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Tone of voice guidelines and why you need them

Written by Liz Walker on Monday, 02 March 2020. Posted in Branding, Sales & Marketing

A common reason for a business to fail in today’s competitive market is lack of differentiation.

Tone of voice guidelines and why you need them

A common reason for a business to fail in today’s competitive market is lack of differentiation. Many businesses understand that standing out from the crowd is critical yet also believe that they must appeal to everyone. This is where they go wrong.

What a business really needs to stand out is brand identity — how others see your business. Trying to appeal to everyone when writing copy gives mixed signals. The copy for your business must focus on the target audience or you run the risk of being lost in the depths of a crowded web.

Your brand identity will reflect your brand’s personality and values; a consistent tone of voice is a vital part of communicating this to your target audience. Tone of voice is one of the most influential forms of communication.

A consistent tone of voice is especially important when writing for the web. When you have a conversation with someone face-to-face, you don’t just use words — you use volume, sound, facial expressions, language and tone to communicate what you want to say. You only have to think of how a simple text message can be misconstrued to know that tone of voice is something which needs to be carefully crafted.

What does the tone of voice do?

The tone of voice defines who you are. When deciding on a tone of voice you will need to consider how your company communicates and what your business sells. A tone of voice can vary enormously — relaxed and informal, witty, authoritative, reassuring, factual, pithy and succinct or academic to name a few.

It conveys expertise and trust. Tone of voice provides the customer with an expert voice they can trust. It will come as no surprise that 74% of consumers would boycott a company they don’t trust. To part with money and to keep returning, customers need to know that they can trust you.

It will set you apart from your competitors. A distinct tone of voice will attract attention, making your business stand out. Two companies could sell the same product but use a different tone of voice — the more successful tone of voice will subconsciously change the customer’s perspective about the product for the better.

It creates a personal connection. Your tone of voice shouldn't jar on customers if it has been well-chosen. For example, a charity website supporting those with a chronic illness might choose a tone of voice which is encouraging, reassuring and authoritative.

A successful tone of voice will communicate your value proposition. For example, if your brand offers convenience with a product which is quick and easy to use, then your tone of voice can highlight this by using simple and direct language.

Finding the right tone of voice for your business is a useful exercise as it may reveal areas of the wider brand identity that you hadn’t thought of before. This attention to detail will lead to genuine engagement from potential customers.

How does language affect tone?

Get the language wrong and you risk alienating your audience. When you choose the language you will be basing it on your knowledge about your main customers, your potential customers and your brand research.

Following Innocent Smoothies’ successful and recognisable tone of voice, the market is now flooded with companies trying to imitate their tone of voice formula. This quirky tone of voice is derogatorily known as ‘wackaging’ and it is so common now it has become insincere.

Consumers have become weary of ‘pop the kettle on’, ‘oopsie daisy’ and ‘the lovely people here at…’. The type of cosy language used on The Great British Bake Off can irritate when trying to navigate a website when you need a quick answer. Even the creator of the Innocent Smoothie tone of voice is despairing of the escalation of twee across many brands who should be using an alternative tone of voice.

Let’s look at two brands using tone of voice successfully:

Netflix found its tone of voice through social media posts. It began when an editorial manager in Brazil decided to share a Netflix post as if she was sharing it with friends — fan-to-fan. This method took off with tremendous success, afterwhich the Netflix copy guidelines included instructions such as ‘don’t promote, entertain’. With these guidelines they make sure that their tone of voice appears natural and continues to engage Netflix fans.

The Netflix tone is so informal that it reflects the natural language used by friends on social media and this includes the odd swear word. It is also uplifting and fun. The key consistency between all the Netflix writers is that they all reflect a tone that is personal and approachable — without being cringey. The tone of voice is also wholly directed at the 18–34 age bracket as these are their biggest customers (even though all ages can love Netflix). This means that the content is targeted, not watered down by trying to appeal to everyone and failing.

On the other hand, Starling Bank is a digital, mobile-only challenger bank and if they used a tone of voice like Netflix they would be laughable at best and untrustworthy and shady at worst. The selling point for using Starling Bank is that it has a different approach to old-school banking – giving you everything you need from your bank account on your mobile phone, with 24/7 support and no need for bank branches.

The tone of voice that Starling Bank uses reflects their value proposition. Not only have they scaled down the traditional bank account, but the copy has been deliberately pared down too. The words are straightforward and sentences are short and to the point. There is no witty banter, puns or jokes and there is an obvious lack of unnecessary descriptive words. It all does what it says on the tin. The website menu is as simple as their banking concept — they are making your life easier. The copy is clear with no fuss, for example ‘blogs & news’ on the menu (as opposed to variations of ‘information hub’ on other websites). 

What are tone of voice guidelines?

For your tone of voice to become synonymous with your brand, all your communication —  including social media —  will need to have the same tone. The best way to do this is to document the tone of voice guidelines, a foolproof formula. This is how a company can employ lots of different copywriters who all follow the same guidelines.

Tone of voice guidelines will also provide a document to help those who are onboarding and training to get to know the company. This tone of voice document is the backbone of all the copy your company produces.

What should you include in the guidelines?

You need to provide clear examples of what to do and not to do so that there is no room for confusion. Make sure that you are honest when writing about the tone of voice. The tone should reflect what the customers want — not necessarily a style similar to your favourite brand who makes you laugh.

Tone of voice is continuing to become more relevant as AI and algorithms match content to consumers and as consumers interact with brands via social media. For your business to thrive, make sure that your tone of voice is targeted to your audience and you will start to see an increase in content engagement and word-of-mouth marketing. Remember that people connect with people — not brands.

About the Author

Liz Walker

Liz Walker

Liz Walker is the Commercial Director at Distinctly and is responsible for the content team as well as the marketing and business development side of the agency. Liz is passionate about the art of communication and how this can enhance brand development and reputation for businesses of all sizes. Liz believes that language and content executed correctly will complement business planning, development and growth.

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