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When a persona resonates with an audience: #NowWhat 16 recap

I spoke at Now What? Conference in Sioux Falls this week. This talk was a reprise of a talk I gave at Confab Higher Ed in 2013 (and again at Confab for Non Profits a year later) about being a “solo” or “Army of One” working as a web responsible person in a department where no one else has those responsibilities. When I originally gave the talk, it was reflective of my own experience.

This being the third time I was giving the talk, but the first time in a few years, I had an entirely different perspective. Mostly as someone whose managed web teams now, but also, lots of experience working with people who were in organizations where they felt misunderstood or believed the web could be better prioritized.

I created an amalgam persona named Liz, who was based on a variety of experiences I’d witness both in my own professional life and that of people I’ve consulted or worked with. Liz resonated in this talk well beyond what I would have anticipated.

“I do all of the things. I felt like you captured my experience”
So many people from different organizations said that Liz resonated with them. They felt the difficulties of managing a variety of tasks all at once and trying to figure out how to do it all. Here’s the thing: the talk about solos is often a difficult one because I know everyone has an individual story that diverges in terms of support and responsibilities. A supportive boss, departmental support and/or resources can be a huge boon to even the most overtaxed individual in an organization. Take away any of those components and what you’re left with, is someone who has to make a variety of difficult decisions without the internal support to achieve the goals put before them.

What Liz taught me.
In this example, I wanted to imagine a character who had various responsibilities across the organization but firmly planted in a CMS administration role. What most leaders of digital organizations fail to realize is CMS administration ends up being a lot more than just “putting things online” or “updating the websites” it becomes a job that’s part public relations, part editorial and a variety of other challenges that start to add up.

My goal was to communicate to the attendees that they’re experts, because no one else is as equipped to navigate the minefields of their organizations better than they are. Unlike situations where people are “aspiring” to inhabit certain roles, the attendees at this event were already functioning in these jobs. They’re doing the work day after day.

Speaking with dozens of people after the talk, I learned that “Liz” embodied a character who was 1) very busy and 2) didn’t feel like there was a lot of upward mobility. She’s passionate about her work or the cause her organization supports whether it’s a company, governmental or non-profit. They feel unsupported and note a lack of support from the people who they report to.

How to support Liz?
In the presentation, I talked about the need for people who felt Liz represented their story to be more communicative about their challenges, to interact with stakeholders across the organization more often rather than waiting until they needed something from someone.

I’ve written about the ways the CMS has given us more problems than we expected, namely that content platforms expect people throughout the organization in some form or fashion to contribute to the system regardless of their technical abilities, other responsibilities and so on. While it’d be easy to implement digital governance policies that indicate whose job it is to manage what and where, execution of the policies is easier said than done.

Understand the challenges your people face: I’ve run across binders full of leaders who don’t have the first idea what their web people encounter. For a long time, I advocated for a separate function for web management but I’ve gone beyond that thought now in a world where service design preaches integration. We need more people to understand what people face across the organization, but this means talking outside of just retreats or scheduled meetings.

I never expected Liz to resonate the way she did, but I’m grateful. I’ll probably revisit the story at some point, too. Thanks to the organizers of Now What Conference for inviting me, I had a great time.