Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Where does "tone & voice" fit into your content strategy?

Frequently, a new client will ask me to set the “tone and voice” of their web content. And way too frequently, they don’t have a clue what tone and voice really is. They just know that they’re supposed to have one that works. So to all you business people out there who know you need an effective tone and voice, but don’t really know what that means, where it fits in your content strategy, and how to go about it... this one’s for you!

Tone and voice: What the heck is it?

The easiest way to understand your web copy’s tone and voice is to compare it with your mother.

The voice of your mother (and your web copy) is always recognizable. She has a clear point of view, a distinctive personality, and language idiosyncrasies that make her unique. Her “voice” never changes. It always sounds the same. It’s always recognizable as your mother.

Your mother’s tone, on the other hand, is changeable. She may use a completely different tone when baking cookies with her 5 year old grandson as she does when berating you for driving too fast. She may use a different tone of voice depending on the mood she’s in: angry, happy, confused, scared, or sad. She may use a different tone of voice depending on who she’s speaking to: her colleagues, her friends, her husband, or her children. She may also use a different tone of voice depending on the type of information she’s sharing: she’ll communicate serious information differently than she would tell a joke.

So, the voice remains consistent and recognizable, while the tone may change depending on the audience, the mood, and the message being communicated.

Where does tone and voice fit into your content strategy?

It’s an important piece of the much larger puzzle that makes up your overall content strategy. Yes, tone and voice is really important, but simply defining your tone and voice isn’t enough to get you where you need to go. If you’re looking at your web content seriously, you need to consider the other critical content elements: Are your content processes effective and efficient? Have you got good people with appropriate skill-sets caring for your content? Have you got a suitable content budget and can you demonstrate your content ROI? Does your content contribute to a positive customer experience? Is your content getting your business where it needs to go? Can you (and do you) test the effectiveness of your content? Have you got a clear plan for managing, developing, and publishing content over the next year? How can your content give you a competitive advantage?

Just as your mother by herself does not create a cohesive family, a strong tone and voice by itself does not create great content. Your web content needs to be effective and strategic, and an appropriate tone and voice is only one of the tools you use to get it there.

How do you develop an effective tone and voice?

First, think about voice. You need to have a voice that your core audience will relate to and trust. To do this, you need to really understand your customers. Who are they? How do they speak? Who do they trust, and why? What are they interested in? What do they want or expect from you? What gets them through their day?

An effective voice is not just about writing style. It’s just as much, or more, about what you have to say. What’s your key message? What’s your point of view? What kind of a communicator are you? How much information do you share, and when? How do you respond to customer feedback? What channels do you communicate through? All of these things impact your corporate “voice”, and this voice should personify your brand. 

Next, think about tone.
For each different type of information, you need to define an appropriate tone. Do you want to use the same tone for your security guarantees, marketing copy, advertising copy, and customer service FAQs? Probably not. You should identify an appropriate tone to use for each type of content, based on its purpose and your customers’ goals and expectations.  

Finally, think about people and processes.  
This is the glue that holds it all together! Now you need to determine the actual writing mechanics, phrasing, and vocabulary that create the desired tone and voice. Develop content prototypes and, if possible, test them with real customers. Make sure that your customers’ perceptions are aligned with your perceptions of the tone and voice, and that it’s effective. Create a writer’s style guide that documents writing and word choices. Keep it up-to-date, and ensure that it’s used by all content developers for all content. If you have multiple writers, assign an editor to ensure that your content has one consistent corporate voice, rather than a chorus of different voices. Make sure that your writers are comfortable using a style guide, and that you have sound content development processes that support quality content. 

So, just make sure that you know your company as well as you know your own mother. And before any word is written, ask yourself what your company would say.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How useful is your content?

Previously, I wrote about how you can ensure that your web content is readable. But it doesn't matter how readable it is if it's not useful. Here are four easy ways to make sure that your content is useful to your customers:

  1. Create customer profiles and personas.

    Who are your customers? Exactly? Create 3 or 4 primary customer profiles and personas that define who they are, what their needs are, and what they want to accomplish on your site. What are their personal or business motivations? What do they most value? What helps them to make a final decision? Think about the type of content that may be useful to them that they don't even know they need. Use facts and data (to create profiles) and then weave those into engaging characters (or personas) to help you accurately focus your content.

  2. Make it easy for your customers to do something useful.

    Your customers may want to contact you by e-mail, by phone, or by online chat. They may want to subscribe to your blogposts, leave a comment, or provide a product or service review. They may want to order your product or services online, refer you to a friend, or compare your products. Discover what they want to do on your site, and make it easy for them. (Tip: Customers don't often know what they want until they experience it!)
  3. Help your customers to learn something useful.

    Most prospective customers will come to your site to learn more about your business or products and services. They may also want to learn about your customer service and support policies. Be generous and transparent in your information. Gone are the days when you could provide a morsel of vague information and expect customers to contact you to learn more. They'll just move on to another site that gives them the information they're looking for. Existing customers will come to your website for customer service and support, to purchase additional products or services, and, if you provide truly useful content, to learn more about something relevant to your business and their lives. That type of content (also known as content marketing) often takes the form of blogs or newsletters, and not only keeps your customers coming back, but is often widely shared among prospective customers.
  4. Provide content that encourages customers to make a decision

    Most prospective customers won't make a purchasing decision until they have sufficient information about the product or service, and trust in your company. Why should they buy from you, instead of your competitor? Have other people just like them been happy with your product or service? Why should they buy Product A instead of Product B? Which of your products or services is best for them right now? What happens if they're not happy with their purchase? Again, be generous and transparent in your information. Prices, taxes, fees, additional charges, and return policies should be clear, unless you have a good reason not to publish that information. Testimonials, customer reviews, and customer comments help to instill trust. If your product or service offerings are extensive or confusing, help your customers to determine which is best for them.