• Does Your Website Have Soul? Dec 14, 2010

    Does Your Website Have Soul?

    Certain things cannot easily be automated: a cheerful smile, a warm handshake, a kind word. Even where engineers have succeeded in creating lifelike simulations of human communication, their greatest achievements are (at least, so far) crude caricatures of the human brain's amazing ability to improvise social communications.

    I am speaking as someone who thoroughly enjoys conceiving and developing automated solutions that spare humans the necessity of engaging in repetitive, time-consuming, uncreative work. When we are planning the design of a new website, we spend considerable time trying to understand the routine business processes that our customers perform so that we can find ways for their website to automate some of those processes and give them more time to do other things.

    Yet many of the most important aspects of online communication cannot and should not be automated.

    Whatever communication channels you choose to use -- your website, your email newsletter, your Facebook page, your Twitter feed -- you are speaking to other human beings in the social language of human beings. You may think that you are speaking as a corporation or a city or a foundation, but your customers' brains will interpret your communication as coming from another human being. They will be seeking the "soul" on the other end of the line.

    That's because we are all hard wired for human-to-human communication. In fact, if you fail the basic test of coming across as a human being, then your communication will be dismissed as irrelevant or despised as cold and unfeeling.

    Since every organization needs to come across as a human being in its online communications, it is worth giving some thought to just what kind of "virtual person" your organization wants to be. That virtual person will consist of a point of view and a persona.

    Your point of view should be a natural outgrowth of your organization's value proposition(s). For example, if your main value proposition is, "We provide each of our customers with shoes that are custom designed to comfortably fit their feet ," then your point of view might be, "Everyone's feet deserve comfortable shoes."

    Your point of view will inform your choice of what content to include in your online communications and what attitude you express about your organization and the world around you. You might want to discuss the latest research into the causes of foot fatigue, or what constitutes a good fit, or breakthroughs in shoemaking materials -- anything having to do with shoes and foot comfort. And if you stray into other shoe-related topics, such as fashion or discount prices, you will probably want to show how those topics relate back to comfort.

    Your organizational persona is what puts flesh on the bones of your point of view. Presumably, you have found an audience that has bought into your value proposition and therefore appreciates your point of view. Now you need to ask yourself, "What kind of person would best present our point of view to our audience?" Are we conservative or experimental? Erudite or plain speaking? Serious or funny? Hard-nosed or compassionate?

    In effect, you are creating a virtual character in whose voice you will speak to your audience. This obviously applies to first-person opinion pieces, such as blog posts. But it also applies to the informational pages of your website, your email newsletters, your tweets -- even your automated email messages such as order acknowledgments and login instructions.

    Ideally, your organizational persona reflects the personality or culture of your organization in the real world -- or, at least, the personality or culture that you aspire to. Avoid creating dissonance between your persona and the organization your customers will actually encounter in real life. If you are an organization of elites, don't try to be everyman. If your hallmark is setting exacting standards, don't try to be easy going. But do try to be appealing to the kinds of people you are hoping to attract.

    Consistently maintaining your organizational persona is important. One way to do so is to insist that your CEO handle all the online communication herself -- a tall order for most executives. Or you can recruit an experienced writer and ask him to create or maintain the voice of your organization. This should be well within the capabilities of most experienced writers. You can make it easier by providing examples of online communications that have qualities similar to the ones you would like to project.

    When you successfully create and consistently maintain your organization's point of view and persona, your customers will feel that your communication with them is honest, direct and true. They will be reading and digesting what you have to say, but they will also be feeling like they have been talking to a trusted friend. And isn't that's what every marketer would like to achieve!