October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Persona-lizing a site

Personas take web marketers behind what they think they know about customers and into shoppers’ heads and hearts.

A lost wallet lies on a Manhattan street, stuffed with cash. A white middle-income male New Yorker, between 30 and 44, picks it up. Will he look for the rightful owner, or pocket the cash? Who knows?

But if George Costanza, the white middle-income male New Yorker between 30 and 44 from Seinfeld, picks it up, everyone knows exactly what he’ll do. He’ll almost certainly keep the money, yapping endless self-justification to his friends at the coffee shop to conceal his feelings of guilt.

George is one possible human face for his demographic group, but hardly the only one (thank goodness). Demographics-age, race, sex, income, location-don’t go very far in explaining and predicting human behavior. That’s why marketers increasingly use personas-named profiles that represent members of each key customer group, and describe their characters, personalities, tastes, and quirks. It’s hard to target a message to a generic 35-year-old middle-class working mother of two. It’s much easier to target a message to Jennifer, who has two children under four, works as a paralegal, and is always looking for quick but healthy dinners and ways to spend more time with her kids and less time on housework.

Personas go way beyond typical segmentation, says Neil Clemmons, president of strategy at Critical Mass, a web design firm with an extensive persona development practice. “The idea is to get into the heads of customers and start to put a face to the experience,” he says. “We’ve ridden in cars with people for Mercedes and gone shopping with people for Albertson’s (the grocery chain). We note how they cook, plan menus, use coupons and shop specials. We sometimes ask people to keep a log of a remodeling project or a diary of their Christmas shopping. It’s a combination of questioning and observation.”

Same type, different needs

For example, a project for Home Depot uncovered two very different customers who might have identical demographic profiles-the do-it-yourselfer who wants to pick out all the cabinets and appliances and the customer who wants a kitchen designer to do it all.

While the concept of persona marketing has been around since the late 1990s and is used in many contexts, it has particular relevance to Internet businesses. “People use web sites to get things done,” says Moira Dorsey, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s different from designing other marketing materials. You have to understand what your customers’ goals are and how they go about accomplishing them in order to design a system that supports those goals.” A Forrester survey from late 2005 showed that more than one in four companies with revenues above $200 million planned to increase their spending on persona research over the next two years.

Retailers of every size, from office supply giant Staples Inc. to the skin care boutique H2O Plus, are using persona development as part of their web strategies. Some personas sound like characters out of a medieval morality play-Lisa Listmaker, Shelley Spontaneous, Mr. Competitive. Others go just by first names-Marie or Mike or Helen-and become their company’s shorthand for the customer who depends on product reviews, or the one who likes to build things himself, or the one whose top priority is getting a great price.

The costs and time for persona development vary wildly. Some companies spend six figures on ethnographic research worthy of an anthropology dissertation, interviewing dozens or hundreds of users to put together a handful of carefully crafted composite profiles. Most large web design firms offer persona development services, and dozens of smaller companies specialize in it.

Others make do with internal analytics and brainstorming, ideally aided by an outside consultant. “If you need the deepest level of insight because you’re going to plan something from the ground up, that’s a six-figure engagement,” says Howard Kaplan, chief operating officer at FutureNow, a web site optimization firm that does persona work based on the Myers-Briggs personality test. “If you have something up and running that’s not doing as well as it should and you want to use personas to see if you’re missing your target audience, that’s probably more like five figures-sometimes low five figures. We don’t need a ton of data, but we do need to hear anecdotal experiences, and stories that we can see patterns in.”

The high margin twins

Successful persona users have seen their conversion rates and revenues jump. While persona work usually occurs as part of a larger redesign project, making it hard to pinpoint the specific payback, Staples’ online revenue went from $3 billion to $4.9 billion within two years after a major site redesign that included the development of seven personas and a decision to design primarily for the two most important ones.

“We didn’t want to go into the redesign without something like personas to help guide the discussion,” says Colin Hynes, director of usability at Staples.com. The company was able to use its thousands of hours of existing customer research to create the basic personas, which it validated through one-to-one surveys with 1,000 customers. In the process, Staples also identified two personas that represented way more than their share of both revenue and margin, and planned its new home page accordingly.

“You can’t design anything, and especially not a home page, for seven different types of users,” Hynes says. “You end up with a Frankenstein that doesn’t meet anyone’s needs.” One of the winners was Lisa Listmaker, who likes to come to the site with her shopping list all prepared and her item numbers at the ready. Not only is she high-margin, but she’s also low maintenance-no coupons clutter her checkout process. For her, “order by number” is prominently featured above the fold.

A much less important persona, Sally Sales, still accounts for a not-insignificant 8% of margin-for her, the clearance area was made easier to find and navigate.

Revealing the unknown customer

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