The 2-second “Rule”

Or, What Your Startup’s Homepage Should Really Do

Edit: after reading, checkout the followup to this post, Six Examples of Strong Homepage Headlines

I’m not sure where it originated, but there’s an oft-quoted “rule” of marketing in startup circles that claims the first priority of a website is to explain what the company or product does. 

It goes a little something like this, as captured in a recent comment on a Hacker News post: 

It took me about 7-10 seconds to understand what your product is. I should be able to understand within 2 seconds.

When put this way, statements like these sound like truisms that a logical person may agree with, even repeat. But really, the whole notion that your homepage’s messaging should try to quickly explain what your product does is totally misleading. This isn’t a rule at all. 

Certainly, plenty of studies show that there is indeed a small amount of time during which you must capture a visitor’s attention. But if that’s true, wouldn’t you rather say something meaningful and interesting versus spouting out a basic description of your features?

I’d suggest opting for something that’s both true to your brand and useful to your visitors. Getting straight to the point about what you do is largely unnecessary, since visitors will have some idea of that anyway. 

Are most of your site’s visitors arriving with zero context of who you are and what you do? How is that even possible? 

Users land on a site with a specific intent, either to purchase something or to explore a solution. The primary goal, at least of the homepage, should not be to educate all visitors on what your product does, since most will already have some idea. So a primary goal should be to move them to the next step of the decision making process

Let’s consider the main ways in which most visitors will arrive at your site: 

1. Search - the visitor is seeking something specific

2. Social - the visitor has clicked a link, typically with accompanying context from those in their network

3. Display - your copy and layout, likely with a clear marketing message, enticed the visitor to click

4. Email - similar to display, something about your messaging compelling the visitor to click

In each situation, people have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting themselves into when visiting your site. So really there’s potentially only one scenario in which explaining what you do is the top priority:

1. Randomness - most of these visitors won’t be in your target audience anyway

Optimizing for random visitors is obviously ill-advised, so we’re left with the four previous inbound channels. And all of those imply context, some level of understanding on the part of the visitor as to who you are and what you do. 

So does the 2-second rule really apply? 

I’d say no. Focus less on these kinds of false aphorisms and spend time understanding potential users, how they arrive at your site, and how your homepage can pull them one step further in the process of choosing your solution.

Still need help? I’m offering free 30-minute Google Hangout office hour sessions to take questions about startup branding and messaging. No strings attached. Get in touch if that interests you.