Compelling Copy: Tools for Developing Personas

[Brief, pride-induced disclaimer: I swear by all that’s holy, I really was planning on writing this before I saw last week’s Whiteboard Friday.]

Do you want to know why it was so important that I put that disclaimer up there? Why, in fact, I could not begin writing this post until I’d added it?

The answer is directly related to the topic at hand today: my personality. I’m a flaming enneagram Four. The idea of being thought a copycat is powerfully compelling to me. I almost can’t help taking action to move against that idea, because it strikes against my constructed sense of identity.

Every personality has certain hot buttons. If you’re observant, you’ve probably noticed people respond with remarkable predictability to certain stimuli. The implications for a web copywriter, whose job is to motivate your readers to take specific actions, should be pretty clear.

Personas can be extremely powerful tools for developing copy that is targeted to hit those hot buttons and drive desired actions on the web. Writing copy that speaks to a specific person produces stronger copy than writing for some fuzzy, nebulous audience.

That said, there are some drawbacks to using personas. Without the opportunity to build personas based on hard data, it can be easy to fall into stereotypes, rather than true personas.

In an ideal, perfect word you’d be building your personas from hard data performed by a qualified research firm; however, if you don’t have access to that kind of information, you can still develop personas that have value.

One great way to avoid straying from building personas into building stereotypes is to have a robust set of “people making” materials from which to draw. In short, the same resources that help fiction writers and screenwriters develop realistic characters to populate their fictional worlds can be tremendously helpful in building realistic personas. These include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • A deep familiarity with one or more personality typing systems, such as the Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs system, or its related Keirsey system. If you’ve never delved into personality typing, Similar Minds is a great place to start.
  • The best of character-driven cinema and television. I probably could get better social media pickup for this article if I renamed it “How watching Lost, House and Grey’s Anatomy can improve your writing.” As link-baity as that sounds, watching some of these shows with a critical eye towards character motivations, fears, goals and desires is a great practice run for taking your personas through their paces.
  • Feed your brain some classic literature. I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have time to read Tolstoy, Kat.” Fine. For what it’s worth, I waded through Les Miserables in high school and thought it was 1600 pages of boring and useless. I may never forgive Victor Hugo for writing an entire chapter on the history of the Paris sewers when he could have just written “Valjean carried his daughter’s inert and unconscious boyfriend through the sewers to freedom. It was stinky.” Great literature isn’t necessarily lengthy literature. Start with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who are as well-known for their journalistically brief styles as they are their well-drawn and complex characters. The important thing is that you’re populating your imagination with realistic persona-building matter.
  • Stop thinking demographically and start thinking about goals, fears and motivations. It’s nice to know that your persona for Site A is a 37 year old professional woman, but what you really need to know is why she’s looking for what you offer, what it will take to sell her, and what might scare her off.

Writing web copy towards personas not only makes for more effective copy, it also makes the process much more enjoyable, at least for me.

The flip side of writing to personas in your target audience is writing as a brand personality, which is a subject I’ll be covering in later posts on copywriting. For now, let’s just say that along with brushing up on your Hemingway and Fitzgerald, you might want to pull out that fifty-pound copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and sign up for any workshops your local community theatre group might be offering.

Up next on Wednesday: Content Strategy – How Editorial Calendars Might Just Save What’s Left of My Sanity.

1 Comment

  1. ·

    It has been said that there is a sentence in Les Miserables that is 823 words long, in English. Paragraphs over a page long were his style. He probably would have written some great long copy.


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