the digital age, and inbound marketing becomes more and more relevant - where prospective clients find you based on your website's content, social media sharing, and the use of online search - advisors will increasingly need to focus not just on the impression their offices leave, but the impression their website creates.

To me, one of the primary takeaways of the research is that visuals and graphics matter. Your logo, the navigation menus, your social media links, and the site's main image, absorb the majority of focus in forming an initial first impression. The site's content ranks a mere 6th on the list, is one of only 7 factors, and in forming a first impression isn't even visible long enough to capture more than a brief headline or two. In fact, if you glance at the graphic above, you'll notice a dearth of any eye fixation time on the bar of content headlines below the main image! Simply put, the first impression is formed by what the prospective client sees on the website, before they ever get around to reading what it says - not unlike how we form a first impression of people we meet based upon what we see, before we ever listen to what they have to say. We don't like to acknowledge that reality, but lots of research have clearly shown these first impressions do matter and impact how we subsequently take in information from the source.

Yet given all this importance on the look of the website, it is a striking contrast to how I see most financial planners discuss their website design, where the majority of the time is spent fixated on what each page will say. Certainly, the words do matter, as they're ultimately what helps to encourage a prospective client forward to the next stage. But the words on your website only matter once you leave enough of a good first impression that anybody thinks it's worth taking the time to read the site in the first place.

Time For A Makeover?

For most advisors, it's arguably time for their websites to get a makeover. The point isn't to rewrite the content. The point is, simply put, to make the site more aesthetically pleasing to leave a better first impression.

Fortunately, this is getting easier and easier in today's world. In the past, custom website design could be a fairly expensive proposition; now, however, content management platforms like WordPress (which is now much more than "just" a blogging software) come with an unbelievable array of high quality templates and themes that can be adopted and tweaked to fit a financial advisor's firm for a fraction of the custom design price. The content - the words themselves - can be transferred over easily. Although the situation can be somewhat more complex if the firm has a client login section of the site, it is not an impossible situation to address (and as I've written previously, a login section for a client vault is probably not where the future of advisor websites lies, anyway!).

Alternatively, if you want help and don't know who to turn to, you can either put out a design project to bid via a site like ELance, or use an industry provider like Advisor Websites or Advisor Designs.

In any event, the bottom line is that in a world where your website is increasingly the first impression you'll make on a prospective client, it's important to get it right - not just in what the website says, but also how it looks. If your site isn't up to snuff, it may be time to consider a makeover.

So what do you think? How important is the visual look of an advisor's website in today's world? Do you think some advisors lose business because their website doesn't look professional enough? How much time, effort, and dollars have you invested into your website?


  • anonymous

    ironically, this site is extermely poorly designed

    • Michael Kitces

      Site re-design is underway, for many of the reasons cited in the post. :)
      – Michael

  • Future CPA/PFS

    Thank you for always bringing us fresh content in all aspects of this profession. I have been contemplating a redesign for my webiste so this is a timely article. I used Elance for my current site and I would urge people to do the same, but you have to know how to articulate what you want to “techies”. Find example websites, know the terminology, know what you want! Use the same discretion you would use when purchasing something “locally” .

    • Shanna Kurpe

      Future CPA/PFS,

      I am glad that you have had success with elance, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve used it once or twice with little luck from a hiring stand point, and as the owner of an inbound marketing agency I looked at it a while back as a way to get new work, but it wasn’t a good option for me.

      Good design – like the type described in this article – takes a lot of time and money. Typically, most designers on elance (not all of course) are of a lower quality and compete based on price – not value. In the end, you get what you pay for.

      For a really great website that not only makes a good first impression, but is beautiful across all devices and works hard to generates leads, you need to consult an agency like mine or another. You could find a great freelancer on dribbble.com, or even find a good agency on sortfolio.com.

      I would be happy to help, of course, and I have extensive experience in this industry, or I am glad to make recommendations as well.

      Regardless, best of luck!

  • Richard Rosso

    Many advisor sites I’ve seen are staid, boring and the images are sort of stodgy. The language is extremely cliche too. This piece is extremely helpful.

  • http://www.AppleTreeWealthManagement.com Joseph Perrotta

    When I was exploring design options for my website, I initially wanted to go for more of a “dry” route rather than have a lot of flash or nice graphics. My reasoning for that was that people take there money very seriously, and I didn’t want to portray myself as too loosy-goosy with my design and have that reflect on my mentality towards advising.

    However, after consulting with an inbound-marketing agency, they referenced a lot of what was discussed in this post, saying that the visual component of a site has significantly more weight than the content (especially in first impressions). You can have the greatest content in the world, but if no one takes the time to read it, it’s worthless.

    I think this is all due in part to the age demographic of advisors, which is much older than the average internet user. But it is also due in part to compliance concerns. It’s hard to know what one can and cannot say on the web, and most advisors heir on the side of caution, i.e. boring and predictable.

    I am excited to see how things change as advisor’s become more open to and embrace change on the web.

    Again, great post!

    • Michael Kitces

      Joseph,
      I think it’s a fine line.

      Flash is definitely on the way out. It’s slow and annoying, not to mention being horribly mobile-unfriendly.

      But some nice graphics clearly do help for first impressions and setting a good visual tone (something I’m lacking in myself and am working on for the new site!), and I see planning firms increasingly looking at video (which can be embedded relatively easily into sites) now, rather than flash animation graphics.
      – Michael

      • http://www.AppleTreeWealthManagement.com Joseph Perrotta

        Video is certainly interesting, just a lot of work to put together in an appropriate manner.

        Looking forward to the new site! Thanks for the reply!

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  • Mark Brice

    I think that more descriptive than a “good” first impression, is the “right” first impression. For example, if I go to a website and there are daily stock market indices scrolling and an instant quote button, the impression I get is different than if there is an image of a couple sitting at the end of a dock enjoying a peaceful lake. Neither one is objectively right or wrong, but for each advisor they may be right or wrong. In general, I think advisors would benefit by paying attention to the first impression they make (i.e. their website), and be sure it is consistent with what they say and do.

    Michael, great post, I’m consistently amazed at the breadth of content you cover here.

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