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.

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