It’s so funny. The more automated the world becomes the more humans actually seek out other humans. When you consider all the wonderful, impressive things you can do with the Internet, the most popular content is still the most people-centric.
I mean, you can watch a live webcam of an eagle’s nest hundreds of feet in the air, from halfway around the world. You can take free online courses from MIT or look up how your congress rep is voting on a particular topic. With all those options, you’d think we’d be flocking en masse to all these new super interesting capabilities the internet can offer.
But instead, what do humans do? We often use the internet to simply seek out and connect with other humans. Some of the most highly trafficked sites are social media sites. In fact, in the top 15 most popular websites, 3 of them are social media. Facebook is #3!!
So it’s no surprise that to succeed online, we must connect on a person-to-person level with our consumers. We need to be real, genuine, human. And although we can communicate some of our personality with our “About Us” bios and behind the scenes photos, the most consistent impression we make on our customers is through our brand.
So how do we communicate our brand? Whether we do so thoughtfully or not, we communicate it with every phrase, every word we choose to use on our site and in our literature.
If you have ever put a single word of copy up on your site, in an email or in a brochure, you already have a ‘voice and tone.’ But is it the one you want? Are you communicating your brand in a consistent, bold, clear terms? Or are you just meandering with your choice of words and not leaving much of an impression at all?
Let’s talk about what voice and tone means and how to develop them across all your communication.
First, as you are just beginning to establish your desired voice and tone, it’s helpful to imagine a spokesperson who embodies what your brand is about. Are they male? Female? Older and sophisticated or young and hip? Technical geek? Intellectual professor? Glamorous vixen?
Think of an actor, musician or politician who you’d love your brand to be voiced by. Home Depot did this for a long while with Ed Harris, whom they hired to voice all their commercials.
Chrysler chose Catherine Keener. So try it on your brand. This simple exercise can really help you crystallize who you want to ‘sound like’ to your customer.
Tone and POV
First lets talk tone. What is it?
Tone is mood. Tone is personality. One voice, the same voice, can have many moods and many edges. Tone is what determines this. Remember how, with just one word, you could tell if your mother was mad at you?
That’s tone. Or when you dial the wrong number and you can tell if the person you called is a rude jerk or a nice, understanding human…just by how they say “Wrong number!” That’s tone.
So you need to decide what tone you want your brand to have. And, as always, the best way to decide how to talk to your customers it to think like your customer. If you were them, what kind of tone would ‘work’ on you.
If you’re selling textbooks to educators, you might try being professional, authoritarian and if you want to inject some humor – keep it wry and witty.
If teenage girls are your market, amp up the energy. You want to match their enthusiasm and joie de vivre. This is not the time to talk like a soothing NPR interviewer. Matching the tone of your ideal customer is the best way to convey your brand’s tone.
Now let’s cover Point of View (POV) You need to be extra consistent here. The way you address your audience can be either first person (I), first person plural (we), second person (you) or third person (they). I’ve greatly simplified this and there’s a lot more nuance around subjective, objective and possessive cases, but we don’t need to get into that now.
The two most important decisions you have to make for your brand’s voice are what are you going to call yourself, and what are you going to call your customers? Is your company brand an “I” or a “we?” And do you service a “you” or a “them?”
The former pair (I and you) works when you are going for a more casual, down to earth, personal tone. If, however, you’d like your brand to sound a bit more distinguished, you might instead opt for “we” and “them” or “our customers.”
Choose your words wisely. One misstep and you could end up alienating your target market. We’ll talk about Do’s and Don’t’s in a minute but first, let’s talk about overall vocabulary.
You can do a lot with vocabulary. You can warm leads up by “speaking their language.” You can impress the right people by using the right terminology . So think through your vocabulary choices. You can and should specifically list out how you talk about your company and products.
If your consumer base is well-educated, it’s probably a good idea to trot out a few ‘big words.” They’ll build confidence with your more discerning customers and convey the message that your brand is intelligent and educated.
That said, if you are trying to attract a more down to earth crowd, you should think about a more direct, simple vocabulary. You don’t want to come off as “fussy” and turn them off.
Consider the role of acronyms, too. Use them sparingly and define each one parenthetically if your consumer is less technical. If, however you are trying to appear “in the know”, you can load up the acronyms un-apologetically. They can give your brand a feeling of exclusivity and that your customers are in the in-crowd.
Think about slang, too. Slang, used judiciously, can speak the language of your cool customers and make them trust you as One of Them. But if you overdo it or use slang at in a super-professional industry, you risk losing the respect of your audience.
Do’s & Don’ts
Finally, you should work up a list of words. Two lists, actually.
One list should be comprised of words that you want to use often in your copywriting. Think of words that underline your brand. If you were Starbucks, words like “refreshing” and “blend” and “favorite.”
If you were Johnson & Johnson, you’d want to mention words like “family”, “fresh” and “clean” as much as possible. So create a list of those words and sprinkle them generously.
Now let’s hit the Don’ts. There should be words you put on your ‘radioactive’ list, never to be used in association with your brand. For instance, if you have a family-focused brand, you should never use the word “sexy”, even if it’s just describing a cool bit of technology.
If you are trying to appeal to a young, hip crowd you probably should avoid terms like “fabulous” or “pizzazz” or – heaven forbid – “cute.”
So take a little time and write up a voice and tone guide for your brand. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a word document that outlines all these new guidelines Putting a few hours of work into clarifying your brand’s voice will make all your future communications more consistent – and much more compelling.
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