No, the “D&D” in this post title does not refer to some tech-industry acronym. As the 12-year-old inside you might remember, it stands for Dungeons and Dragons. Surprisingly, the decidedly untechnical paper-and-pencil game is quite relevant to today’s world of internet marketing, and here’s why: user personas!

D&D players (or so I’m told…) start by developing a character—one who is as fleshed out and well-rounded as the protagonist of any novel. He or she must have a background, skills, motivations, advantages, disadvantages—and a moral compass. As it turns out, this exercise in developing fictional characters translates perfectly into marketing an organization.

An important point to remember when developing a marketing or brand strategy is that you are often not your audience. While your audience may include you, it’s actually comprised of many other users whose backgrounds and perspectives vary wildly. Their reasons for being interested in your issue—and their reasons for taking action or not—may be quite different as well. Users’ experiences—of your website, product, or brand—are entirely subjective in nature, and entirely personalized.

Dungeons and Dragons dice

Photo courtesy of Diacritica via the Creative Commons.

Traditionally, marketing has spoken in terms of “segments”—broad demographics such as “Men, aged 40-60.” But many now believe that users’ psychographics (their personalities, values, and attitudes) are even more valuable when it comes to how they will interact with a site, whether they will choose to donate, or how they engage with your organization.

Developing personas is a creative exercise that seeks to identify some of your core sample users. These are fictional stand-ins for actual users, and it’s important to get to know them well before rethinking your brand or your website.

Imagine your organization is a local animal shelter. Below is a sample persona for one of your users:

Alice is a 23-year old woman who just graduated from a liberal arts college. She’s a passionate photographer and loves her two cats, but is struggling to find a job. She has a broad social network and is an early adopter when it comes to social media. She cares about animal welfare but has no expendable income, and feels guilty when being solicited for donations. She doesn’t feel like she can make an impact.

With Alice and your other key personas in mind, you can now make more educated assessments about your organization’s communications. Is your website’s “Call To Action” too aggressive, or too buried? Is your brand inclusive or esoteric? If Alice is an important example of your audience, how might you craft experiences that better engage people like her?

Creating personas can be a fun and enlightening exercise, and one that benefits from the input of your whole team. If you’ve got enough staff or volunteers, each person can even role-play as an individual persona—to imagine how Alice might click through your site, or what poster would most attract Antonio’s attention on the Metro.

So before you embark on your next major project, grab a pencil (and your twenty-sided die!), and imagine yourself in your audience’s shoes. And don’t forget to introduce your designer to these personas, to make sure everyone begins the campaign on the same page.

Note: A great resource on this topic is Kivi Miller’s nonprofit marketing blog. She also offers a handy worksheet for developing your audience personas.