Chocolate versus Vanilla Personas

A couple of days ago I had the chance to sit down with my friend Jason Blair. Jason is an interesting guy; he’s a very talented game designer and has even written for a few video games. One of the things we talked about was the broad variety of writer’s personas we’ve seen on the web and how people might perceive a writer not just from a reader’s standpoint — but from an employer’s standpoint.

What’s in a Plain, Vanilla Persona?

A vanilla persona is a safe persona. The content that supports this persona doesn’t include pictures of drunk people or swear words. Content doesn’t strive to be edgy or cool just to get readers; topics tend to be evergreen. If photos and post subjects are personal, they’re the type you’d share with an acquaintance rather than a lover. This type of persona also translates well offline because people’s expectations about the real person aren’t as controversial as someone who has a chocolate persona.

Examples of my vanilla topics include: commentary on relevant trends, what I’m working on now, reviews of software or tools, insight into writing or the freelancer’s life, recipes, etc. Right now, my goal is to build my brand as a writer. My ability to do that depends upon the content that I have available for people to read. My goal may sound familiar to you: project my successes and minimize my failures.

Many writers online are striving to achieve the appearance of success, regardless of whether or not that’s actually true. After all, would you buy a book if it’s poorly reviewed? What about hiring a writer that had to resort to asking donations via social media to pay their car payment? While that may be honest (e.g. writers tend not to make a lot of money) it sounds like that writer can’t make enough money to to survive. Without realizing it, that type of commentary then leads to: “Well, why aren’t you making money? You must be a bad writer.”

Several authors, like Lori Devoti, Matt Forbeck, James Lowder, etc. have a vanilla persona. They talk about their writing and they share some personal tidbits, but they don’t make it a point to be in-your-face or be a part of every internet kerfluffle that hits the web. An example of a writer’s vanilla persona who I really admire is Holly Lisle.

In my case, I’ve also got two aspects of my personality. “Monica the author” is a lot different from “Monica the business professional.” However, we are one and the same individual. A vanilla persona allows me to blend all those pieces together without requiring me to spend buckets of time maintaining an edgy or cool personality separate from my blog. I’ve been experimenting with that on, but find that it’s too time-consuming to maintain one persona let alone two.

A Chocolate Persona?

A chocolate persona is full of flavor. It’s the type of online personality that swears and comments on everything under the sun to sound cool, hip and popular — whether it’s relevant to their writing or not. It’s the type of persona that whines when things don’t go well and tries to start internet fires to get traffic. People who have chocolate personas incur opinions about their personalities, which doesn’t always work when you meet them in person.

There’s a lot of writers who fabricate a persona that is either nothing like them in real life or seems to be more grandiose, akin to reality television. That’s their choice and to them — being popular online means something. Would a young adult publisher want to buy my novel if I had a foul mouth? Probably not, unless I had a pen name. Would a business put their content in my hands if I infused internet slang into everything I wrote? I can tell you that their answer would be “No,” because I’ve heard some people complain about that before.

Don’t get me wrong: having a popular persona online can provide a lot of benefits for a writer. In some cases, it absolutely makes sense for a writer to create a chocolate persona. However, there is another piece to consider. Why does it matter? What’s the point of having a persona if you’re not going to do anything with it? After all, I could be the most popular writer online but if I don’t make any more money than a writer who isn’t popular online? Then what good does it do me? At the end of the day, all writers have to make a living somehow. Being a writer means you write more than forty hours a week; sometimes you have a full-time job, sometimes you don’t. Our time is limited. If we have to market ourselves, wouldn’t you much rather spend the time that you have doing something that matters?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Popular authors online have to sell more books. Right? *shakes head* Not necessarily. I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had and how many threads I’ve followed where writers say it’s had little to no impact on their sales. Not to mention, more than a few have complained that the time they took to create that popular persona could have been used to *gasp* write.

Online marketers know the reality behind internet popularity all too well. You can drive tons of traffic to a web page, but if people don’t convert (e.g. take an action) then that traffic is useless. Brand awareness may be a goal, but often that comes with its own price. What do you want to be known for? Your writing or your foul mouth? There are other ways to get your name out in front of potential readers without pissing people off.

Lastly, it is a lot harder to maintain a persona that is an advertorial or a well-marketed aspect of anyone’s personality for long periods of time. Trendy personas are not sustainable unless you constantly put the work into it. Not to mention, it can be very exhausting if you are known for “this one thing” and have to keep up those appearances.

The Proof Is In The Data

Although this is a pretty simplified view of personas, the last thing that I’d like to point out is that you can prove how well your persona is working with data. What kind of persona do you need? Well, first you need to have some goals. Goals have to be measurable, traceable and provable. Then you need to figure out how to track those goals with a few, different metrics that are related to what you’re trying to accomplish. The more you look at your data, the more realistic your expectations will become.

For example, just looking at “hits” is pretty meaningless for several reasons. A “hit” can be a spam bot, a search engine spider, a refresh on a page or a visit. I’ve seen retailers who got really excited about getting thousands of hits in one day, only to find out their sales had decreased and the traffic came from a hacker. Web analytics tracks a three-dimensional visit to your website. Use that data to support your existing content and test new ideas. I guarantee that you’ll be happier in the long run because that data will take the guesswork out of what you’re doing. After all, your data can help shape not only when you post, but how often and what you post as well.

By using data to your advantage, you can create a persona that you’re satisfied with. What’s more, you can make your persona more manageable and (here’s the best part) get back to writing what you want to rather than what you feel compelled to.

Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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