Most sales and marketing departments are fully aware of the importance of customer profiles in creating effective marketing campaigns and developing solid client relationships. Unfortunately, customer personas are rarely considered during the development of a company website.

If your website is like most, it probably began as a mock-up from your design team, with elements like navigation and content filled in after the fact and dictated by the design of the site rather than customer personas or customer profiles. But, your company website is the point of interaction that online customers have with your company, no different in their minds than if they had called your 800 number and spoken with a sales representative.

Sales people adapt themselves in real time to pitch to different customer profiles and customer personas. Imagine that your company sells IT security software. A potential customer might contact one of your representatives wanting to know how difficult implementation would be, or perhaps she might want to know if the software had been used successfully by other companies like hers and, if so, to what extent. Imagine their frustration if no matter what their concerns, your sales representative kept going into detail about technical specifications that meant nothing to most customers and did not address their needs. This person probably wouldn't close a lot of sales, and you'd probably end up with a lot of frustrated would-be customers.

No matter what your business, if you haven't built your website with customer personas in mind, this is the way your website talks to would-be customers every day. Customer personas, unlike customer profiles, are not simply about what demographic groups will be targeted in the current direct mail campaign - they represent the very different ways that each customer will interact with and think about your company.

The Difference between Personas and Customer Profiles

Customer profiles and customer personas - they sound like two ways of referring to the standard marketing practice of targeting specific demographic groups, and to some extent, they are.

Customer profiles break your potential customers into general groups in obvious ways: 25- to 35-year-old single women, IT Administrators for large financial institutions, marketing executives in the healthcare industry.

Customer personas take these customer profiles to the next logical step - they put a name, a face, a life, and a personality to people in each of these groups.

With customer profiles, an IT Administrator for a large financial institution is the same as any other IT Administrator for a large financial institution. With customer personas, each and every IT administrator who might visit your website will approach the buying process in a different way and have different problems he or she needs to solve.

Examples of Customer Personas

Bob is an IT Administrator for a large financial institution. He is 32 years old, lives with his girlfriend of three years, used to spend a lot of time playing online games until he got caught playing on company time. He's been tasked by his boss, the CTO, with finding the best solution for maintaining security on the company's intranet, including about a hundred laptops with remote access.

Ned is also an IT Administrator for a large financial institution. Ned is also 32 years old, and also lives with his girlfriend, though they've only been together two and a half years. Ned's enjoys playing cards. Ned's boss, the CTO, is looking to find an IT security solution that will save administration time and also reduce costs while securing the company's intranet, which includes a little over 200 laptops with remote access.

Bob will go about the process of finding and choosing a solution in an entirely different way than Ned.

Using customer profiles, Bob and Ned look like the same customer. Using customer personas, we might find out that Bob is trying to do just enough to keep his job and is only concerned with finding a solution that has impressive credentials to show his boss. Ned, on the other hand, needs to find a solution that can reduce administration time and costs. Being tech-savvy, both will go to your website to ask their questions, but will your website answer?

Designing for Personas

In order to make sure that anyone who goes to your website - Bob, or Ned, or Gina, or Frank - can get an answer to his or her questions, you must design with customer personas and customer profiles in mind. The beginning of any website development project should be to determine what types of people will go to your website, what their needs are likely to be, and what their buying behaviors will be.

Customer Mindset

The mindset of the customer is a key element of customer personas that is not addressed by standard customer profiles, and it is critically important in writing website copy and creating a navigation system. As an insider, it can be difficult to think of your company's products and services in the same way that your customers probably do, and many companies make the mistake of structuring their website copy and navigation around that insider's perspective. This approach works extremely well for prospects who are already very familiar with your company and your products and services, but it is most likely confusing to anyone who is not.

One of the common indicators of this approach is an emphasis on features rather than benefits. The home page for your hypothetical IT security software company might talk about your "state of the art software" that "automatically installs security updates" and "tracks and manages security issues." On the surface, there is nothing wrong with these assertions, but they do not adequately address the problems and needs of an uneducated customer.

To get into the customer's mindset, you develop customer personas that include a problem that your customers might be having if they are looking for your products. Maybe one customer's company was recently hit by a virus that caused a lot of down time and lost productivity. That customer would be more easily swayed if you modified "automatically installs security updates" to read "eliminates days lost to down time by automatically installing new security updates on every computer in your organization." By being aware of the customer's mindset, you can write your copy and plan your navigation to explain the benefits of your products as they relate to the customer's current problem, rather than just rattling off a list of features.

Buying Behavior

The customer's mindset is not the only important aspect of designing for customer personas in addition to customer profiles. Consumer psychology studies have shown that there are four types of buying behavior when it comes to making purchasing decisions. These buying behaviors are the driving force behind most purchasing decisions, regardless of how a customer fits in with more general customer profiles.

The four types of buying behavior:
  • Assertive - Assertives want to be in control and are driven by measurable goals and results.
  • Analytical - Analyticals want to know every in and out of your product before they'll ever decide to purchase.
  • Social - Socials place a lot of value on the opinions of others and weigh those opinions very heavily when making a decision.
  • Amiable - Amiables value relationships and are influenced by personalization; they feel threatened when confronted with too much technical information.
Most people are a combination of two or more of these, but by designing for all four types of buying behavior on every page of your website, you ensure that all of your website visitors can easily find the information they're seeking.

Your Best Sales Rep

By honing in on customer mindsets with buying behaviors, customer personas and customer profiles can help you design a website that effectively speaks to every one of your visitors, no matter what questions they have or what problems they are trying to solve. The Internet is an interactive medium, and combining user-friendly copy with appropriate navigation can make your visitors' interactions with your website just as fruitful and persuasive as if they had called your 800 number and spoken with your best sales person - except your website is working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it doesn't even need health insurance.

Erin Lashbrook is the Director of Conversion at Medium Blue Internet Marketing, an Atlanta search engine marketing company. Erin applies the art and science of website conversion to client websites, influencing visitors to take the next step. She has a degree in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Medium Blue Internet Marketing services a national client base. To receive internet marketing articles and search engine news in your email box each month, register for Medium Blue’s newsletter, Out of the Blue.

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