Whispered Advice to The Graduate: Personas

Remember that little cinematic cocktail-party-whisper into Dustin Hoffman's ear? "Plastics." These days (circa 2004), you come up to me, and I'll happily stretch on tip-toe to whisper in your ear: "Personas."

Taking that big step back to survey the lay of the ebusiness landscape, I see three organizational themes in our line of work: words, numbers and people. However, focusing your attention on the former two when you have incorporated no understanding of the third means your online conversion rates will consistently disappoint.

It's Cart Before the Horse 101. And nobody understands or explains this subject better than Bryan Eisenberg.

Are You Designing for Usability or Sales?

(by Bryan Eisenberg, based on the third in a series of articles for ClickZ )

In order to plan the click-through-experience models, or persuasion scenarios, on a Web site, we develop archetypical fictional characters, called personas, who represent your buying audience. We must allow for multiple personas to reach many of the same pages, but must separately address their needs.

Before designing a single pixel or writing a single word, we get a feel - using a wireframe - for the experience the personas will have navigating the site. We spend time up front planning the hyperlinks and the words around these personas, to be sure each page a persona visits will be relevant to satisfying needs and answering questions. At any given point, we want to move them one step further in the buying process.

To help you understand what a persona is why it is central to your online business goal, I'm going to rough out the character attributes of four personas who all want to attend an Search Engine Strategies (SES) Conference in New York. (Disclaimer: I made up these personas for illustration purposes only.)

In an atypical example, I've purposely named each persona "Janet Smith." They're all college-educated, single women aged 33-36. They have annual incomes of $65,000-$75,000 and work in marketing. They all live on the same block in downtown Manhattan and work in the same building in midtown Manhattan. They've been using the Web for several years and are proficient in all Microsoft Office applications. They use Internet Explorer as their default browser on 17in. monitors set at 1,024 x 768 and use high speed connections.

From a traditional user-centered design (UCD) perspective, these four personas could be regarded as identical. They share the same demographics. And they share the same goals: they want to visit the New York SES Web site and plan to attend the conference.

But even their parcel delivery person can tell you they do not share the same way of accomplishing tasks.

Persona #1: Janet Smith

Janet, a 36-year-old marketing director, works for an Internet company that licenses data to manufacturers on a business-to-business (B2B) basis. The company powers comparison channel sites and well-known manufacturer sites. In addition, it powers all the comparison data at popular industry research sites.

Janet makes judgments decisively. She wanted the site to generate more revenue, so she introduced the business-to-consumer (B2C) concept to run the Web site as a profit center. Results have been great. Revenue for channel and manufacturing sites is about $5 million, with 90 percent of that generated from the B2B channels. But B2C is rising.

Janet's main challenge is search engines' inability to effectively spider the sites. She understands a site requires optimization (SEO) for search engines. But because the channel sites are dynamic, Janet wants help understanding exactly how to get them indexed. She has discretionary money in her budget to attend conferences but must make sure her assistant can reach her while she's gone.

She has a secondary motivation to attend the conference. She wants to meet some of her favorite industry experts, such as Danny Sullivan, Frederick Marckini, and yours truly. Deep down, she's really hoping for some good face time with SES's most eligible bachelor, Mr. Marckini.

Persona #2: Janet Smith

Janet's 35 years old and runs Internet marketing for a medium-sized click-and-mortar retailer. The company sells products to a niche market and has been in business 10 years. It's been profitable from the beginning. Last year, it finally decided to build an e-commerce site. The site also offers a few exclusive product lines for testing before they're rolled out in stores.

Janet's assembled a team of energetic young people to develop and maintain the site. The site's done reasonably well in search engines, because Janet works with the content and IT people to focus more on the customer and less on the technology. But with growing competition, changes in Google's algorithm, and Yahoo! soon replacing Google in its search engine results pages (SERPs), Janet wants to stay ahead of the curve.

In the past, SES conferences allowed her to network with and learn from search engine reps, industry experts, marketers, engineers, Webmasters, and business owners. Colleagues who referred her to this company were actually people she met at previous SES conferences. She'd like to attend the next conference but must convince the boss to allow her to go.

She'd really like to keep up the friendships she's developed from attending past SES conferences. This time, she hopes to focus more on the conference itself, and the organic track in particular. She doesn't want to miss too much valuable information during the morning sessions because of the inevitable late-nights parties and time spent with colleagues.

Persona #3: Janet Smith

Janet is a 33 year old responsible for search engine marketing (SEM) at an interactive agency. She was recently promoted from media planner to SEM because of her methodical presentation of client documentation. She's still unsure about how to get more return on investment (ROI) from her current ad budget. In her previous position, she oversaw trafficking out ads. She has more direct contact with clients now and is certain she could manage their ad budgets more effectively.

One of the company's plans this year is to begin marketing to Hispanics. She's interested in an SES session that could help.

Persona #4: Janet Smith

Janet is a 34-year-old PR specialist. She partners with four other PR specialists and developed a business writing and sending out press releases almost guaranteed to be read. She describes her company as the best of the best because of the experience and flair of her company's people.

Although Janet's style ensures her press releases get read, sometimes in SERPs her press releases are buried below negative press about the company or product she's promoting. Janet wants to provide value to her clients and realizes her SEO skills aren't very good. A creative marketer, she's been in the PR industry for nearly 10 years and on the Web since '96. She's become a household name in her industry. She feels almost forced to learn how to optimize her press releases properly for search engines to remain the expert she is.

Personas as a Tool

If we accept the above as realistic SES attendee personas, how might these constructions influence the experience and content on the site? Make the effort to empathize with each one. Visit the current site, and experience it the way they might. Visit competitive conference sites, and compare each persona's experience. A competitive analysis from your visitor's point of view is more valuable than one from your own.

The Grok Concludes

Consider the questions important to each Janet. Make a list of them. Answer them. Imagine where you will need to answer each question on the site, but plan for the possibility one Janet could ask her questions out of order. Start mapping the logical flow of each Janet-navigation-path. Provide places that will allow one Janet to switch to a different Janet-path (some days you are simply more assertive than others!). This is exactly how the whole process starts.

I began my very first issue asking The Pivotal Question (the one every one of your visitors never stops asking), "What's in it for me?" Since that distant March, I've revisited the topic several times, in Fine-tuning the WIIFM Dial and more recently in the interview You Talkin' to Me? with our VP for Client Services, Holly Buchanan.

You've got a gazillion people landing on your Web site. Not a one of those gazillion is exactly like another. Yet, face it. There's no way in Hades you're going to create a customer experience for each and every one of these folks ... a gazillion paths to your end goal? Get real.

But that's exactly the whole idea behind creating personas. These fictional characters - the psychological, demographic and topological essences of your audience - help you "get real" so you can speak effectively and efficiently to countless individuals, interacting with The Many as if they were The One.

Trust me. You really don't want to underestimate the value of this particular whisper.

Volume 96: 8/1/04

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