#34 – Is It Ok To Use A Fake Persona As The Face Of Your Site?

What you will learn

  • How and why fake personas are used as the face of websites
  • The ethics of using a fake persona
  • Why you might want to consider a fake person for your site
  • How to create a believable fake persona
  • What to avoid when creating a fake persona

Fake personas are a fairly common occurance online. Many sites use fake names or fake personalities as the face of their site. This is done for various reasons including anonymity and to relate more with the audience.

In this episode, we explore the ups and downs of using a persona on your site, why you might want to consider doing it and how to go about creating one.

Full Transcript

Welcome to the Authority Hacker podcast, the place to learn field tested, no BS tactics to grow hack your online business, and finally, live life on your own terms. Now, your hosts, Gael and Mark.

Gael: Hi guys, welcome to the Authority Hacker podcast, in today’s episode we are going to talk about something a little bit controversial; something that not everyone is necessary going to feel comfortable with, but we try to be pretty open about what we do. I’m here with Mark, and by the way, welcome to the podcast Mark.

Mark: Hey.

Gael: And, we are going to talk about the use of personas to run your website. So, in a nutshell, we don’t say hey, we are Mark and Gael and we are running Health Ambition, for our health site, if you don’t know we have a health site called Health Ambition, you can go check it out, we mention it many times on the blog, but if you go and check that website, there actually doesn’t say like it’s Mark and Gael, it actually says it’s someone called Helen Senders. And, the truth is, Helen Senders is not real, it’s not a real person. It is what we call a persona, it’s a person that is invented to take the voice of the website, essentially, at the same time it allows us to do things like reselling the website etc, but we are going to talk about the pros and cons of having a persona and not having a persona, it’s probably way more common than what you expect, and I expect a lot of controversy over this episode, but it’s going to be interesting to talk about it and to answering the comments, if you guys are listening to that. Why are we using a persona on Health Ambition, Mark?

Mark: Well, to be honest, it wasn’t something which we had planned out from the very start, it wasn’t like oh we want to use a persona on this site. I mean, when we first started Health Ambition, we didn’t really have any persona, it was just essentially a faceless magazine, and when we started doing emails, they came from me, I think, but what ended up happening was you were sending them, and it ended up being some like kind of weird stuff. I remember some article I can’t exactly remember the topic, it was something like female birth control for weight loss or something like that-

Gael: It was menstrual cramps.

Mark: That was the one, yeah. And my mom was on that list, and she was like, “oh that was an interesting article, you sent me today” and I had no idea what she was talking about obviously.

Gael: To also introduce things I would kind of like invent a little story to kind of like introduce things, and it was like in your name but I was actually managing the emails, so I was actually kind of making up a story about your life, and like people you knew were getting these emails, and they were like, “what the hell, Mark?”

Mark: To be honest, it didn’t really bother me that much, but that wasn’t sort of the main reason why we did it, but that was I guess the trigger.

Gael: So what’s the main reason?

Mark: We never really actually thought about how we were going to do this and how we were going to create a brand around the site, as I said, it was just a faceless magazine at that point. We’d sort of got Authority Hacker going at that point and you were very much the face of that, and we started working quite well, so we were like, “we need to start doing something similar”.

Gael: By the way, Gael is my real name, right?

Mark: Yes. [laugh] For another project we were doing for Health Ambition we had ended up doing kind of like a survey, of our list and we found that the majority of people were over fifty years old, female in the US which was about as far away from us, we were twenty something, male in Eastern Europe, at the time, as you can get. So, we just felt there was a bit of disconnect there, and we had several writers writing for us, and they were posting on the site under their own names, and we just really wanted some singular voice essentially, more for the emails than anything else, I mean we still not so much anymore but we still for quite a while after that, after we created the persona, had writers posting under their own names and stuff that was fine.

Gael: The person that was like editor in chief essentially, that was the position, and she had writers essentially.

Mark: Yeah. we wanted to have that consistency, and we didn’t want to sort of partner with any writer or any individual that could be this persona because we were thinking well what if we build this up and up and up as we have done, and then that person leaves, leaves us in a bit of a hole.

Gael: It’s a good opportunity to blackmail us as well, if you are doing really well with your site, like imagine you have an agreement you are like, “oh we are going to pay you a 1000 bucks a month to be our persona,” and the site ends up making like six figures a month and then the persona is like, “what, you are just paying me 1000 dollars, I want more.” Like, this is what happens, you don’t have that problem because you are a native English speaker, right, but a lot of movies and TV shows are dubbed in like French and many other languages, right, and when a TV show gets popular, like recent example would be The Big Bang Theory, then the voices actually go on strike in France, and literally demand double salary or they stop dubbing with their voice which the whole public knows-

Mark: Oh interesting, I had no idea about that actually.

Gael: And literally the production company just have no choice but to pay them.

Mark: Interesting, I never really thought of that. Actually, something you also mentioned in the intro is, which I never sort of put that into the equation either, but it’s a very valid point is, if you are thinking of selling your site, at some point in the future, having a persona makes it much easier transition. Because, if you are the persona, like it’s your face, your name on the blog, it’s difficult for someone else to buy that and just-

Gael: Yes, it’s basically unsellable.

Mark: Yes. Not unsellable, but it increases the complexity a lot. If we wanted to sell Authority Hacker, which we have absolutely no plans to do, that would be a huge challenge, just because it’s us there.

Gael: I’d rather not even try and launch a new site. So guys, we are going to be around for a while. Sorry if you don’t like us. Any other reason why we would do that? Actually yes, I wanted to say something- a lot of people are like that’s dishonest etc, and we’ll talk a little bit about that in a second, I just wanted to say as well that Ryan Deiss and Digital Marketer they actually do that as well, site is like Survival life, if you go to survivallife.com they have these quote unquote persona called Average Joe, the only difference is it’s actually one of their employees and he is using a nickname. But that is not his real name, right, that is not the real person, they completely invented the background as well etc, and they just essentially do the same thing, definitely more refined and more advanced because they have a real person that can do videos, and we’ll talk about the limitations in a minute, but, yeah, we are not the only ones doing that and you’d be surprised that the number of female bloggers out there that are guys actually. That is an interesting one. So how did that go, now we talked about why we are doing that like the domain reasons.

Mark: I think maybe two years, give or take. And honestly, it’s gone absolutely fine, all of the problems which I was worried about, such as people not believing it, or calling us out and that kind of stuff, which I was worried about before we did it, none of that has happened, or it’s happened like once or twice or something, but there are other problems which have occurred, which I didn’t really think of so much at the time. Such as if we wanted to do videos or webinars or that kind of stuff, it’s not impossible, but it definitely adds a lot of complexity to it. But overall, I think it’s gone good, Helen gets pretty good sort of engagement from people over email.

Gael: Give us some ideas of like what kind of engagement happened and then let’s see how bold line that gets.

Mark: Okay, I mean, like you want some crazy stuff?

Gael: I want both. I want like the average interaction and-

Mark: The average interaction is just like anyone else who is doing email marketing and you have people who respond to you, just a very broad range of people with different ideas and people who don’t quite know how to use their email properly and everything in between, and so it’s fine, I would describe that as just normal. And so much so that we have some crazy people who try and message the Facebook page, some guy I think was convinced he was married to her and wanted to divorce or something, and then-

Gael: No, I think he said if I remember that correctly, he was like because Helen is married, that’s her back story, and I think he said like get with me I’ll pay for the divorce or something.

Mark: Okay, well, I mean that’s quite common I mean, it’s a female on the internet. Maybe two or three times a week people responding to out autoresponders asking for her phone number, and also stuff like that. The fact that that’s happening-

Gael: No dick pics?

Mark: Not yet. And if you’re listening to this please don’t send us any. But, I think the fact that all this is happening is what we’ve created there is entirely believable and realistic I think. We didn’t go to over the top, make up any crazy stories or anything like that, it’s just a fairly normal kind of persona.

Gael: Yes, let’s talk about the limitations you mentioned, the second ago, like what can we not do because we have that persona?

Mark: okay, so there is not too much that we can’t do, per say, maybe live webinars, face videos, that kind of stuff would be very tricky, though not impossible.

Gael: Do you think we could find the stock photo person and have her work for us?

Mark: It wouldn’t be impossible, but I highly doubt it.

Gael: For all I know she is twenty years older now.

Mark: If we didn’t do video, we just did audio, that would be fine, we could get other people, I mean, we were trying to create some video sales letters a while back for one of our products, we never ended up launching those, oh we did launch those via sales actually.

Gael: But it didn’t work out.

Mark: We ended up going with the text page because it converted better. But, yeah, I just hired someone from Upwork to do the audio for that.

Gael: So, we could essentially do like prerecorded webinars.

Mark: Yeah, and that’s fine to do that, but once you do that, once, again that means I have to hire the same person every time to do-

Gael: And now you see why the dubbed voices go on strike.

Mark: Yeah. [laugh]

Gael: That is why, because then you are like totally ties to it and you like, in France, some people believe that Bruce Willis speaks French, you know. It’s like they have no idea.

Mark: Really?

Gael: I’m pretty sure. Like if you asked like probably five to ten per cent of people would believe he speaks French.

Mark: Interesting. And of course, we’re talking about video here, but you just don’t have that problem with text because anyone can write it and we can say it’s written by Helen, it’s not a problem.

Gael: Yeah, that is easy, like the more like we could never have her run an Instagram account.

Mark: I saw some company, I forgot who it was, they hired someone of Fiverr, a woman, and she does all the videos.

Gael: Yeah, [00:11:34] does that. [00:11:38] literally just like made their persona a girl from Fiverr that does videos, therefore she can do all their videos, their face videos. That is pretty smart, but they literally took the most popular girl there so if you’ve ever used Fiverr you just like totally spot them. But yeah, it is definitely like an alternative to that. There is limitations, it makes some things complicated, you know, the way we can just throw webinar on Authority Hacker we cannot do on Health Ambition and it’s a little bit annoying at times, but there are ways around it, it’s just like well it slows things down a bit but at the same time, it makes your website more sellable, so it’s kind of like you get something on one side, you lose something on the other side.

Mark: Yeah, and there is also the case where people come to us with business opportunities they want to do a partnership or some kind of an affiliate deal or something like that, and they are responding to emailing Helen, but it’s real simple, just forward it on to my email.

Gael: The thing, the way we have structured it actually, is like they respond to Helen, but Helen is the editor in chief, she is not the owner of the website, we are still the owners of the website on paper and for anyone that asks, she is for all we know, she is just one of our employees. And so, these can definitely we can still do the intro to one of us from the Helen email, and then, everything is good.

Mark: Yes.

Gael: Okay, I think that covers the negative points. Now when should someone create a persona and when should they not? And if they do, how do they create it?

Mark: When should you do it? Ideally, when you start your site, that’s the best point to do it, I mean, we changed persona essentially from me to Helen after about a year and a half of launch, something like that, and really it caused a bit of issue and people were responding at different emails and bit of confusion, but it actually wasn’t too big of a deal, but to be honest, back then we weren’t doing that much email marketing anyway. I would say that first of all, when you start a site, that’s the point you should decide to just make things much easier, I think if possible, do it yourself, like be your own persona.

Gael: Like we are doing on Authority Hacker.

Mark: Yes, be yourself. It’s much more flexible, it’s much simpler, you don’t have to overthink certain scenarios and it’s just less to worry about, and it’s kind of maybe a little bit more genuine as well.

Gael: There is a deeper level of connection, it’s just like well, it’s like if you ever consider selling the site- essentially, if this is your main topic of expertise, you should definitely be the person. Like if you are the expert, then there’s no question it should be you.

Mark: In the case of Health Ambition, we were absolutely not health experts, though, and we are hiring writers who are health experts and editors who are health experts to produce the content for us, so it makes much more sense for a site like that. Similarly, if after you launch one site you start to build up a portfolio of sites, then it makes more sense to start having personas for them, that comes to a point where you think maybe you might be building something with the intention of selling it, or also, and it’s quite hard to sort of categorize this, but I would describe Health Ambition as a different kind of authority site than Authority Hacker. Health Ambition it’s more like a magazine.

Gael: It’s more like a high volume of content even if the content is not epic, whereas Authority Hacker is like very few content but everything is like really worked on a lot.

Mark: Yeah. So and people might not be interested in everything, so if I am looking for some juicing tips that’s great, but I might not necessarily want to know about what the best multivitamins for under twelves are. They are both health topics but very different, so I think if you are having the magazine style content, and it’s presented in such way that there is different people writing content and it’s more like a company than your own personal blog; we sort of present Authority Hacker as you know, our own-

Gael: Although that is going to change, actually, so that is going to be an interesting transition as well. But we have more people coming in, we have Perrin coming already, we have more people coming in. And there is a lot of new things coming up, without spoiling anything, so there would be a bit of a transition here, it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes, but we’re still kind of like the minds behind it.

Mark: Yeah, so I guess the key differentiator is if you are the expert or not.

Gael: Yeah, it’s really that.

Mark: How much you plan on selling it.

Gael: Also, do you match the target demographic right.

Mark: This is true.

Gael: Like you know, for us you were saying like the average Health Ambition user was like a woman in her fifties, living in the US and we were like guys in their twenties living in Eastern Europe, that is hard to connect with these people, especially when you are facing competition that is exactly matching their demography, like you look at something like wellness meme or something like that, which is exactly that, I mean she is not fifty but she is definitely closer to her demographically. So personalized way for you to get closer to your target demographic, to build more of a connection than you ever would as a person that one is not an expert in the topic, and two is not close to them demographically, if you don’t have these two things going for you, then I would definitely go for persona, if you are the expert no matter which demographic you have, you should definitely be the persona even like for example our friend Jim does on his site, even though he is in the same niche and everything, he still talking to a women in their fifties in the US but he is an Australian guy traveling around, writing about health and he is doing pretty well because he is the expert and yeah, and if you basically if you don’t measure demographic, if you don’t match the expertise, then use a persona, otherwise, use yourself. That would be my answer. So, another question for those who are still listening and are interested in doing it, how do you do it?

Mark: Okay, so there is like roughly a three step process, the first thing is and you have to get this right, is survey your list in such a way that you really deeply understand who your main demographic is. And for us, it wasn’t who we thought, we thought it would be men and women in their twenties, early thirties interested in some new health ideas, that kind of stuff. But it absolutely wasn’t for us, it was over fifty and eighty per cent women. So that certainly influenced the way we looked at it.

Gael: I just want to say, if you don’t have a list there is another solution to do that; it’s the Facebook audience insight tool, it allows you to put any kind of interest that you would find on Facebook, or any kind of Facebook page or something, it gives you all the information matching the age, the demographic, the other pages people like, if they are married or single etc, and you can just put like a big site in your niche and essentially look at their demographics and assume you are going to get the same ones.

Mark: So, I mean, as I said, the way we did it and the way we were actually trying to understand who our demographic was for when we were creating our sales page for one of our products, quite some time ago, and so we sort of learned about it that way. But you can just run any kind of survey, give something away as a way to encourage people to take part, and yeah, like there is just plenty of tools out there Survey Monkey and other things to help you do that. And, it’s not only like if it’s male or female, the age, that kind of stuff, but more subtle things, like do they have kids or not, what are their interests outside of your niche, that kind of thing, are they super conservative, are they more liberal, you kind of want to understand all those factors. So, you’ll never going to get a 100% accurate, but you will very quickly start to build up a picture of who the large percentage of your audience is. And so, after you’ve done that, the next step would be to start creating the back story of a person or a typical person whom you think would belong to that demographic, and that interest group.

Gael: Can you give us the back story for Helen?

Mark: Yes, so for us what it was is, we created Helen, the name didn’t actually come to until later on, the back story was the first thing we did, and I think, if you checked the about us page, it should be more in there, but as far as I can remember, she went to college, then got married, and then started putting on weight after college, and then so much so than one of her friends thought that she was pregnant at one point, so she broke down in tears and then started to-

Gael: That’s the video sales letter, yeah.

Mark: Started to lose weight and all this kind of stuff, got into juicing and then turned her life around, and yeah, there you go. That’s the quick version, there is a lot more detail than that that we put into it, and we actually, why this is important, is we actually use this in our content briefs, which we give to writers, so if we have a new writer in, the second or third bit of our content brief will have the back story. And it mentions stuff like the fact that she has kids and all this, so it’s very common in our content. Even with new writers, they will say, when it goes writing as Helen, they will be talking about oh, my kids really like this juice because it’s blah blah blah, so yeah, that’s what we do, we create this back story. And by the time you’ve gone through and actually written down the full on back story like that, you’ll have built up a pretty sort of solid idea of who this character is.

Gael: It gives you a lot of base for like the emails you send, for the we use a lot of these back stories as well for the intros of blog posts if you read our current blog post being posted on the blog on Health Ambition you will see that a lot of them start with the tiny personal story than jumping to the topic.

Mark: Yeah. And so then the final step of it is to actually find some kind of image, and this is, I don’t actually think it’s that difficult, it was quite easy for us, but a lot of people seem to struggle the most with this bit, I see a lot of people use cartoon characters-

Gael: That is inspired from somewhere I guess?

Mark: I think you best just use a real picture. Real photo. And you can buy stock images on there is plenty of sites there, Shutterstock is probably the biggest one, Big Stock photo, Deposit photos, plenty more.

Gael: Deposit photos is pretty good actually, we did it recently for one of our new sites, it’s like a couple and they actually have a search option where you find all the photos of the same model it’s very useful.

Mark: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say so we want to search and the search term I think with Shutterstock we got Helen from, and we searched for woman, thirties, or woman 35, or woman 40s.

Gael: I was searching for middle age.

Mark: Yeah, and you’ll quickly get a big selection. And, unfortunately, about 90% of them are too kind of perfect, like too photoshopped, it looks like a Stock photo, so I was actually looking for something that didn’t look like a stock photo.

Gael: You don’t want a perfect face, you don’t want like everything to be perfect, I understand it’s like it’s still a picture on the website, so people would you know, put some makeup on or something for that. It’s not exactly like they are waking up from bed but if it’s too good, if it’s too like white background, like all these stock photo sites have etc, like too much of a colgate smile and so on, then yeah, it’s fake.

Mark: Yeah. And then, the most important thing is as you mentioned, there is, they all have this button, this search option or a link on the photo page where you can search for photos using the same model, and we were actually able to find one where the model had various poses and then there was like one with their family and one at swimming pool, and a bunch of other stuff. And, so yeah.

Gael: Yeah, I did the same for the recent one I did, it’s like you definitely want more than one picture, one picture is like for sure it’s fake.

Mark: I think we have like six or seven sort of standard ones which we use.

Gael: I have like a dozen for that new site as well, but that allows you to [00:24:12] around your website and show that it’s really in different situations and so on, in this case, it’s not, but it makes people believe more, essentially.

Mark: Yeah.

Gael: Anything else?

Mark: No, in terms of creating the persona, that’s pretty much it.

Gael: Alright, can we run into any kind of legal problem, or people hating us or like how does that like, can you sleep at night? How do you feel about that?

Mark: I sleep fine, it’s not a problem, the way I justify it to myself is this is not something new we are doing here, it just happens all the time in journalism.

Gael: It happens all the time but nobody talks about it.

Mark: Most journalists are a lot of journalists at least, written journalists write under pen names, very common thing. And they are not trying to deceive anyone or claim something that they are not, we’re not saying Helen is a nutritionist or anything like that.

Gael: Yeah, I was going to say like we should never give any kind of credential that gives authority, like she is not a doctor, she is not a lawyer, she is not like, she doesn’t have a PhD.

Mark: The thing is, the people that is writing our content, most of them do, so even if we are running a medical site which I think would be a terrible idea for all sorts of legal reasons, if we were, and if we were it would be disingenuous I think to do that but really, I don’t think there would be that much harm to it because we would have to be having actual doctors write the stuff anyway.

Gael: I would not go for that anyway, like I think you can get into trouble.

Mark: Yeah, I am just using it to illustrate the point. The only thing that’s changing here is the name, not the qualifications of the person providing you with information.

Gael: I think for this persona is you should never give any kind of like high end credentials to them.

Mark: Yeah, I mean, everyone’s been to college or something so that’s fine.

Gael: Yeah, that’s fine, but like not more than that essentially.

Mark: Yeah. So at the end of the day, it’s a lot of people actually do this just as a way to stay anonymous, because I mean, I don’t mind that my name is out there on the internet or your name is out there in the internet, but some people are, they like their lives to be a lot more private than that. And they don’t like putting themselves out there for whatever reason, and that’s fair enough. So they can use personas in the same way that journalists will use pen names to kind of have that gap in between their private public life.

Gael: Yeah, that makes sense. How do the writer deal with that, do they all know Helen’s life by heart?

Mark: Yeah, I mean, as I said we put it in the content briefs sort of rough story of it, there was one time recently that I forgot to mention it was ghost writing and one of the writers who to be honest we were getting rid of anyway, took a bit of an issue with it, but you know, whatever, it’s really not a big deal. Most writers these days are very accustomed to writing, to doing ghost writing and as long as you are paying them, they are not going to have a problem with it.

Gael: Okay.

Mark: The one thing though that I was most worried about at the start was people calling out [00:27:29] this and aside from people who read Authority Hacker or people now who are listening to this podcast, which is only a few thousand people, shout out to you guys, no one has ever actually, only one person has ever I think figured out what’s going on here, and again they wrote this long, long email about like how they were so clever that they discovered it and that was great, I just deleted the email and carried on with my life, and nothing happened, so…

Gael: So you are being an asshole.

Mark: Not really. [laugh] Guy spent a lot of time doing that and I just wasn’t prepared to waste my time justifying everything.

Gael: How would you feel if like-

Mark: I’ll send him a link to this podcast next time it happens.

Gael: How would you feel though if a site you are following you’ve been like reading for a while and then you realized that the person that say they wrote the content is actually not them?

Mark: I mean that happens all the time, like I use to be a massive fan of wrestling, and the Rock discovering his real name is Dwayne Johnson I mean, come on, like it’s a similar thing. TV all the time, as I said, journalism and magazines, journalists and magazines they write under their pen names, all the time. Yeah, I mean, if I discovered that, I would definitely think oh there is an authenticity issue here maybe if they are not real about who they are then how do I know that the information is real and that’s fair enough, but the fact to the matter is it is real. The information we are providing is good because our writers and our editorial team is really good and they know what they are talking about. They are very qualified, and it’s just risk we’re ready to take and so far we haven’t really been in a problem.

Gael: So what’s the risk?

Mark: I don’t know, I guess that- I think actually there was one case in the health industry where there was some woman who claimed to have cancer and then beaten it, she had a blog about how to do that by eating healthy food, instead of taking your medicine.

Gael: But that’s killing people, you know.

Mark: Yeah, and understandably, people were upset with that, but-

Gael: It’s just a personal opinion here, it’s not okay when someone does that with healthy food but it’s okay when church does it, you know.

Mark: What do you mean?

Gael: Well, there is a lot of preachers in the US that pretend to like if you, instead of buying treatments-

Mark: Oh yeah, there’s a whole other podcast.

Gael: Yeah, let’s not start it now. But yeah, I mean that literally kills people that kind of advice, like when we tell people to use [00:30:01]

Mark: And again though, it’s not, the persona has nothing to do with this, it’s bad advice is bad advice, it doesn’t matter who is saying it, so it’s not a big deal.

Gael: Fair enough, so if you had to do it again, would you do it again?

Mark: Yes, I would do it again. We have done it again.

Gael: Okay, but the listeners don’t know that so I wanted to make sure. Cool, let’s wrap up, any final words?

Mark: No, I mean, guys, if anyone is listening to this and really has a problem with it, then feel free to shoot us in email, and voice your complaints.

Gael: Will you delete it?

Mark: I’ll read it. That’s all I have to say really.

Gael: I’m sure we’re going to get a bunch of like comments that just don’t like what we’re doing etc, on these podcasts.

Mark: Great, more comments the better, give us some more attention please.

Gael: It’s going to be interesting, but yeah, I just wanted to say actually like regarding last week’s podcast, we are not completely sold out to Thrive theme, we actually say genesis is probably a more stable platform even though we are not affiliates of anything, it is a more stable platform, it’s just that we actually like it and as you can see on our sites, we use these themes and that’s why we said this is the one we recommend but if you want the most stable platform, actually go with genesis. So just a little reply to a comment from last week. Anyway guys, thank you for tuning in and we’ll see you next week for another episode. Thanks for coming Mark.

Mark: Bye guys.

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