It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is certainly true with your company’s marketing materials. A new client often takes many pieces of information away from their first glimpse of a marketing piece or website. And this impression can make the difference between whether they choose to read the rest of your material or if decide that your piece is a waste of time and (gasp!) recycle it.

You want to make sure that the marketing piece you spent time and money writing, designing, and printing—or hosting online—actually grabs viewers’ attention and encourages them to read the information you’ve worked so hard to put together. Or keep your business card in their files, bookmark your website, consider your proposal, or whatever the goal for the marketing piece may be.

Before they start reading the text, studying the figures, or even looking at the details of your logo, viewers will first get an overall impression of the marketing piece you just gave them. They’ll be most likely to see these 5 elements first:

1. The layout of the elements in the piece, which is the overall arrangement of information and graphics on the page. You want to make sure your layout displays your content well, organizes it in a way that makes the most sense, and also looks appealing at a glance.

2. The color palette, which can instantly communicate a visual message about your company through color psychology. Colors evoke many meanings and emotions, and what they typically evoke has become somewhat standardized, at least within certain cultures.

Make sure your color choices are on-message for your brand and your marketing piece and that the colors you use are appropriate for your audience’s ethnicity. For example, red is the color of urgency and emergency in the United States and also means “stop”. But in China, red is the color of luck and is often worn at weddings.

3. The rhythm of the distribution of those colors on the page. Are they equally distributed? Is one color dominant, with highlights of a secondary color? Is the top half of the piece mostly one color, and the bottom half another? Each of these approaches creates a different mood in your marketing piece or on the screen. You need to look at color distribution as more than just what looks good or not and understand the message it’s communicating.

4. The white space. White space can make a design feel free and open. It also gives viewers’ eyes a place to rest while taking in design and text. If white space is balanced with text and graphics, it can encourage viewers to move around the page and to actually get around to reading the text.

5. The photos. This article is getting dangerously close to being chock-full of cliches, but a picture really is worth a thousand words. When you include a photo in your marketing materials, your viewers immediately assess its overall mood, color palette, visual message, quality, and even how up-to-date clothing and hairstyles look. All these bits of information add up to those “thousand words” you’re looking to convey—so make sure that your photos are really the right ones and not just “good enough”.

How to tell if your material is making a good first impression:

1. Do the glance test. If you’re designing a marketing piece that you’ll distribute in printed format, then print a test copy. If you’re working on a website, email newsletter, blog, or some other online design piece, then pull it up on your monitor. Leave the test copy on a table or your computer turned on, then leave the room and look at something else for a few minutes.

Turn on the TV. Look out the window. Look at a magazine or a coffee table book of art. Don’t think about your marketing piece at all. Then, go back and look at it with fresh eyes. Try to look at it as though you’ve never seen it before. (This is hard, but it can be done!). What jumps out at you?

2. Next, think about your piece in the context of the 5 elements I’ve mentioned. Really look at the layout, color palette and rhythm, white space, and photos—and be critical. Think about each of these elements in the context of the message that you’re trying to convey. And think about these elements from your target prospect’s perspective—what do they want to see?

3. Gather some comparison materials. Your customers will not be looking at your materials in a vacuum. They’ll likely receive your materials at a networking event, trade show, in the mail, or during a web search or surfing session. So you’ll want to know how your materials rate in comparison to other materials they’ll be looking at.

Networking events and web searches are the most accessible and easiest routes to take when trying to compare your works-in-progress. Go to the networking events you’ll be attending, and bring back the cards you gather and then spread those out on the table along with your sketches. Do your cards look appealing in comparison?

Do a web search for your company category and on keywords that you hope to rank for. Look at the sites and blogs that are already showing up in those
categories. They will be your competition in web searches, and you have to compare your site’s look against them. If a prospect was pressed for time and searching for a company to do business with, would yours stand out from the other sites in your category? Another online option is to subscribe to your competition’s email newsletters and pit them against your design to see which looks more impressive.

4. Ask clients and prospects to tell you their first impressions. This is easiest to do in person, but you could also schedule a phone meeting with a good client or potential client and then email them your sketches or documents while you’re on the phone. For a printed piece, you could mail the document to your evaluator enclosed in a second envelope, with instructions not to open the inner envelope until your designated meeting time.

For a first-impression test, you want to limit the amount of time your testers have to think about the material they’re looking at. If they look at a piece for a day and then give you their thoughts, they’ve had time to read it, think about it, and process their thoughts. This is not what you want when you’re concerned about making an immediate impression—you want to know what prospects think about a piece in the instant they first see it. Getting their opinions in more detail later can also be helpful, but you can never get a first impression again, so get it while you can.

If you keep the 5 elements of a good first impression in mind while designing your marketing materials and evaluate them while you’re creating them, you should be able to create marketing materials that will make an excellent first impression on your target clients.