When sales reps for Great Black Speakers used to call prospects, they would follow up their conversations with a couple of hours of work, creating a proposal targeted to that client, with suggestions for a few of the bureau's 250 speakers who might be of special interest to that client.

These days, potential customers receive a link to a webpage targeted to their needs before they even hang up the phone. What's changed? The company has created landing pages specific to the many different niche markets it targets. "Let's say one of our sales employees reaches out to a museum," says Lawrence M. Watkins, the company's founder. "We have a landing page set up for museums, and it suggests 10 speakers we think would be great for museums and other art places. The rep can ask for an e-mail address and send that landing page instantly."

Great Black Speakers' landing pages are aimed at very specific targets. For instance, it has one landing page geared to members of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, and another for the African-American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. In all, Watkins says, Great Black Speakers has 35 different landing pages, and he plans to bring that number to 65 in the near future. "Landing pages have been a godsend for my company," he says.

Two seconds is too long

As Watkins' experience shows, landing pages can serve as a powerful marketing tool for your business. "We used to say that you had to grab website visitors' attention within two to three seconds, but now that's much too long," says Lorrie Thomas, CEO of Web Marketing Therapy. With only moments to get visitors to do whatever you want them to do (click for more information, sign up for e-mail notices, or purchase a product), landing pages help you help customers instantly find what they're looking for.

"One main purpose of a landing page is to increase conversion," notes Sandip Sarwate, owner of Saffron Marigold, which sells hand-printed linens from India. "For instance, at this time of year, some of our customers in Florida are looking for light summer bedspreads. On our homepage, there are bedspreads, duvet covers, tablecloths, and shower curtains. That could be confusing. On the other hand, if we have a landing page specific to a compelling key phrase such as 'lightweight summer bedspread' and that brings them to a page that talks only about thin cotton bedspreads, you have an instant connection. One of the most effective ways to connect with customers is if they come to a page and immediately see, in bold letters, exactly what they're looking for."

Thus, to be effective, landing pages should be simple, with text very focused to the specific product or idea prospective customers are seeking. "Generally, there should be no more than two primary calls to action, no more than two headlines, and one paragraph of text," says Alex Schmelkin, president and co-founder of the web design firm Alexander Interactive (AI). Two calls to action are often a good idea, he says, because some people may arrive at the site prepared to make an actual purchase, while others will not, so a secondary call to action should allow them to, say, click for more information. "You have to have a safety valve for the person who isn't ready to convert in the way you want them to," he explains. 

Landing pages raise search ranking

Search engine optimization is another big reason for creating landing pages, especially for a small company. For, while it may be tough to outrank larger competitors for the most popular search terms, landing pages can often provide high rankings when customers are searching for something specific. For instance, if you search "shower curtains" on Google, the top ranked page is, not surprisingly, on the Bed Bath & Beyond website. But search "batik shower curtains" and the top ranked page is on Saffron Marigold's site.

"We have a client who is a major purveyor of envelopes online," Schmelkin says. "We rank for 'envelopes,' but we also rank for things like 'Number 10 translucent pink envelopes.' Search engines really like pages that pull together multiple keywords users may be searching."

Don't make the mistake of simply taking an existing page, changing its title and meta tags to reflect a different search phrase, and using that as a new landing page. "You can run into a problem with duplicate content," Watkins says. "If search engines determine that your page is too similar to other pages on your site, you run the risk of Google giving your site less credibility. So we try to change at least 15 to 20 percent of the page when creating a new landing page."

Landing pages help hone your marketing

There's another huge advantage of landing pages: They can help you test the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. "One very common use for landing pages is tracking traditional media spend to figure out your return on investment," Schmelkin says. "Many times you can use advertising to drive people to specific URLs tied to the ad campaign they saw or heard."

Thus, the number of hits on that particular page reflects the effectiveness of that ad. It's an effective test, but be warned: In any ad campaign, a certain number of people will simply search on your company name and go to a general website, so your special landing page won't capture all the users responding to your advertising.

One of the most effective use of landing pages is to test the effectiveness of landing pages. A/B testing lets you send alternate visitors to two (or more) different versions of the same landing page so you can see how prospective customers react to tweaks such as different colors, different wording, different placement of elements on the page, etc. "It's pretty easy to determine what works and doesn't work on a landing page through A/B testing," Watkins says. "We found that too much intro doesn't work well for us. Also, we experimented with different sizes of pictures, and found that when we switched from 100-pixel width to 150-pixel width, our conversion rate went up."

Forgotten but not gone

With all these great reasons to use landing pages, should you ever not use them? "One good rule is not to have so many landing pages that it becomes unwieldy to manage," Schmelkin says. "You want to be actively testing offers and promotions and you have to have enough traffic to each landing page for the test to be meaningful."

And, he cautions against a common error: leaving landing pages up past their time. "One mistake e-commerce sites make is to leave old landing pages in place after a promotion is over and they are no longer relevant." Not only will this make you look bad to any customers who wander onto those pages, they can also hurt your search ranking. (Search engines may downgrade your ranking if your site has too many pages that are visited rarely or never -- they dilute the perceived popularity of your site.)

The best solution, Sarwate says, is to create landing pages for the long term. "We try to create quality content and make very relevant pages that will stay on our site for two or three years," he says. Not only does this make for easier administration, it can also help search ranking. "It seems that if a page has been on the site for a longer time it gets extra weight in search ranking," he says. "So focus on relevant content and quality, and think about the longevity of your landing pages."