Optimising on-site experience with audience-led tone of voice

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Greenlight Digital consider the importance of tone of voice and question how data and SEO can help work out the right tone.

In a world where people are more demanding than ever of brands, tone of voice carries a lot more weight in the digital space than it’s often given credit for. Contrary to a decade or two ago, we’re now consuming content on a mammoth scale, every single day. Through sheer exposure, we’ve come to not only enjoy great things when we see them, but to expect them as a matter of course. This means that digital marketers need to be savvier than ever when it comes to ensuring their content connects. It’s no longer enough to use that generic ‘bloggy’ tone of voice we’re all so familiar with. Instead, content must be used as a tool to prove a brand’s worth; to demonstrate that they are, indeed, everything their audience expects them to be.

Add to that the increasingly complex, hard to navigate landscapes of SEO and UX, and it soon becomes apparent that getting brand tone of voice right is a whole new thing in 2019.

It’s time to talk about cold, hard facts

Long gone are the days where TV advertising was the main playing field for companies to get heard. Today, the internet – in all it’s layered, shifting complexity – must be used by brands in 101 ways to connect with their audience if they want to survive. The problem with that is, there are so many brands online, scuffling amongst each other to make themselves heard. Plus, there are now a seemingly infinite number of different types of content to consider, meaning it can fast become overwhelming to know which basic formats to use, let alone what your tone of voice is going to be.

It’s logical then, that the first port of call for anybrand looking to develop its tone of voice in the online space should be data or, put more simply, facts. That might mean using a data management platform to garner in-depth insights about your audience, or simply auditing your competitors’ tone of voice and brand personas (how deep you want to go with your data will depend on budget, timings, and wants). But either way, it’s essential to realise that tone of voice should be born of actual information about your audience and the market you’re operating in.

To explain why, let’s go back to that demanding audience dilemma. People today don’t only enjoy authenticity as and when they see it… in 2019, they craveit, need it, can’t live without it (or at least, they can’t interact with their ‘favourite’ brands without it, anyway). This is why it’s more crucial than ever to use data to ascertain who your audience is. What makes them tick? What ticks them off? It’s no good guessing what might offend them, or what will make them chuckle – why, after all, would you leave such a huge factor in your audience liking you to chance?

Using a data-led tone of voice can help prove your worth

The good news is that data doesn’t have to be scary at all – and it’s not as boring or un-creative as it may seem (cue: huge sighs of relief). Data, after all, just means information. The key is to think about your tone of voice as a tool that allows you to confirm the unique way in which you fill a gap in your market or sector. With the right information up your sleeves, your brand persona becomes synonymous with your unique selling proposition and ultimately the value of your offering. Someone else may sell a similar product to you, but do they have the same moral standards as your brand? Do they speak the kind of language and values your audience so craves? Do they deliver on that full-circle narrative in a way that feels authentic and relatable? If not, here’s your chance to fill that gap.

Say, for example, you’re tasked with developing a tone of voice from scratch for a start-up. The infancy of the business will mean there won’t be a huge amount of existing data about its audience. To get around this, try getting creative with competitor research, auditing closely what’s being done, what brand personas already exist in this field, and which gaps are there to fill. If possible, it’s also a good idea to hold a series of in-depth workshops with the founder(s) of the start-up to dig deep into what their vision is. Through this type of data gathering alone, you should end up with a tone of voice document that takes a multi-layered approach to defining the company’s unique personality, purpose, mission, and voice.

And when it comes to bigger, more established brands? That’s where a good data team really comes into play. With the right tools, these guys are able to roll up their sleeves and tell you everything from your audience’s favourite type of holiday to the car they drive, taking your tone of voice development to whole new realms of accuracy. With this kind of process, a copywriter or branding expert will generally work closely with the data team who’ll crunch the statistics into different data sets. These could include things like general demographics (gender, age, etc.), personality types, careers, relationships, and spending habits. Next, it’ll be about using this information to form much more human-looking personas out of your data. You may end up with one key persona, or several. Whatever the outcome, your persona(s) should help you delve into what your audience really wants, what resonates with them, and how, where, and when you’re most likely to connect with them.

What’s SEO got to do with it?

The sheer ‘busyness’ of the internet is one thing when it comes to dealing with tone of voice in the digital age, but there’s another (not so) little factor that complicates things even further.

So… you’ve got your brand tone of voice nailed, but what happens when it clashes with SEO requirements? If it hasn’t happened yet, it will – trust us.

The perfect example of this comes in the form of some recent copy optimisation work we did for a leading high street fashion retailer. This brand already had a very specific, pre-defined tone of voice – and a huge brand book to go with it. Part of that tone of voice included clear directions around remaining as gender neutral as possible when it came to writing about kids’ clothes. They’d done their research, and in order to stay ahead of the curve and align with their customers’ expectations – this was what needed to be done.

All that sounds easy enough, until you throw a set of extremely high search volume keywords into the mix that specifically call out boys’ and girls’ clothes and accessories. This might pose a real problem if you were to view SEO as something that works entirely in silo (old optimisation habits die hard). But it isn’t. Just as it must align with UX factors, it should also work in harmony with the brand’s tone of voice requirements. It can be argued that a certain keyword needs to be hit until they’re blue in the face, but none of that matters if said keyword enters a no-go zone for the brand’s image.

The trick is to remember that keywords are there to be utilised as a brand sees fit, not to dictate the entire nature and tone of its content. Of course, that doesn’t mean they should be disregarded altogether (do so at your own peril) – you may just need to get a little creative when it comes to incorporating them. They can, for example, often be broken down into their component parts, so suddenly ‘boys’ clothing’ can turn into something that reads more like: ‘your littlegirlsand boyswill love our gorgeous range of summer clothing’. Quite simple, really, when you think about it.

Tone of voice in the digital age has taken on a whole new meaning. We’re now living in a world where brands don’t just advertise, they publish – they’ve become thought-leaders and media giants in their own rights. Add to the mix the technical factors involved with ensuring content thrives online, and it’s clear that the ability to utilise language intelligently isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s downright essential.

This piece was co-authored by Louise McFetridge, head of content & digital PR and India Johnson, lead copywriter at Greenlight Digital.

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