Volume 102: 12/01/04

When You Create Personas, Stay Clear of Stereotypes

You sell aromatherapy products. Are all your visitors nature-loving women who are vegetarians, do yoga, mediate, promote world peace and wear Birkenstocks?

You sell football packages for a satellite service. Are all your visitors blue collar, couch-potato-type, middle-aged guys who drink beer, eat potato chips, have medium to minimal IQ and brag about the size of their TVs?

Careful … you may be falling into the stereotype trap. It’s not hard to do; stereotypes are embedded in our culture. And in some ways, they have their value. But when you do business online, you don’t undertake transactions with stereotypes any more than you undertake transactions with a single generic composite of your audience.

You might not see their faces out there behind the computer screens and your Web analytics, but you are dealing with real people who have real needs and complicated motivations. Create a persuasive architecture based on stereotypes, and you’re gonna miss the boat.

The Pros and Cons of Stereotyping

What’s a stereotype, you ask? It’s both intangible and as solid as the person sitting next to you:


  • A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.

  • One who is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.

Because they are largely based in truth, stereotypes make a lot of sense. We quickly know and recognize these people. Students at Miami University have assembled a tutorial project on stereotyping:

If I were to tell you that I resemble a hippy woman from the 60's, you would definitely be able to come up with a mental image of me, right! Flowers in my long, flowing hair, a tie-dyed T-shirt, and bell bottom pants. I am a free spirit, and an open minded Liberal.

Perhaps the description helps you get a mental image of myself. By creating such mental pictures and having a preconceived notion of what a hippy looks like, and what characteristics he or she has, you are using the cognitive short cut called stereotyping. We utilize stereotypes in everyday life to reduce the amount of information we need to analyze. Our world is so complex that we need to categorize who and what we come into contact with on a daily basis. … People tend to use stereotypes to "fill in" details about a person if they are not a member of their in-group and they do not possess the motivation to get to know them on a more personal basis.1

So, if stereotyping is quite normal – even advantageous – then why am I fussed about it? The critical problem lies in those two words: “oversimplified conception.” Stereotypes are, by definition, superficial. They are shortcuts that, for our purposes, can prevent you from doing the important research that allows you to develop a deeper understanding of who your customers really are, what they really want and how you should be communicating with them.

That, and, how often do you feel a stereotype’s description is free of mean-spirited judgment? Do you generally feel stereotypes communicate respect? All too often, stereotypes incorporate prejudice. White trash, red neck, tree-hugger, flaming liberal, fundamentalist … these certainly conjure up stereotypic images that are not necessarily flattering. Nor do they get you any closer to understanding the interior of an individual who might very well be interested in buying from you.

When you prepare persuasive copy for someone who is coming to your Web site, you must be able to empathize with that person. But it’s hard to empathize with folks you characterize negatively – even though you might not be aware of that negativity. Develop empathy with your site’s visitors, and you’ll be able to shape copy that communicates empathetically with them.

Other Species of Stereotype

For decades, marketers have categorized their audiences in terms of demographic information, a variation of stereotyping. They group folks by income brackets, residential attributes, gender, and then pitch the message to the category. Take soccer moms. These generally are educated, middle-class, caring mothers who often combine work and taking care of the family. This demographic group may share certain traits, but they are also widely divergent in their motivations, needs and desires. The demographics alone do not give you any information about how each of these soccer moms approaches a decision to buy. From the perspective of persuasion, these demographic caricatures are one dimensional.

Let’s say you’re selling life insurance to a 65 year old retired man. He’s a veteran and has worked for the same accounting firm for 30 years. He’s been married to the same woman his whole life. He very structured, black and white, detail oriented, methodical, analytical, collects stamps and builds model airplanes. You could resort to a fairly typical stereotypic image of this fellow based on this information. But suppose you were to find out just a little more about this guy. Beyond collecting stamps and building model airplanes, he takes Tai Kwan Do so he can practice with his grandson, and he maintains his own blog. Is this version give you something more dimensional? More interesting? Do these small details give you a different insight into this man; do they make him seem more human, the sort of person you could actually communicate with meaningfully?

Go for the Full-Rounded Persona

When you create the personas that will form the basis of your online persuasive process, you want to develop comprehensively fleshed-out characters with names, personality attributes, personal concerns, communication styles, time management qualities. You want to craft profiles that bring each persona to life; include information like a first and last name, job, worries, family, needs, and desires. Compose a description that is three or more paragraphs long; even include faux quotes from the individual written in his or her own "voice." In essence, you want to create someone with whom you can imagine carrying on a substantive, persuasive conversation that answers the questions they would ask of you.

The development of personas appropriate to your business combines an understanding of:

  • Demographics: What are the person's attributes?

  • Psychographics: What does the person do psychologically as part of their buying decision process?

  • Topographics: How do the demographics and psychographics mesh with similar selling processes within the company's own industry?

Creating great personas depends not only on conducting traditional market research, but more importantly, on talking to individuals in your customer service department, retail sales reps and anyone within the company who has a lot of client interaction.

This valuable information guides the critical answers to the questions that should frame the development of your Web site:

  • Who are you trying to persuade?

  • What information does that person need in order to be persuaded?

  • What language most effectively engages them and motivates them further into the process?

You want to interact online with people, not stereotypes. So be careful not to design your persuasive process and copy for stereotypes. Don’t take short cuts. Get to know your visitors on a personal basis. It will help you understand and communicate with them far more effectively.

And isn’t that really what you want your Web site to do?

1 “Primetime Stereotyping: Social Psychological Effects on an Impressionable Culture.” Tutorial by Pamela Davis, Lisa Russell, Amber Ruth and Robert Woods. Psybersite. Miami University: 2002. http://www.units.muohio.edu/psybersite/primetime/INDEX.shtml

eTail Redesign for Conversion Workshop

Seating is scarce, but a few are still left.  If you want to know how to make your etail site more customer-focused, join us for eTail Redesign for Conversion January 12-13, 2005 at our office in the historic Red Hook district of Brooklyn.  This is an intensive workshop aimed at helping you improve your eTail business's conversion rate. Our workshops provide "hands on" consulting with Bryan Eisenberg - it's like a cognitive therapy session for your online efforts!

This workshop is for the business/marketing executive as well as associated designers and developers. Seating is limited to only six pre-selected non-competitive companies - non-competitive with each other or with our existing clients. Each company may enroll up to three individuals in the workshop.

Claim a seat as your own.  Everyone has a blast.  And we work you hard (in a cheerful, productive way).  Besides, aren't you just dying to check out our wild decorating scheme?

Fill out our handy-dandy form, or give us a call at (877) 643-7244.

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New Services

We've been busy bees over the holidays.  Check out our services page - new services have already been launched and more are coming!

New Publications

You'll also want to keep an eye on our publications page.  We've been working on creating resources that will help you put many of our principles into practice more easily and more efficiently.  We're just about to release several of our newest products, including Which Sells Best?: A Quick Start Guide to Testing for Retailers and The Conversion Experts Handbook.

Volume 102: 12/01/04

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