Landing Pages - Battle in the Brain

Understanding Roles, Personas and Cognitive Styles

There is confusion in the landing page optimization community regarding personas, cognitive styles and roles. Often these terms are used loosely or interchangeably, with unfortunate results.

I would like to set the record straight and cover the basics.

Roles correspond to specific classes of visitors interacting with your site. They are defined by their relationship to your website and call-to-action. The role breakdown can be basic, or it might need to be slightly more nuanced depending on your circumstances.

Here are some representative examples of possible roles:

- Plumbing-supply company Retail customers (looking to buy an individual replacement part), plumbing contractors (need an array of parts for a specific customer job), wholesale buyers and real estate developers (need large volume price breaks and extended payment terms).

- Dating service Prospective member (has not signed up yet), new member (has paid but has not set up a complete personal profile), experienced member (has done multiple searches and contacted other members).

- Educational-savings-plan provider Future recipients (children under age 18), parents of recipients (who typically establish the plan), relatives and friends (who may contribute money to the plan).

- Consumer e-tail company New visitors (who have not been to the site before), returning visitors (who have been there but not bought yet), first-time buyers (trying to complete their first purchase), repeat buyers (who already have their information stored in your system), e-mail list members (who have signed up for future special offers).

A persona is typically a made-up prototype of a person that is used to represent important classes of potential users of a product or service. They are imagined in great detail (behaviors, workplace, activities, belief systems, etc.) in order to form a more concrete image. The design or use of the product or service is then compared to the persona's needs to determine if there is a good fit.

Roles are different than personas - in one sense they are more changeable since they depend on the specific relationship with a website. A persona is usually treated as a monolithic person with a fully-formed personality that does not change. In fact, most people play many different roles in their daily life. In each role their competencies, mental frameworks and attitudes can shift dramatically.

For example, I may be confident, gregarious and quick to make decisions during the workday. After work I might leave the office to buy a present for a friend's birthday party. In this setting, I may become unsure of myself, deliberate, tentative and afraid to make the wrong decision. So, even though I am the same person (and would presumably still be represented by the same persona), I behave completely differently in my roles as businessman and shopper.

In some other circumstances, roles are actually more stable than personas. This is often the case in landing page testing. For example, regardless of the personalities involved, all website visitors to an ecommerce catalog site still need to complete the same functional tasks as part of their role as shoppers (e.g., placing items in a shopping cart and checking out). So the role of shopper can subsume the specific personas that might be functioning in this capacity.

Cognitive Styles
Personas are also often confused with cognitive styles. There are many psychological frameworks that divide people into different temperaments. This has been done at least since the Middle Ages - the four "humors" or "temperaments" were called Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholic and Phlegmatic, and corresponded to emotional makeup as well as physical constitution of an individual.

For a more modern example, renowned psychologist David Keirsey classified people into guardians, rationals, idealists and artisans. Other breakdowns include competitive, humanistic, spontaneous and methodical. Tony Alessandra of refers to director, socializer, relater and thinker. Other common personality typing systems include Myers-Briggs and DISC.

The main point of these systems is that your cognitive style is part of your basic makeup and is unlikely to change. It is basically how your brain operates and how you take in and deal with information about the world.

In the context of landing pages, you should try to accommodate all major cognitive styles since they are all represented in the population. For example, your pages should be uncluttered for the short-attention-span crowd, but also include links to very detailed supporting information for the methodical types.

About the Author: Tim Ash is the CEO of, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests and software tools to improve conversion. He is the chairperson of ConversionConference. com and a frequent speaker at top Internet marketing conferences. Tim is the author of the bestselling book, Landing Page Optimization.