Human speech is bewildering in its variety. Our utterances range from phatic conversations to funeral orations, from four-letter insults to declarations of undying love, and everything else in-between and besides. The digital voice also has many faces – wear the wrong expression and you’ll rub people up the wrong way.
My strategy for developing the right tone of voice to use with a certain brand on a certain digital platform is based upon defining two key factors:
Who are you?
Firstly, consider the relationship between the customer and the brand you represent. What exactly is it that the brand provides for the customer, and which human role can that be equated to?
If you’re a grocer, consider yourself a parent of sorts – you put food on the table. If you’re a restaurant, you’re more akin to a seducer – you’re doing the wining and dining. If you’re a pub, you might well think of yourself as a mate – you’re getting the drinks in.
This is absolutely not an instruction to infantilise your customers or chat them up. God forbid.
Instead, use your common sense and borrow only the appropriate facets of the analogy to inspire your writing. If your brand plays a parent-like role, write with wisdom, authority, sobriety and care. If you’re playing the seducer, write sensually, directly, impressively – and definitely not creepily. If you’re playing the part of a pal, share facts, tap into whichever relevant sociolects you can and make your tone warm and friendly.
This strategy can help a brand’s digital voice come across as natural to the customer. Customers care about that.
The importance of platform
Your second key consideration: why is the reader visiting the platform?
Are they there to pass the time, to socialise, to find information, to engage in self-promotion, to do something else, or to achieve a mixture of any of the above?
If you can nail down the most common reasons why the majority of your audience are visiting your target platform, you can greatly enhance your message’s appeal and relevance to the reader. That’s not to say that good advertising can’t work its special magic irrespective of the context in which it appears – but as an almost universal rule, tailored content performs best.
Putting the theory into practice
That’s a lot of theory to take in, but in practice the key points are easily actioned.
To establish what the brand does for the customer, think about its services on their most basic level. Link them to life processes, if that helps – feeding, sustaining, finding a partner and so on. Here are a few examples:
- Grocer – provides food – speaks as a parent
- Restaurant – provides a luxurious treat – speaks as a suitor
- Bar – provides entertainment – speaks as a friend
- Lawyer – provides counsel – speaks as an elder
- Insurer – provides security – speaks as an ally
Strip your brand of all its nuances. Boil it down to its very essence. Define its core proposition, then link that essential service to a human persona and write with that persona in mind. Doing so is an effective means of making your writing appropriate to the customer. They’re used to being offered their daily bread by a parental voice. They’re used to being coaxed out for a drink by their friends. If they’re lucky enough, they’re used to being treated to little luxuries by a love interest. It’s all completely natural.
This tactic can be applied to all B2C communications, so let us focus now upon configuring your voice for digital.
The reasons why a person would visit a digital platform will inevitably vary between demographic groups – sometimes significantly so. In the interest of properly understanding what motivates your own customers to use Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn or any other platform you are interested in, we would strongly recommend conducting some consumer research.
You can always make an educated guess as to why your customer is surfing, say, Reddit – but in this instance and most others, guesswork comes a very distant second to knowing the facts. If you know what the user is looking for, you can supply the answer.
If you don’t have the time or the means to find out exactly why your customers are using a certain platform, these basic motivations can be regarded as a reasonably accurate rule of thumb:
- Facebook – entertainment, networking, communicating with friends, planning activities
- Twitter – entertainment, networking, communicating with friends
- Email – professional and personal admin
- LinkedIn – networking, professional research
- Instagram – inspiration, expression, networking
- Snapchat – entertainment, communicating with friends
- Business website – brand-specific research, shopping
- Search engine – research, shopping
- News website – entertainment, learning, research
- All of the above – new information
These definitions shouldn’t have a totalising effect upon your digital marketing. Instead, they should subtly influence the voice you adopt and the content you deliver.
The foundations of your brand’s voice are now in place, and you’re ready to write. As you assemble your copy, bear in mind the following considerations – along with whichever tricks of the trade you yourself have devised:
- Actionable content – making content actionable is a hot topic at the moment, and justly so. It can mean the difference between providing a shallow read, and giving your customer an immersive experience that offers significant long and short-term rewards for both parties. Make content actionable by using the imperative (in a recipe or guide, for example), adding CTA buttons linking to pages further down the funnel, breaking paragraphs down into bullet points where possible and using audience-appropriate language – the article you’re reading right now freely uses technical language because you’re a smart cookie with a passion for writing.
- Short or long? – there’s a place for both short-form and long-form writing in digital marketing – and knowing when to use each one is important. Website content should be relatively lengthy in order to give search engines enough information to ascertain the purpose of your website and rank it competitively (most first page SERP listings link to pages with 400 words of copy or more). Mailouts should generally be kept succinct, and the same goes for most social media – with the possible exception of Instagram.
- Paragraph length – shorter than printed paragraphs.
- Topicality – the instantaneous nature of digital publishing means there’s never any excuse for delivering out-of-date content to the user. Digital marketers should be constantly alert to news and company information that could affect the way their content is interpreted by the reader. Scanning the papers over a morning coffee doesn’t quite cut the mustard these days; tracking brand mentions, pertinent news sources and Twitter hashtags whilst maintaining contact with the brand’s PR department is the new gold standard. This extends – perhaps especially – to considering the effect of changing circumstances on scheduled content or communications.
- Links – you know they’re important, so make sure you’re including plenty and that you’re thinking strategically about your choices. Avoid linking to low authority external domains and pages, optimise anchor text for maximum SEO benefit and never send a bumper crop of prospects to an internal page with a high exit rate – at least not without optimising the suspect page first.
- Memification – you may not like them, but memes, listicles, GIFs and celebrity-focused content can help you connect with a wide range of audiences. Consider them for use, and if you can identify a suitable opportunity, hold your nose and dive right in.
- The better the information, the better the writing – there’s no point writing beautifully if you have nothing to say. Mentally audit every sentence of your copy. Are they all achieving something – whether through forming the copy’s structure, purveying facts, developing an argument or evoking a response?
- Formatted for platform – always preview your work in a mocked up live environment before hitting publish or send. What looks stunningly beautiful in Word probably doesn’t work on Facebook.
Nothing beats originality, but the writer’s idiosyncrasies must always be used expressly for the benefit of the content within its given context. If you’re blogging or experimenting with viral content for a creative brand, you can let loose with form, lexis and bold ideas – but in most cases you should look to imitate before you innovate, as the saying goes.
There’s room for originality in all digital publishing – but the more established (and sober) the brand’s voice, the more you should temper those big ideas. People don’t expect literary pyrotechnics from a FTSE100 company; they want clear sense.