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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Wednesday, 27th May, 2009

How site personas can enhance your site

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

Content Strategy:
The estimated time to read this article is 5 minutes

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.

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