This essay originally was published on April 22, 2021, with the email subject line CT No. 78: "Landing page islands and design-forward websites," alongside a review of visual website builder Webflow.

Freelance content strategy gigs cover a multitude of tasks, a good percentage more accurately described as "writing sales automation collateral" than anything remotely related to strategy. Too many "content strategy" or "digital strategy" job descriptions read:

"Create landing pages and drip campaigns* for marketing initiatives"

From Fortune 500s to side gig start-ups, business folks who have listened to one podcast on digital growth marketing or the creator economy think, "All we need is a best-in-class landing page and some emails and we'll get thousands of subscribers/leads/clients."

Landing pages are the calling card of the growth hacker, positioned as "all you need" to grow your digital business. "Drive traffic to the landing page" is the most time-worn of hastily considered digital marketing tactics: pay for the ad placement on your search engine or social network of choice, then watch the form fills roll in.

Great landing pages absolutely exist, and success stories like Morning Brew prove that a landing page customer acquisition strategy can work if you have a promising product, a robust referral network, and a chunk of venture capital to spend on PPC and paid social.

*"Drip campaign" is the grossest phrase in marketing.

What is a landing page and how is it best used?

I'm discussing single-use landing pages created through software (i.e., LeadPages, ConvertKit, Unbounce, Instapage, there are a million of 'em) that stand alone from your existing website. I'm not talking about "category" or "pillar" landing pages built into a website, often a collection of related content carefully optimized to attract traffic on certain topics.

Landing pages are fantastic for certain types of products, including:

  • Events of all shapes and sizes
  • Giveaways
  • Rewards/referrals
  • Single-use PDFs, exclusive videos or other gated content "moments"
  • Awards submissions
  • Single-use quizzes or calculators
  • Courses, email or otherwise

You probably get the idea: Landing pages are excellent for temporal content designed to convert a limited audience in a short period of time. They work best when coupled with ad targeting, that increasingly fraught and occasionally effective tactic rooted in either ad placement or users' browsing behavior.

Why don't landing pages have a place in a long-term content strategy?

When I see software that advertises "unlimited landing pages," I get a little sick to my stomach. That phrase is almost always paired with "segmentation" and "testing," two poorly understood tactics that beget disappointing results from all but the most experienced digital marketers.** I flash back to potential clients in my early days of freelancing, asking me to create lots and lots of landing pages, one for every segmented audience for every campaign.

I didn't work with those clients because I know they'll blame the content and the freelancer when the landing pages fail. In the pitch process, they certainly didn't want to hear my content strategist advice: it's probably best to make a full website if you want to develop more than 5 landing pages.

To put it in our favorite VC terms: landing pages do not scale long-term, especially if you are considering both content and brand strategy. Landing pages are the digital equivalent of a punk show flier, a customer interaction akin to Buddy the Elf accepting leaflet after leaflet in front of a Times Square store.**

For most publishing or content marketing initiatives, even newsletters, a landing page-based acquisition strategy is a recipe for burning money over time.

Companies like landing pages because you can whip up a quick one-pager, use a template to create a form, and no one has to think about information architecture, SEO or fitting into the grand website or content strategy. The landing page is a little island for the initiative.

Most landing pages have as much content as this sandbar.

Little islands quickly become archipelagos, and suddenly you're creating a landing page for every persona or pain point because your marketing automation software says you can. In the span of a few short landing pages, you've created a bevy of words and ideas that display your nuanced, multifaceted content strategy that... only exists on a few disconnected landing pages that will be forgotten soon after the campaign ends.

**If you are A/B testing button color... well, unless you've been doing this for a while, you're wasting resources. Spend more time getting to know your customers. If you are really concerned about button color, just make it red.

***The Midtown montage in Elf is one of the best NYC moments of cinema ever filmed. Did those overpriced midtown electronics stores survive the pandemic?

Landing page jail does not build trust

Landing pages work best if you create "landing page jail," aka the worst UX on the planet. Sometimes called a "squeeze page," a landing page jail is content with a form, with no external links or navigation—all the features that make websites useful. Users have no options to click away to another part of your navigation in landing page jail; the only choices are to fill out the form or close the tab. Landing page jail is most often hosted on a company's web domain but not integrated with the resource-filled website.

Landing page jails assume that your customers don't know how to use a website or, frankly, have any autonomy to follow information scent or seek out trust signals on their own. Like too many digital marketing tactics, they seek to capture a single moment of fleeting interest rather than woo an audience member with a deeper connection. They're a bit like meeting a romantic prospect on a big night out—full of promise, but realistically unlikely to lead to a commitment.

You're almost always paying for landing page traffic

Landing pages rarely rank in organic search results. They never rank on non-branded terms. The strategy for creating and optimizing them is distinctly different from organic search optimization.

To get traffic to your landing page, you either have to pay for it or constantly promote it, both of which are resource intensive. The latter is annoying for both content producers and users, and takes away from other high-quality content. Landing pages are outbound-ish. Cost of customer acquisition (CAC or CAQ if you're into acronyms) with a landing page is exponentially higher than that acquired through organic search.

Businesses get wooed quickly by fast results from a landing page-based campaign, but those results are directly tied to ad spend and novelty. At some point, both of those wear out their welcome. You can only yell in a customer's face so many times about a new product.

If you're choosing a landing page-based strategy, be realistic about results: If you start with a mailing list—let's be extremely generous at 30k opt-in subscribers, 50% of whom open, 15% of whom click—you'll be lucky if your campaign has a total 2% conversion rate, no matter how many landing pages match your audience segments. That's 45 total form fills. Those rates drop significantly if your mailing list is not opt-in or if you're using paid search or social for promotion. Every time you "drip" an email, those rates drop. Eventually you're squeezing blood from a stone.

Landing pages don't attract committed audiences.

Events pros will understand this one: if your cost of admission and value proposition is too low, you'll attract your audience, but you'll also attract randoms that don't care about the community or have no personal interest in your content.

Landing pages are designed to be low-commitment and temporary. Impermanence invites churn. Your audience has no incentive to stay—all they saw was a landing page that they'll never find again, so if they don't like the most recent issue, had a rotten day that coincided with your event, or dislike the frequency with which you promote your content (because you're only using landing pages), you risk losing them as brand customers forever. Once they're on your suppression list, you can never email them again.

Your website is more than a collection of landing pages

Organic traffic, in tandem with a solid paid media/landing page strategy, builds a more permanent brand footprint and a higher quality audience. Appearing in search for both branded and non-branded keywords—as well as for your regular slate of events and content—mean that your audience can find your content when they want it, and not just when it's pushed to them.

New digital business owners and publishers alike misunderstand exactly how much high-quality traffic organic search attracts. Some publishers and thought leaders lump organic search in with all "algorithms" and social organic discovery and abandon the concept entirely, which is just... super duper off-base and missing out on so much growth potential! Even for half-optimized websites, organic search attracts upwards of 30% of total website traffic and the highest quality leads. For most optimized publishers and digital businesses, organic search attracts at least 50% of new readers over time, without constant promotion.

A website, no matter how "hard" it is to build, is the best home and most effective investment for sustainably growing a content-based business over time. Landing pages are great quick fixes and one-offs, but if you're creating them in bulk, know that you can make that landing page content work so much harder for your brand.