What does your site say about your organisation's personality?

Paul Boag

Are users seeing you in the right light? Are they seeing the real you or a phoney persona? In this post I show you how to let your users look behind the corporate facade.

For many users your website is the only glimpse they get of who exactly you are. Most do not meet you face-to-face or even chat with you over the phone. Your website is all they will ever see. If you find that prospect scary then you are not alone. Many organisations not only view their website as unrepresentative of their services but also their personality.

In this post I endeavour to provide some practical advice on how to honestly project your personality online. However to do that you need to have a clear perception of who you are.

Understanding your organisations personality

It’s amazing how few employees have a clear grasp of what their company does, let alone the personality that best represents them. One of the first questions we ask our clients is to summarise what their organisation does in one or two sentences. Many people simply cannot do that.

The second question we ask is “if your company was a person, who would that person be?” Think about it for a minute. Which famous person best represents your company? It’s a hard question to answer. Yet I believe that if your website is to accurately reflect who you are then you need to be able to answer it.

Don’t pretend to be somebody you are not

However the problem does not end with simply identifying who you are. It is also a matter of being confident enough to honestly project that personality. I often encounter organisations who dislike their corporate culture and would prefer to be somebody else. There is nothing wrong with being aspirational in the way you wish to project yourself. However it is important to recognise that if you intend to be aspirational online this also needs to be represented off-line as well. This requires nothing short of a cultural shift.

Overcoming your corporate inferiority complex

In most cases it is better to just “be yourself”. Many organisations suffer from a collective inferiority complex. Instead they need to embrace who they are and be willing to project that online with confidence. I think this lack of confidence is borne from a fear of alienating users. They believe that some of their corporate characteristics may be unpalatable to certain audiences. They might actually be right.

An employee ashamed to work at Microsoft

dragon_fang, Shutterstock

However in my opinion it is better to accept who you are than be something you’re not. You may alienate some users, but your honesty and openness will attract many others. The web is a big place and there are plenty of people out there who see the world in the same way as your organisation and will be drawn to you if only you stand up for what you believe.

That brings me nicely on to the need for transparency and openess.

Be transparent and open

As well is not hiding who your organisation really is, it is important to be open and transparent in the way you communicate with your customers both online and off. Too many organisations harbour the belief that they cannot or should not admit to their mistakes. There also appears to be a culture of secrecy that surrounds many organisations. Although this may work for companies such as Apple the majority of us do not work for Apple and so need to consider a more open attitude.

Stop worrying about the competition

I think much of this closed off mentality comes from a fear of the competition. Organisations believe that to admit their mistakes shows weakness. Although there is an element of truth in this, the benefits outweigh the weaknesses.

Take for example Flickr.com. In their early days they suffered from serious performance problems that angered many of their paying customers. They might have concluded that to admit the problem would have been a sign of weakness. However instead they chose to publicly acknowledge the problem and apologise for their failings. This turned a potential PR nightmare to their advantage and they won a lot of fans because of their honesty.

flickr blog post entitled: Sometimes we suck

Many organisation also worry that making their company too transparent will allow the competition to copy them. Although true, I would argue that it is better to give away some of your intellectual property than it is to work in obscurity. Take for example my own situation. I know for a fact that a large number of my competitors read this blog. No doubt they learn a lot about the way that I work and win business. However I also know that the Boagworld community wins approximately 90% of Headscape’s new business. At the end of the day it is perfectly possible that my competitors will copy some of my ideas. However ultimately they are just going to be playing catch up and I will always remain one step ahead of them.

Another important part of being open and transparent is to recognise your organisation is more than a corporate facade. Instead it is made up of many individuals who all have an influence over the corporate culture.

Recognise that your organisation is made up of people

Why is it that the marketing department within so many organisations actively discourage their employees from talking about their work online? In my opinion employees are one of the best assets a company has in projecting its personality online.

Take for example Microsoft. Among certain segments of the developer community Microsoft is perceived as evil personified. In particular many web developers despise Internet Explorer with a passion. For the longest time the team at Microsoft who worked on Internet Explorer were forced to remain silent and this just added to people’s dislike of the company. However eventually Microsoft began to open up and allow its employees to talk about their jobs and the decisions they made in the development of Microsoft products.

For those of us who have read these first-hand accounts by Microsoft employees on blogs like Channel 9, it has transformed our attitude towards the company. We may still dislike Internet Explorer but although it is easy to despise a corporate body like Microsoft, it is much harder to dislike the men and women who work on the products.

Channel 09 blog

Not only is it much harder to dislike people than corporations, we also feel more drawn to individuals rather than faceless companies. This relationship with people (rather than companies) is particularly important if you are a service based business. At Headscape we actively encourage our employees to blog, tweet and generally participate in the web design community. This is because we know that our clients hire us based on the skills and likeability of our staff. Most people are not impressed by corporate brands, but they are impressed by likeable, highly skilled individuals.

Of course I’m not suggesting that there is no place for corporate branding. After all I fully recognise that first impressions count.

First impressions count

When we meet a person for the first time we make certain judgements about their character and personality based on the way they look, what they wear and their body language. With little else to make judgements on, users take a similar approach online. They make judgements based on the visual appearance of your website and come to conclusions within a matter of seconds. It is therefore important that the design of your site reflects the personality of your organisation.

Because users make judgements about your character based on the way your site looks it is important that the designer has a good handle on your organisation’s personality. That is the reason we ask “if your organisation was a person who would it be?” This allows the designer to picture a particular person when designing the site.

However it is important to stress that it is not enough for just the design to reflect your personality. Your copy needs to reflect it to.

Don’t allow your copy to make you schizophrenic

Content management systems have solved many problems. However the way they have solved some problems has created other more subtle challenges. For example, the introduction of content management systems has meant that a website will probably have multiple content providers. This overcomes the problem of content bottlenecks. However each content provider has his or her own writing styles and this can make your organisation’s character seem schizophrenic.

Image of serious business man holding an image of himself in casual wear looking happy

Worldpics, Shutterstock

As with design it is important that your copy reflects your organisation’s personality. This means that your copy needs a single tone of voice. In an ideal world this would mean that your website had a single web editor ensuring that everything published have that consistent tone. However this is not always possible due to budgetary constraints.

If you do not have a web editor then your organisations website should at the very least have a content style guide. This document should not only ensure consistency in the use of grammar, product names and sector specific terminology. It should also provide guidance for writing with the correct tone of voice.

This kind of editorial control has existed in the print world for years. For example if you compare different newspapers you will find each has its own unique personality that differentiates itself from the competition. This personality is maintained across the publication despite the fact that each issue is written by a variety of different journalists.

The Sun website

The Guardian website

You might think this contradicts my comments earlier about giving different employees within the organisation a voice. I have no problem with employees writing in their own style for content that is specifically associated with them as an individual (e.g. a corporate blog where the author’s name is highlighted). However on more generic pages I believe that the personal style of the writer needs to be secondary to the personality of the organisation.


I find it concerning that so few websites seem to have a consistent tone of voice that extends through both design and copy. Without a strong personality and will within the organisation to express that personality online, websites end up looking bland and generic. This explains the prevalence of ‘corporate blue’ and unintelligible marketing copy across the web. Designers and writers who fall back on these cliches do so because they have no clear image of their organisation’s personality.

Could you easily explain to a third party what the personality of your organisation is? If not then maybe it is time to ask which celebrity best represents your organisation. Why not post your ideas in the comments below letting us know why you selected the person you did.