Using Personas in Content Audits

persona-small.pngPersonas, especially as an extension of target audience segmentation efforts, are an important tool for content strategists, user experience architects, creative directors, product planners and marketers of all kinds. Personas provide a useful, agreed-upon starting point for nearly all forms of marketing, digital or otherwise. They provide a great opportunity for content strategists to align their work to a businesses’ larger digital marketing strategy as well.  

Auditing website content against personas can result in a very tactical set of actions and content plans and in this article we’ll look at what personas are, how to develop them, what information to add to a standard inventory and audit, and how to extract insights and action plans.

What Is a Persona?

There are many definitions of persona, but most are similar to this short and sweet one from Usability.gov: “A persona is a fictional person who represents a major user group for your site.” In practice, personas tend to include at least these basic facets: personal data such as name, a photograph, family circumstances (married with children, single, etc.); geographic location;  demographics such as age, occupation, income and, if relevant, ethnicity. To make a persona meaningful as a way of answering experience and content questions, additional information is added: often a persona will include sections for “softer” data such as needs, motivations, and behaviors. Social technographics and media consumption patterns are often added to personas as well.

Personas can be simple or complex and there are lots of great resources out there for learning how to create them, so we won’t dive too deeply into that here. For example, some sample personas can be viewed at the Fluid project wiki.

Notice anything about most of these personas, though? There is little mention of content and how it relates to helping the persona achieve his or her goals.

Developing Personas—A Collaborative Approach

“Because so many different departments within an organization have a stake in the content that is produced, the single-most important investment a business can make is to commit to researching and creating personas that will be used to make all content decisions going forward.”  —Kris MausserPersonas: A Critical Investment in Content Strategy

If we want to ensure that these valuable tools are available to us as we approach the content strategy, we need to make sure we’re involved in the upfront user research and the process of persona creation. Personas are often developed by the user experience architect who may well have an awareness of the importance of the content but is still likely to be primarily focused on interactions, navigation, and functionality. If we can partner with our colleagues on mapping the overall customer journey, both from the functional perspective but also the content needed to support the customer along each step of that journey, we can build out richer, more actionable personas.

It is critical that personas are built on real data, not our own assumptions of our customer types and their behaviors. Contextual interviews with actual customers are often a starting point; additional data may come from third-party research (for example, if you’re working on a site for a travel company, there is probably ample research data about the demographics and behaviors of travelers).

Once the personas have been developed, we also need to advocate for collaboration with the larger team when it comes to applying the personas. Some people will check alignment with stakeholders first, some people just use them internally. Either way, your goal is to establish a common understanding of the personas and how to use them to create the audit categories and, eventually, the site content itself. One technique we like is to conduct a brainstorming session where individual members of the team act as advocates for one of the personas. After brainstorming, then you can de-duplicate, test, refine and prioritize your audit activities. Keeping the personas alive, so to speak, throughout the entire project can provide a valuable touchpoint along the way to make sure the content and design are still on track.

Periodically revisiting and updating your personas over time (after your current project has launched) is another good idea. As new content and site features are created, being able to check back against your core personas is a useful reality check. Use the data you gather about your customers as a feedback loop to continue to refine your personas and they will continue to serve you well.

Adding Content Strategy to Personas

“Persona research is central to the content strategy process because it allows us to create content that speaks directly to the users we want to target. We are able to gear our messaging toward the interests, aspirations, concerns, and desires of the very people we’ve identified as being crucial to our client.” —Norris A.A. Rowley, Jr., in Include Your Clients in the Persona Research Process with Affinity Mapping

What would a content-focused persona look like and how would we use its data to audit existing content and create a strategy?

Getting Started

A good place to start is by listing:

  • The user's potential questions
  • The user’s information needs or level of awareness/expertise in the subject matter
  • The user's potential problems (not limited to the use of product or service)
  • The user's potential paths/tasks (the customer journey)

Measuring Against Goals

Developing a set of heuristics for each of these goals will make them measurable and actionable. What to look for:

  • Content is written for at least one clear audience, including any particular tone and voice nuances as well as reflecting that persona’s interests and information needs
  • It contains a clear call to action within the text (not leaving it up to navigation)
  • It clearly maps to a step in the customer task flow

Adding Persona Data to Your Audit

Starting with your base audit (created of course, with your automated CAT inventory), add columns for the data you’ve decided to track. For example, you may add:

  • Persona name (or type)
  • Customer task (for example: evaluate, learn, purchase, get support, share)
  • Call to action
  • Status (content is okay as-is or needs revision)

Add lines to your audit for new content to be created and, as discussed above, review your findings with your team members and stakeholders.

Applying Insights to Action

Evaluating content against these heuristics (and, as we discussed in the previous article in this series, including analytics), can help focus your content strategy where it can have the most impact.

Defining calls to action that answer the short list of questions/problems/needs of a persona saves valuable time in scoping your audit. Without this framework, you can throw any kind of user need at the audit and not know where to stop. Personas tell you what the priority is and how deep you need to go. Some customers are worth 80% of your time, some are worth 20%. Apply that metric to how much time you spend on the audit.

Even defining content types can be a persona-related question. For example, instructional content is very different from product page content, which is very different from sales content. Personas can help determine how much of which kind you need and how it should be structured. For example, customers need different content in the pre-sales evaluation/awareness step of their journey than they do in a post-sales support step. Work closely with the user experience designer to make sure that there are clearly marked entry points to these content types and then make sure that once your persona reaches the destination, the content is appropriately written, offers the right kind of information, and helps them know exactly what step to take next.

Landing pages play a big role as well since they are often created for target audiences or segments. Analytics help you know which ones are working—and even where that person is located and what type of device they used to access the content. Knowing that you have enough of the right kind of landing pages for your identified personas is important. This also applies to gap analysis; through your audit, you may discover that there are currently no landing pages that serve a particular persona’s needs. By using a persona-oriented audit, you’ll be in a great position to recommend adding the relevant material.

When you’ve completed the audit exercise for your highest-value content, you have the foundation for your action plan and an informed content strategy. Ongoing testing of your decisions and assumptions against real-world data, using your analytics, customer feedback, and other sources of user input, will help you refine and continue to improve your site content.

Related Articles

This article is part of the Inventory to Insight series. Other articles in the series:

A Template for Content Inventory and Audit

Auditing for Content Performance

The Qualitative Content Audit

The Competitive Content Audit