Make Your Website’s First Sentence Count

Ten seconds is about how long you have to convince the average visitor to your website to stick around. That is just about long enough to read one sentence — so it better be a good one.

Visitors Make Snap Judgments

Microsoft recently published research showing that website visitors make rapid decisions about whether to stay or go.

Basically, visitors are most likely to leave during the first 10 seconds. If a visitor sticks around for about 30 seconds, they are likely to stay and read more. In other words, you have about 10 seconds to convince someone to keep reading or click over to another page on your website (which resets the stopwatch).

Your Website’s First 10 Seconds

Open the stopwatch on your phone and go to your website. Don’t look at it yet, though. Pretend you are visiting your website for the first time — or even better, find someone who has never seen your website and look over their shoulder. Start the stopwatch as soon as you open your eyes (or just hide your website under a blank browser tab until you are ready to start the stopwatch). At 10 seconds, stop, and make a note of how far you got.

Did you come across anything interesting enough to click on get you to keep reading during that 10 seconds?

If not, it’s time to go to work on your website.

The First Sentence

If you want the majority of visitors to your website to stay, the first sentence better be a good one. That is true whether the first sentence is a tagline, a text overlay on your header image, or the first sentence in a block of copy. And if your first sentence is so buried that it takes longer than 10 seconds to get to it, make sure that what visitors can see in 10 seconds is pretty awesome, or else it is time to redesign your website.

It’s important to note that it is not just the first sentence on your website’s front page. You never know where someone may land when they come to your website – so their first page may not necessarily be the home page. The first sentence on every page matters.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for the perfect first sentence, but I like Matt Homann’s “Haiku of What You Do”:

Who do I help? (Answer in Five Words)
What do I do for them? (Answer in Seven Words)
Why do they need me? (Answer in Five Words)

Here is an example:

I help small business owners
market their business online using new technology
so they can sleep better.

The Haiku of What You Do is a good approach because it answers one of the main things a potential client visiting your website for the first time probably wants to know: whether you can help them. Few websites do a good job of answering this simple question. Instead, they tend to be all about how great the company is and what services are provided.

The main thing to remember, is that your website isn’t about you — it’s about your prospective clients. Keep that in mind when writing copy for it. Focus on helping visitors to your website figure out if you can help them. Don’t just write about yourself.

Write Like a Normal Person

Find a sixth grader to read your website out loud.

Remove the jargon. For example, words commonly used to describe types of law practices, like boutique and virtual, are meaningless to most people. Irrelevant, too, for the most part. Stock business-website phrases like innovativecompassionate, and aggressive are equally meaningless and irrelevant, as well as a bit cliche.

To figure out if you are writing like a normal person, read your website copy out loud. Better yet, find a sixth grader to read it out loud. If he or she stumbles on any of the words or giggles when saying them, use different words. Or try reading it out loud yourself when you are exhausted and bleary-eyed after a long day. Because your first sentence needs to be totally obvious to someone surfing the web half-asleep at midnight.

Make Those 10 Seconds Count

No matter what you come up with, go back to the Haiku Of What You Do exercise above, after you think you have got your first sentence just right. Now do you think you would click a link to another page on your website or keep reading? When you can confidently answer yes, you can call the job done.

To see whether it worked, keep an eye on your website’s bounce rate and time on site over the next month or so. If your new first sentence was an improvement, the bounce rate should go down or the time on site should go up, or both.

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