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What J.K. Rowling Can Teach PPC Marketers About Reaching Ideal Prospects – Vitruvian Advertising
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What J.K. Rowling Can Teach PPC Marketers About Reaching Ideal Prospects

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This article by Howie Jacobson was originally posted on Search Engine Watch.

Harry Potter Deathly Hallows

After months of agonized waiting, my daughter finally received her Pottermore account last week. In case you’re not a Harry Potter nerd, Pottermore.com is the “all Harry all the time” website that J.K. Rowling created to share her copious back story to the Potter universe.

Browsing the site, I discovered a page dedicated to Professor Quirrell, one of Harry’s first year teachers. On Pottermore, we learn Quirrell’s birthday, the composition and length of his wand, his student house at Hogwarts, his parentage, special abilities, and even hobbies (“travel, pressing wild flowers”).

Rowling writes, “I saw Quirrell as a gifted but delicate boy, who would probably have been teased for his timidity and nerves during his school life. Feeling inadequate and wishing to prove himself, he developed an (initially theoretical) interest in the Dark Arts. Like many people who feel themselves to be insignificant, even laughable, Quirrell had a latent desire to make the world sit up and notice him.”

Wow! All that effort for a rather minor character, one of several hundred to appear in the seven-book series. Why would Rowling go to the trouble of inventing pasts and personalities, missions and motivations for so many of these bit players?

One of the wonderful things about the Harry Potter books is the rich and cohesive universe that Rowling has created. The characters are memorable, and memorably different from one another, largely because Rowling took the time to imagine and refine them far beyond what she shared in the books.

As you prepare search marketing campaigns, you’ll do well to take a page from Rowling’s book and spend some creative time imagining the stories, motivations, and fears of your ideal prospects. Even if this work doesn’t make it into your ads and landing pages, it can still inform the spirit and direction of your marketing and create in your prospects a feeling of being understood and appreciated for their struggles and desires.

Creating an Avatar

My favorite way of approaching the inner life of my prospect is via Avatar creation. Basically, an Avatar is a fictional person who represents a customer type, or niche, in your market.

If you sell minimalist athletic shoes, your Avatars may include a follower of the Paleo diet, a yoga teacher, and an ultra-marathoner who sleeps with a copy of Born to Run under his pillow. For this exercise, let’s choose a Paleo dieter.

Start by building a general demographic profile that represents the entire niche. Next, invent a specific persona who fits that demographic. Begin with simple demographic descriptors, then fill in something of their inner life and motivation. Finally, write a diary entry in the voice of that Avatar and role-play a conversation in which you become the Avatar.

1. Describe Their General Demographic Profile

If you don’t already understand the people in this market, spend some time surfing the websites where they hang out. Eavesdrop on forums, in Facebook groups, and to blog comments. Notice how other marketers speak to them.

Our paleo dieter is a male, age 30-44, with a college degree and a white collar job.

2. Create a Specific Avatar

Now we get to have some fun. Pretend you’re a novelist creating a paleo dieter character for your next book. Start with the basics: name, age, location, profession, relationship status; you know, the kind of things Facebook asks when you first create your profile.

Then start making stuff up about your Avatar. If you’ve done your homework in step 1, you’ll be more right than you might think. The key here is to not worry about what you don’t known, but just relax into your intuition.

Our paleo dieter is a 32-year-old male named Kevin, who lives in Denver, Colorado. He’s straight and single, and currently not in a relationship. Kevin works for an electronic security firm, where he is in charge of a group of 15 programmers.

Kevin was turned onto the paleo diet 7 months ago by the CEO of his company, a 50 year old ultra marathoner whom Kevin really looks up to. Since embracing the diet and the lifestyle, Kevin has lost 20 pounds and is starting to feel good about his body for the first time since high school.

Kevin was never much of a runner, but since his boss lent him Born to Run, he’s been jogging around the neighborhood a couple evenings a week. He’s thinking of training for a 10K trail run in Boulder in a couple of months. He owns a pair of normal running shoes, but feels like they don’t fit in with his new “caveman” identity.

Kevin kind of realizes that his job and lifestyle are decidedly “un-paleo,” so he’s looking to express his paleo ethos in other ways – hobbies, clothing and accessories, and groups of like-minded friends. Recently he started going to kettlebell classes at a local gym, and met a woman, Carrie, whom he likes. She’s into fitness, but not into the hard-core “caveman calisthenics” that Kevin’s boss recommends.

3. Write a Diary Entry as Your Avatar at the Moment They’re About to Search for Your Product

Spend a couple of minutes sitting quietly, relaxing and centering. Then let your body become your Avatar; take on their posture, their emotions as they begin their web search, their breathing, their degree of muscular tension or relaxation, etc. You can do this all in your head, but recruiting the body gives you access to more of your “gut” wisdom, your intuition and empathy.

Dear Diary,

I’m looking for a pair of minimalist running shoes. I know I already have an expensive pair of New Balance 990s, but since reading Born to Run I don’t want to wear them. I feel like a corporate tool, and besides, they’ve got too much padding and support and are screwing up my natural gait.

I don’t want to wear those weird toe shoes. I don’t think Carrie would find them attractive. And besides, they cost like $100 bucks. It feels stupid paying that much for running shoes when I’m all into “minimalism.” It just feels like another marketing ploy. I want to disconnect myself from this flabby consumer culture, not feed it.

What I want is a shoe that looks cool, doesn’t cost more than my 990s, and is from a cool small company, not a name brand. I’ll probably just research online and then head out to the Boulder Running Company to try on a few.

4. Get Some Friends to Interview Your Avatar

Invite two or three friends to sit down with you for an hour. Preferably, choose people who aren’t in your company or line of work. The less they know about your industry, the better. Tell them about your business, the product you’re selling, and your market niche. Then describe your Avatar and read them the diary entry.

Next, ask them to interview your Avatar. They can ask two basic kinds of questions: specific inquiries about the search, and general questions about the Avatar’s life. Examples of the first type are: “How important is durability of the shoe to you?” “How rough are the trails you’ll be running on?” Examples of the second type are: “Do you have a dog, and if so, what kind?” “When you were a kid, what was your biggest dream, and how do you feel about that dream now?”

Your job in this process is to make stuff up without thinking about it. Of course you don’t know if Kevin has a dog. But what’s your first instinct?

“No, I don’t have time to take care of a dog on my own. But that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to when I have a family. I can just see myself and the kids in the backyard playing with a couple of black labs.”

You might be thinking, what the heck does that have to do with selling Kevin a pair of running shoes? The answer might be, not much. But you never know. The point is, by turning Kevin into a (pretend) real person, you get to have a marketing conversation with meaning. One that responds to deep human needs rather than superficial ones.

For example, your answer to the question about the dog might trigger other thoughts.

“You know, the paleo lifestyle is all about freedom from ‘domestication,’ like humans have been turned into sick, pathetic consumers instead of the wild and free creatures that we are. And I really resonate with that. But for me freedom isn’t just about running barefoot in the woods and eating lots of meat and vegetables. It’s about reclaiming human values and dignity in a world that just wants to sell us stuff. When I imagine my kids and me playing with our dogs, I like that because it’s so innocent and natural. We all get to be who we really are.”

If you let yourself, you’ll probably go into several stream of consciousness rants during the interview. Have a recorder handy, or ask your friends to take good notes for you. Some of the stuff you say will contain real gems of insight.

5. (Bonus Step) Ask Your Friends to Write a Couple of Ads for Your Product to Your Avatar

I love this step, partly because I’m a bit lazy, and partly because the whole point of the exercise is to generate new ideas. Your friends who don’t live in your industry will be able to write many more ads than you can, with a lot fewer self-imposed mental limitations.

Instead of the typical boring ads you’ll see when you search for “minimalist running shoes,” like “Perfect Shoe for Minimalist Runners” and “Huge Selection” and “Buy a pair today,” you’ll end up with emotionally charged ads that cut through the clutter and speak to what’s really important.

For trails, not treadmills.
Shoes that are Born to Run.
Feel the freedom, feel the earth.

I’ve done this exercise in workshops with thousands of people over the years, and I’m always amazed at the energy and quality of the output. You can generate six months’ worth of split testing material in 20 minutes of good Avatar work.


We may not be able to write like J.K. Rowling, but we all can access deep wells of creativity, intuition, and empathy. When we draw upon these wells in the service of our prospects, marketing can be a magical thing.

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