How site personas can enhance your site

If your website was a person, what type of person would it be?

It is an interesting question. Take a look at your website for a moment. Look at the design, read some of the copy. Can you picture a single person that represents your site? If the answer is no, then you may benefit from the creation a site persona.

What is a site persona?

Essentially a site persona is similar to a user persona. It is a fictional individual who represents your site. You could chose to give that person a name, an age or even decide  how he or she looks. However, the most important aspect of a persona is the character. Is your sites persona enthusiastic and charismatic or considered and reliable? Is it professional or trendy? These character traits can define the whole direction of your site.

Why does a site persona matter?

In my opinion the most important role of a site persona is to create  consistency between design and copy. Often design is produced in isolation and the designer find himself developing templates that will have copy dropped into them later. This is far from ideal. Design and copy should be closely integrated. However, although many designers encourage clients to provide copy upfront, this is not always possible. The next best option is to have a site persona that influences the nature of both copy and design.

A site persona provides both the designer and content providers a structure within which to work. It helps to define the design and provide a tone of voice for the copy. At the same time it ensures the two work well together. The persona is particularly important where multiple content providers are writing copy that needs a single voice.

Finally this tone of voice is important beyond the website too. The site persona also ensures that user engagements via Facebook, YouTube or Twitter also occur with the same voice found on the website. It projects a single consistent image.

How do you create a site persona?

Deciding on the character of your online presence is not easy. However, at its core a site persona is essentially a list of words or phrases that define its personality (e.g. conservative or energetic). Fortunately, there are a number of sources that can help choose those phrases. These include:

  • Existing prom0tional material - By looking through existing marketing material, you maybe able to identify a tone of voice that could define your persona.
  • Business strategy documentation – Documents like annual reports, mission statements and vision documents can provide a sense of the overall vision and personality of your organization. This can be fed back into your persona.
  • Key organizational figures - If your organization has key figureheads (think Steve Jobs) then these people will probably heavily influence your site persona. If these people are the public face of your company, their personalities should certainly be reflected on your site.
  • Your target audience – Look to your target audience as a source of inspiration for your persona. However, do not feel like your persona has to exactly reflect your target audience. For example, a prospective university student does not expect the tone of a university website to be that of a 18 year old. They are looking for an older persona who can still relate to them. That is a subtly different thing.

Of course, using the sources listed above will establish what your persona actually is rather than what you would like it to be. To take your persona to the next stage, you need to be more aspirational in your choice of phrases. However, although it is good to create a persona that reflects the type of organization you wish to become, do not get carried away. Users will treat a persona with suspicion if it is radically different from their preconception.

How to avoid being schizophrenic?

Although many organizations lack a site persona simply because it never occurred to them to create one, some lack one because they have rejected the idea. The reasons given typically fall into two categories:

  • Our target audiences are too diverse – How can we possibly present a consistent persona when we have to speak to such a diverse group of people?
  • We want to focus on people not institutions – We don’t want to hide our content providers behind a corporate facade. We want them to express their own personality in their writing.

Let’s address each of these in turn.

Diverse audiences

This concern is born out of the belief that a site persona should essentially match that of the target audience. If the target audience is diverse then the persona would have to be schizophrenic. However, as I have already said successful communication does not require a site persona and user persona to match.

Take for example my own personality. Whether I am speaking to a board of directors at some public sector institution or running my local youth group, I am still me. I may slightly alter the language I use and the way I behave, but basically I have the same personality. I am just as enthusiastic whether I am presenting plans for a website strategy or participating in a food fight!

As humans we adjust the way we speak all the time depending on our audience, but our essential personality remains unchanged. A successful persona can adapt to suit a variety of audiences.

People not institutions

I am very sympathetic towards the desire to focus on people not institutions. After all, we converse with individuals not organizations. It is good practice to be as open and transparent as possible both online and off. In no way would I suggest you hide the individual personalities behind your organization. However, that does not mean you should not have a consistent overarching persona.

Newspapers are a good example of this in action. A newspaper has multiple columnists, each of which express their own personality when they write. However, each newspaper also have an overarching style. There is for example a distinct difference between reading the Sun and the Times.

It is this balance between personal expression and encompassing persona that our sites need to achieve.

Conclusions

I am acutely aware that this post has lacked detail in places. I haven’t for example provided a site persona for you to use as a template. That is because I don’t think there is a right or wrong way of doing this kind of thing. What you chose to include or exclude from your persona is largely up to you. The aim is not to create a persona for its own sake. The aim is to create a tool that can be used to define the character of your site. This will in turn inform the design and content.

I would be interested to hear whether you have considered using site personas before and if so what your expeirences has been? I would also like to know what problems you see with this approach. This is very much an area where my thinking is evolving so please provide feedback in the comments.

  • http://www.tbs.uk.com Dave Wood

    Great post. Wondering how you resolve conflict between designing a site persona for your new and (hopefully) up-market target audience and at the same time keeping it familiar and friendly for your current (not quite as up market) audience. Basically how quickly do you change your site if you want to move forward? Do you make it 50:50 for new:old or err on the side of the new prospects? Cheers :)

  • http://www.idistillery.com Jason

    I completely agree with you Paul… in my own experience, I find that most of the sites I design/write for end up getting a little of my own “persona” whether I’m conscious of it at the time of creation or not… especially evident in the tone of any copy that I add or edit.

    In lieu of a distinct persona, I find it’s generally nice to just to be conversational in tone (vs. uber-formal)… but that’s going to depend a lot on the type of clientele one works with. My clients are mostly (very) small businesses, and I find that the founders tend to have personalities that match my own (there’s probably some social engineering going on there, but that’s another topic).

    All in all, great post! I’m glad someone put a name to the phenomenon… do you mind if your readers use the term? (Thought I’d ask…)

  • http://www.ragnarkarlsson.com Ragnar Karlsson

    I’m about to enter into a large project where a site is being completely overhauled and so this is a particularly useful post for me. Working with at least 4 other contributors to the site having a site persona could well be extremely useful to unify the parts outside of the blog (where obviously different persona are important). Thanks for this, will reread later and retweet shortly.

  • http://Rivalsociety.com Joshua Platt

    I completely agree with you Paul, great post. Would you say that the site persona is an extension (or perhaps personification) of the the entities brand? It would seem to me that brand and site persona are very closely related. To put it differently, the Boagworld site persona is born out of the Boagworld brand, and the Boagworld brand is defined or supported by the site persona.

  • http://p163.sg/blog Dinu

    So is the site persona for Boagworld a cow? ;) Great post anyways….never thought of it that way before. An complementary viewpoint on branding.

  • http://wurkit.com/ Dan

    I’ve had some trouble with people wrapping their heads around a persona for the their website. I think it has something to do with having to remember a website and a person–I don’t feel like many people I’ve done personas with have been able to easily combine them.

    Laely I’ve just been asking people if they thought of their website as a person, how would you describe it now and how you would want to describe it in the future. And do it with specific questions like private vs outgoing, conventional vs experimental, etc.

    It’s accomplishing a very similar thing, but doesn’t require an imaginary person to remember… It’s still just a website, but it’s getting evaluated differently.

    The only downside I’ve seen so far is that it seems less real and less important then a persona. A persona feels like an official document. So I just need to come up with a cool name and make people sign off on it so they give it the attention it deserves after the fact.

    Anyways, I do think personas or anything similar are extremely important. The more a potential or current customer thinks of your website and/or company with human traits, the more trustworthy and memorable it becomes. Rock on Paul!

  • http://www.creativebedlam.com/ Matt Morse

    When putting my new portfolio site together I took on board advice from many articles that I’d read about breathing some personality into your site. As such I believe my site does carry a persona, hopefully that of a down to earth, jargon free “friend” of sorts. This was reasonably easy to do as it should basically be “me” coming through. I imagine it would be a little more tricky, although interesting, if creating a persona for someone else, be it an individual or a trade or brand. A bit like an actor getting into a new role I guess.

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