Beyond Borders: How should an organization prioritize elements on the home page of a meeting Web site?
Philippa Gamse: The purpose of the home page is to quickly confirm to visitors that they’re in the right place for what they need, and to point them to what they can do on the site. The home page is not supposed to present all of the information that they need.

An effective technique is to create a home page that can segment the different audiences for your meeting (e.g., attendees, exhibitors, speakers, media, and so on). Visitors self-identify on the home page, then quickly click through to a mini-home page designed for them, with the latest news, events, and actions that they need to take. This allows you to keep your overall home page simple and short: Introduce the brand of the conference, include essential information (dates and location), and offer links to generically useful content (registration, accommodations, and so on). Of course, this can create political upheaval in your organization, where every stakeholder wants a share of the home page. However, research (including mine) clearly shows that overall outcomes are much improved with this approach.

BB: What’s the most common mistake you see in the design of meeting Web sites?
Gamse: Too often they are designed from the perspective of the organization rather than the visitor. Try this exercise: Have your design team get together and create some visitor “personas”—imaginary characters from all relevant segments (attendee, sponsor, student, and others). Decide on each persona’s gender, age, education level, job function, and level of technical experience in your field. Give each one a name, so that they’re as real as possible, and add any other personal details that might be relevant.

Then consider how each prefers to get information: Is this visitor very visual? Does she like lots of data? Is he a quick reader? Does she want to dig into details? What’s the primary reason the visitor is at the site: Is he researching the educational sessions? Does she want to know about sponsorship opportunities? Once you’ve created your characters, “walk around” your site in their shoes. How attractive is the information to them? How easy it is to find what they’re looking for and to complete desired transactions?

I had a great experience with this in a recent workshop. One persona was a student: His professor had recommended that he volunteer at a big trade show so that he could network with exhibitors and attend the career fair. His persona was a major video-game player, so he was very visual and fast-thinking. But the Web site for this show looked as if it had been created in the Stone Age. It was almost entirely text, and we concluded that the only reason our guy even tried to interact with it (which was very difficult) was that he’d get into big trouble with his prof if he didn’t!

BB: Should organizations include testimonials at a meeting Web site?
Gamse: Yes. There is clear evidence that credibility-building content such as testimonials, case studies, and quotes from volunteers can significantly improve response rates, especially if the decision to attend depends on the perceived return on investment of the event.

I suggest a mixture of text and video clips: If you can have a staff member walking around with a Flip camera at your next event, video clips are easy to get. Keep them short—maybe two sentences of text or 15 seconds of video. Give the video a caption so that people can see what it is, but make it play on demand, not automatically. Always give the person’s name, company, and title (with their permission). Anonymous quotes can make you lose credibility, while a quote from someone who is known in the industry can carry a lot of weight.

Spread your testimonials across all pages of your site rather than gathering them together on a “Testimonials” page. In 15 years of looking at Web traffic reports, I can tell you that few visitors click on links labeled “Testimonials.”

BB: What are some guidelines for attracting a multinational audience?
Gamse: If you want to make overseas visitors feel welcome, don’t make the copy or program too U.S.-based, or overtly flag-waving (even if it’s other countries’ flags). Many other nations are much more low-key about this. If you use photos and video clips from previous events, show attendees from different countries. Even if you don’t identify participants by name, clues such as styles of dress can give away a lot about where people are from.

Include plenty of calls to action and make it easy to complete transactions such as registering or downloading schedules, but don’t make the copy too aggressive. The U.S. and U.K. markets tend to be more sales-oriented in their approach than other areas. Be aware of any connection restrictions from other countries. (Your analytics can show you how many people have broadband, whether dial-up access is still common anywhere, etc.) If you have a significant number of visitors with slower bandwidth, be sure that your pages download quickly, and if you have video, consider providing both high- and low-bandwidth versions.

Ensure that any online registration forms include non-U.S. address formats (province, postal code, etc.). If you have a drop-down selection for country, don’t make the United States the default choice, even if most of your attendees are U.S.-based: Seemingly small things such as this are very noticeable to visitors from other countries.

BB: Any other issues? Gamse: Consider a social media strategy for your event marketing that ties into your Web site. And use a Web traffic reporting tool such as Google Analytics, which is free. Without this, you absolutely can’t evaluate the effectiveness of your site and the return on all the time and resources that have gone into it.

Internet strategy pioneer Philippa Gamse is a speaker and consultant based in Capitola, Calif. Learn more at Web Sites That Win.