More than just a name: What marketers need to consider when designing a virtual assistant’s persona
As virtual assistants become a commonplace marketing channel for companies, marketers must be involved in their development from the start.
Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable chatting with popular brands’ virtual assistants, making the AI-powered technology one of the most impactful ways for brands to communicate with their customers. And with the increasing success of digital, voice and kiosk assistants, we can expect even more of these AI-powered personalities to emerge.
In fact, recent research shows 40 percent of marketing decision-makers plan to develop their own virtual assistants this year, according to OnBrand and Bynder’s 2018 State of Branding Report, with many spurred by the fear of their brand being “voice-washed” by investing in channels like Alexa and Google Home.
Developing a virtual assistant can provide huge opportunities for companies, but, as I’ve witnessed during my time in the industry, not all virtual assistants are created equal. To develop an impactful virtual assistant, a company must put extensive thought and care toward designing an effective and on-brand persona for the technology.
A virtual assistant’s persona is an extension of the brand and has a direct impact on customer satisfaction and retention. Creating an effective persona helps to increase trust between a customer and the virtual assistant, growing the likelihood of adoption and, in turn, reflecting positively on the brand as a whole.
As more and more companies invest in virtual assistant technology, marketers need to play a key role in the design of the virtual assistant’s character. However, while more traditional marketing content — social copy, white papers, case studies — tend to follow a traditional brand guide, virtual assistants present a new frontier for marketers. There is no such guide for developing a virtual assistant’s persona. As such, marketers must go back to square one to align persona with a company’s brand and audience.
Step 1: Do your research
It may seem like starting with your brand book is the right place to start. After all, it’s the marketing team’s bible for creating any customer-facing experiences. But when designing a persona, you’ll need to go a little further to understand how that brand experience might transfer into a person-to-person conversation. So, with that in mind, you’ll want to do significant groundwork and in-person observation to understand the human interactions with your brand.
Collect input from across the company — the brand team, the operations department and other key stakeholders — about their expectations for the virtual assistant and what challenges they face in customer-facing activities today.
Often, it’s good to start with an understanding of the various types of customer interactions your team manages — what’s currently working and what’s not. Review existing marketing material and observe how consumers are actively interacting with the brand on social media to see what messaging currently sticks with customers.
I also recommend listening to conversations between live customer service agents or in-store associates and actual customers to help determine what makes for a positive and productive interaction.
Step 2: Create a backstory
The foundation of a virtual assistant’s persona lies in its backstory. You should approach the creation of a virtual assistant’s biography as if you are creating a fictional character in a novel. When designing the persona, include elements like physical traits, a name, gender, age, hometown, accent, level of education, occupation, hobbies and hopes and dreams.
You’ll also want to apply the best of the best of what you learned from live customer and social media interactions. Incorporate those traits that resonated well with your customers in these live interactions. Even though most of this information won’t be revealed to consumers, it will act as the bedrock to the rest of the virtual assistant’s development.
One of the most common questions I get is whether or not to name a virtual assistant. The reality is, there are pros and cons. Naming a persona adds clarity in communications and makes for a more personable interaction with customers. Be wary, however. Users are more likely to remember a named persona, and that can be a bad thing.
For example, one of Interactions’ clients, a telephone company, heard customers responding with the virtual assistant’s name up to a year after the company stopped including the name in the virtual assistant’s scripts.
Once you’ve dreamed up the virtual assistant’s backstory and name, write a sample character monologue and dialogue and record them with prospective voice talent. Socialize the recording with internal stakeholders to determine what about the virtual assistant’s persona works and what doesn’t, and make the appropriate tweaks.
Step 3: Give the virtual assistant a voice
After finalizing the virtual assistant’s backstory and sample dialogue, it’s time to start writing scripts. As you put pen to paper, say the phrases out loud to hear if they sound natural. Remember, leave the grammar police at home here! The virtual assistant should sound human, and including any conversational nuances will make the technology seem personable and trustworthy.
One of the most critical elements to bringing a virtual assistant to life is choosing the proper voice talent. First, make sure the talent embodies the physical traits listed when first developing your persona, and always, always, always go with a professional voice actor — although pricey, they will have much more to offer in range, and will likely be available for future recording sessions if the virtual assistant is in need of a refresh.
In the studio, don’t be afraid to coach the talent if you think they aren’t nailing the brand voice. Even though they are the professional, you know the brand better than they do.
Step 4: Maintain the virtual assistant’s persona over time
Once deployed, your virtual assistant’s persona still isn’t complete. Listen to customers’ interactions with the virtual assistant. You can learn a lot from customers’ reactions and can tweak your virtual assistant’s character appropriately. Like a brand, a virtual assistant and its persona must evolve over time in order to stay relevant to consumers.
It’s only a matter of time before virtual assistants become a commonplace marketing channel for companies around the world. It’s imperative that marketers are involved from the get-go to ensure the creative elements of virtual assistant design, like persona, will enable enjoyable and effective interactions with customers.