Personas grata

The internet, the web, the online… thingy can be likened to a teenager. It’s all about peer pressure and fitting in. (I haven’t quite figured out what the internet equivalent of spots is yet, but I suspect it has something to do with your server eating 1-in-50 emails and visiting websites that want to dump 20 cookies on you before delivering up anything useful.)

Teenagers also have their own language and regularly adopt words in weird combinations in order to keep parents and other ancient adults out of the loop. Yep. Very much like the web then.

Which is why, frequently, you feel that every article, white paper and blog is running with a very limited vacabulary. Do you remember the early days when it was all ‘super highway’ this and ‘super highway’ that? It wasn’t that long ago that ‘the digital space’ became the synonym for online. If you’re you still using ‘the digital space’ I’d stop now if I were you. It’s so, like, yesterday.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, the big word is currently, in my humble opinion, ‘personas’. If you want to get down with the digital posse you need personas, brand personas, multiple personas… Your digital strategy isn’t worth doo doo unless you’ve got a few personas to back it up.

Don’t get me wrong. I love personas. CDA loves personas. In fact we’ve got a half day internal workshop about them tomorrow (which is why the subject is so front of mind). But personas are not a miracle cure. You can focus the mind wonderfully by using them but you have to ’employ’ them. It’s not enough to simply have personas on the payroll.

We always talk about your website being your most important and expensive employee. Your website probably costs more to maintain than your CEO but it would be cheap at twice the price.

How many people does you CEO meet in a year? How many times does he, or she, get to truly demonstrate what your brand is?

Your website is out there 24 hours every day, being reached by people all over the world. Hopefully it’s the living embodiment of your brand; demonstrating usefulness to everyone that comes into contact with it. If the previous description doesn’t sound like your organisation’s website, for goodness sake get a grip. You can’t have a rubbish website in the current economic climate.

Well personas should be right up there on the payroll. They should be getting great benefits packages, including top of the range medical insurance. They should have corner offices and every lunchtime the CEO should rush down to get them sushi from that great Japanese restaurant on the next block. Love your personas. But make them work hard.

If created well and treated with respect, personas bring the real world into your organisational netherspace. You can destil the key attributes of hundreds, thousands, millions of your most important users and prospects into a handful of personas. Give them names and faces. Create back stories. Breath life into them. And then AND THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT – listen to what they have to say.

Next time the head of sales (or, even worse, the CEO) goes on a jag about why the current product brochure should be put on the web in its entirety, bring out Don who runs a 3 year old SME on the west coast and has been buying your products since he started. Don recently halved the number of staff in the warehouse and is moving over to JIT. He needs another brochure like he needs a hole in the head.

Or the head of marketing has become obsessed with social networks and wants the entire business promoted in a 3 minute flash movie on MySpace. Bring in Jodie, who was recently nominated for business woman of the year and has a pathological dislike of anything that’s just fallen off the back of bandwagon.

Personas visualise your users and put a pulse behind your empirical and statistical data. You can convene them in a nanosecond and unlike focus groups they don’t need sandwiches at lunchtime, or have their opinions hijacked by a retired SAS officer called Kevin.

But personas must be real. (Okay, they aren’t really real but go with me on this one.) Because personas are so popular agencies are conjuring them up like magician’s rabbits. Abracadabra! There’s your personas. All website ills magically cured. Not.

We’ve been working with personas and feel they only earn their keep if you’ve really worked them through the scenarios that touch your business. Run a few situations. Then run some more. Do your personas stand up? The process is a bit like Second Life but not quite so dorky. That’s really what tomorrow’s workshop is going to be about – working out permutations of personas, scenarios and online positions. Creating a virtual grid that mimics the big picture. This will act as both a test environment and also a way of defining persona work for clients. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Reply-focussed communication

Good website communication hinges on the information flowing from the right initiation point.

Just set aside transaction communications – ‘Your sofa is now in stock’ – for a moment. Nearly all marketing and business messaging was, traditionally, company initiated. A new product launch or brochure, a seasonal sale, a press release or case study… An organisation has something to say and sends out its message. This is the traditional initiation point for brand communication. It also assumed that the recipient wanted to receive the communication in question.

But website communication turns this on its head. It is customer initiated. People (punters, customers, web users) set out online ‘to do’ something – book a holiday, buy a book, donate to charity, acquire knowledge. We mention the latter 2 as the term customer initiated communication applies just as much to those not looking to buy something.

By its very nature, this type of communication requires a different treatment. It must be reply-focussed. Imagine sitting down to eat with a group of people and asking the person on your left to ‘pass the salt’. You expect them to reply, even if the reply is less than helpful: ‘Sorry, I have short arms and can’t reach it.’ You don’t expect them to say: ‘I have a labrador called Bert’ or ‘My girlfriend is in Dubai’. Communication is only satisfactory when it follows a logical sequence. (Rap lyrics not withstanding.)

‘Aah’, I hear you say, ‘how do I know what the customer has said, so we can make the right reply?’

Well, just by asking that question you’ve passed Reply-focussed communication Elementary grade 1. Simply asking it enables you to view what you’re saying online – and how you say it – from a more helpful perspective. Add to that what you know about your customers through data and journey tracking, and your on your way.

Email can be company initiated, but even with email you can’t just use a traditional offline approach. But that’s another post.