The Ethics of Creating & Using Personae

September 21, 2011
By Sabre Sarnataro in Online Marketing

Link building. As a search marketer, there’s no way around it. You must build links for your clients. But that doesn’t mean link building is as simple or clear-cut as we’d like it to be. It’s not, nor has it ever been.

I was recently reading a post by Jill Whalen on deceptive practices in link building and she made a lot of great points; so much that I found myself thinking about my own link building tactics.

  • Where is the line when we’re pitching sites on behalf of clients?
  • Are we really being deceptive when we use personae?
  • What about if we create full family trees for the personae we create?

At Outspoken Media, our team has given a lot of thought to how we use personae and where the line is when we’re pitching clients. Though we don’t create fake relatives, we do use persona as part of our link building efforts. Below are some of the approaches available for marketers, as well as the benefits and risks associated with each.

First, Why Use A Persona At All?

Many of us who work in client services are bound by heavy NDAs, which take away the ability for us to pitch websites as our true selves – as marketing/consulting companies. If we did, it would “out” our clients to the bloggers and website owners that we’re reaching out to. Not every business wants to broadcast to their competitors that they’ve hired an SEO or ORM company to assist them. In these cases, discretion is key. And that’s where personae come into play. It allows us to gain exposure for the client, without infringing on their privacy.

But there are varying degrees of personae and the key is finding the right method for your link building goals and making sure both you and the client are comfortable with what’s taking place.

Type of Personae

1. The Client

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In this scenario, the link builder is effectively reaching out to other sites in the client’s name. Here the client has no qualms about reaching out for links, but doesn’t have the time (or interest) in doing it themselves. So they hire an SEO company to help them. It’s less creating a persona and more simply taking on the role of “ghostwriter”.

Ghostwriting can work well, but only if the company hired becomes familiar with the brand and is able to speak intelligently in the brand’s voice. It does not work when there are many people with different voices doing the ghostwriting. In fact, if you do this, Lisa might show up and slap you.

[There’s no “might” about it. I will. – Lisa]

When to Use This Strategy

Marketers should take advantage of this strategy when your client has a strong reputation, strong community and is well-networked in their industry. Make sure that the client is aware of what you’re doing, comfortable with it and is highly involved. A client who is responsive to your questions and open about their practices is ideal for this scenario since communication is integral through this link building strategy.

How to Start

Start strategizing with your client by gaining comprehensive and intimate knowledge of their networks, business, and practices. Once your objectives are clear and you’ve discussed goals, detail how their e-mail address and reputation will be used. Here at Outspoken Media, we not only get approval from the client on our objectives, but also sign an E-mail Usage Agreement that dictates how, where and when we will, and won’t, use their account.

How to Manage

Since you’re using a real person’s reputation and e-mail, we’d recommend letting them know whom you are pitching before you send pitches out. We’ve sent clients a pitch list for approval to ensure that we catch any relationships that already exist with those on the list. It would be embarrassing and potentially damaging for your client if an already established contact or friend gets sent an introduction e-mail.

In order to ensure you’re capturing the correct voice send them a few sample pitches so they may edit to match their own voice. Allow them to list a few tips on their communication style to make your representation of their voice more authentic.


  • Taking advantage of the client’s network and helping expand it
  • Using a real person’s identity and reputation to build trust and authenticity
  • Being able to put a name with a face when necessary


  • Inaccurately representing the client to those that know better
  • Inconsistent tone of voice
  • Bloggers may ask that you pay for sponsored articles or links

2. Company Representative

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A company representative is a persona created within the client’s company that you use for link building purposes. This is less transparent than using a real person within the company, but still offers truthfulness from a link building perspective since you’re obtaining links for the client by using their own brand.

When to Use This Strategy

Employ this strategy when your client isn’t comfortable with you using their personal accounts or name, but where there is still a strong network and brand that you can take advantage of. Also, if they are looking to build up their brand and it’s presence, building links from a branded account will help you expand their network and achieve that goal.

How to Start

Have your client set up an e-mail account as a persona ( or as a generic account ( Make sure you have a conversation with the client beforehand about how the account will be used to prevent any confusion down the line. You don’t need as much working knowledge of the company’s practices as you would if you were representing a specific person, but setting up goals for this account with the client will help communicate its purpose. That E-mail Usage Agreement mentioned earlier should also be used here, as well.

How to Manage

Even though you’re using a company e-mail address and the people you’re pitching are aware of the brand they’re building a link to, this is still not a real person. Refrain from making up any credentials and highlight as little personal information as possible in case your client has multiple people using this account over its lifetime. It’s one thing to create a persona that can be used to represent the company, but it’s a much sketchier thing to create an entire family for that “person”.


  • Minimal amount of management and involvement for the client
  • Builds up brand awareness and utilizes the brand’s already-established network
  • Client can still use the account should you part ways or they decide to go in-house.


  • Inaccurately representing the company and its voice
  • Bloggers may require that you pay for sponsored articles or links
  • Difficulty securing links without using personal information or details

3. Made Up Person

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This is where it gets hairy…

This persona is a completely fictional person with no company association who exists only to create content with strategically placed backlinks. At Outspoken Media we employ some pretty strict guidelines for how to manage these accounts, not just to protect our clients but also to make the content we send out as useful for bloggers as possible. The objective may not be as transparent with this tactic, but it produces results. In most cases we find that bloggers are ok with giving a couple backlinks in return for a quality piece of content. The key word here is “quality”.

When to Use This Strategy

Completely fictional personae are ideal when you’re working with a client who has a struggling brand and reputation, and where it will be difficult to get backlinks for them with a branded account.

An integral part of using this strategy is dedicating the time to content creation. In this case, it’s the quality content and strategic pitching that will get you the links, not the brand. Let’s be clear about that – you are providing value to both the brand (they get the link) and the site (they get free quality content), and are simply using an alias to do that.

As an example, I recently did some pitching for a client with a struggling reputation. I pitched both from a branded account and an unbranded account and received very different results. Over the short span of three days, I received zero positive responses from the pitches I sent through the branded account, and had a 62% positive response rate from the unbranded account. That’s the power of made up persona.

How to Manage

Your client must be aware and comfortable with youbuilding links using this method. The challenge with this kind approach is it forces you to obtain links while giving minimal personal details and covering any traces you may leave. One thing we stress is keeping the pitches as clean and simple as possible. If you go into many fictional personal details you’re not only being more deceptive, but also creating a greater responsibility to remember these details. If for some reason you falter in doing so, the easier it is for a blogger to call you out on it.

Tips to keep these accounts secure:

  • Be cautious of author information on the documents you’re sending. Most times, word processing software will automatically include it.
  • Be aware of the e-mail client you’re using and if your IP address is attached to it. The IP address will give away your location if someone looks it up.
  • Don’t have signatures enabled. If you use a signature management add-on or have signatures enabled there is a greater chance for a discrepancy in the name you’re trying to use.
  • Don’t use stock photos as headshots. There’s a handy reverse image search engine out there called TinEye. This site allows you to upload a photo and find where on the web it’s being used.


  • No management requirements from the client
  • Allows you to build links without bloggers asking for sponsored posts or links
  • Can create many different kinds of content and pitch any kind of website


  • Someone figuring out what client you’re working for and announcing it
  • Leaving traces and being called out

4. Company Mascot

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When to Use This Strategy

When you or your client aren’t comfortable using any of the other above personae.
A character is an animated entity with a name and personality, just like a baseball team’s mascot. There’s no denying the success of some big brand characters like Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger.

How to Manage

Company characters tend to have amped up personalities and encompass qualities the brand would like to emulate. Talk with your client about what characteristics you want their representative to have and create a one-sheet about them. This way, anyone assuming the personality will know what their voice is and how to portray them. Make sure that the character is still a person, although animated and anonymous it makes it easier for people to connect with during the link building process.


  • Simple way to assume a personality that multiple people can step into and manage over time
  • Can be tailored to fit any voice the client chooses and gives them that control
  • Complete transparency since everyone knows it’s made up


  • Difficulties pitching to those who may want to speak to someone real

As much as many of us would like to pretend we don’t need devices like personae to help scout links and build awareness to sites, in most cases we do. What are your thoughts on the implications of personae? Do you use them? Have you used them?

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