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profiling your users

The user profile paints a portrait of your audience in broad statistical brushstrokes. Though necessarily crude, it’s an important tool for understanding your audience.

Before you launch a site, your user profile will describe the visitors you hope to attract. After launch, you can field a survey to confirm these assumptions. (See surveying your users, opposite page.)

5 Ways to profile your users:

  1. Demographics

  2. Webographics

  3. Psychographics

  4. Behavior & activities

  5. Site-specific experience

What you want to know is who your users are and what they need from you. But the characteristics you highlight will vary according to your site’s focus. Some sites may define their users by demographics, looking primarily at age, race, or gender to describe (and size) their audience. Other sites care less about who people are and more about what they do. A financial site, for instance, may care little about the age, gender, or even income of their visitors, so long as they’re active stock traders.

But all sites have to pay attention to so-called “webographics.” It always helps to know how people access your site so you can best build it for them.

demographics This census-type information is usually the first component of any user profile. It’s the easiest to collect in a survey of your users. And if you’re building a site for a particular population—residents of a city, members of a club, people within a certain profession—you can also find data elsewhere: census reports, almanacs, and professional organizations are all good resources.

The basic demographic profile:

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Race

  • Nationality

  • Geographic location

  • Education level

  • Income level

  • Marital status

  • Occupation

webographics I’m sorry about the term, “webographics.” I really am. But I haven’t come across another way to describe people’s experience with, attitudes toward, and behavior on the web. And this is significant when developing a site.

The basic webographic profile:

  • Years online. How long have users been online, and how well do they know their way around?

  • Frequency of use. How often are users online? How long is each session?

  • Access point. Are users connecting from their home, office, school, or somewhere else (library, cafe, etc)

  • Time of use. Are users online during the week or on weekends? Morning, afternoon, or evening?

  • Connection speed. Are users connecting through high-speed, always-on access (like a cable modem at home or a T-1 at work) or a dial-up connection?

  • Computer type. Are users on a Mac, PC, or something else? Are they on a new high-end system with a fast processor or an older system that’s struggling?

  • Browser. Which browser do users employ, and which version? Which plug-ins do they have installed?

  • Monitor. What size and resolution are users’ monitors? Desktop or laptop?

  • General online behavior. What do users do online? What tasks do they accomplish? What sites do they visit? Do they make purchases, contact friends, check the weather, download software?

psychographics Psychographics are less straightforward. They cover attitudes, interests, personality types, and other fuzzy factors that make people people. Depending on the nature of your site, there are a lot of different factors that might fall under psychographics.

At Wired, for example, we always targeted the so-called “early adopters”: people (mostly men) who are the first to try new technologies before they’re adopted by the masses.

Other psychographic icons include the Yuppie (young upwardly mobile professionals), the DINK (double income, no kids), and the soccer mom. Feel free to invent your own.

behavior and activities Most web sites are action-oriented: They’re about accomplishing specific tasks and getting things done. Which is why, in many cases, you’ll be less interested in who your users are than what they do, both online and off.

Are they getting married soon? Do they trade stocks? Play online games? Cook? Ski? Throw a lot of parties? Make sure your user profile covers whatever activity is most important to your site.

site-specific experience In many instances, you’ll want to focus on factors specific to your business, product, or web site. For example, if your site promotes a particular product, you’ll want to clarify whether you’re targeting prospective customers or those who already own the product. If you’re creating a site for a city—say, Barcelona, Spain—are you targeting the local or the turista?

surveying your users

The best way to learn for certain who your users are is to ask them. And the best way to ask them is to field a survey on your site.

A questionnaire can be served—in a pop-up window or the main browser window—to all your site visitors or just a certain percent. Usually, the questionnaire will be optional and offer some incentive to those who finish (it’s tiring to complete surveys). Answers are collected through user input forms and analyzed later.

3 ways to field a survey:

  1. Do it yourself by writing a questionnaire, serving it on your site, and programming the code to collect user input.

  2. Buy surveying software, such as the package from Inquisite (http://www.inquisite.com), and use it to run the survey.

  3. Work with a research firm and let them deal with it.

Similarly, if your site is focused on a particular topic, you might want to clarify whether you’re targeting experts or novices. Which isn’t to say you can’t target both; most sites serve multiple constituencies. But you need to be aware of the natural breaks within your audience, clear on which group is the most important to you, and explicit about how you’re targeting each of them. (See segmenting your users, p. 56.)

Buy this book!

The Handbook of Online Marketing Research: Knowing Your Customer Using the Net

Joshua Grossnickle & Oliver Raskin $39.95

Step-by-step instructions on sampling, surveys, segmentation, and everything else you need to know to research your web site visitors.

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