You know when content has a good brand voice. You feel it. It’s like having an intimate conversation with someone you know. Every word comes from a unique personality and point of view. You might feel like this person truly gets you. Or maybe you feel turned off. That’s okay. You’re not the target audience.
Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?
Just like people, your brand signals its personality through its tone of voice. A consistent tone of voice that resonates with your audience can build lasting connections. But consistency has never been harder to achieve. Today’s audiences demand a constant flow of content. And the more content your business creates, the harder it is to govern.
Each content creator interprets your brand guidelines through a different lens. And each new platform and audience segment introduces a new variable to the mix. Over time, these small shifts can add up to dramatic differences in tone across your marketing ecosystem. Or worse, they can dilute your content’s personality to that of boiled cauliflower.
Where does your brand’s tone of voice stand? Here are six signs it needs some attention.
1. You’ve never surveyed your target audience.
Your content’s tone of voice might resonate with you and your marketing team. But how does it strike your audience? Key performance indicators can give you clues. If users spend lots of time on your website, they probably find the content helpful. If they exit quickly or bounce from page to page without converting, they probably don’t. But even the most robust data can’t give you the clarity of direct feedback.
This feedback doesn’t have to be formal. Have your sales team do some digging. Ask customers and prospects if they find your content helpful. Is it relatable? Trustworthy? Or did they skim over it to find the information they needed, then forget about it? Their answers will give you insights into where your tone of voice stands, and what shifts would give it more authenticity.
2. If you took your logo off your content, no one could tell it was yours.
If you slapped a competitor’s name onto your white paper, would anyone notice? What if you stripped your logo off your website—would visitors know it was you? Or is the tone of your content so distinctive that it could only belong to your brand?
The best content embodies your unique tone of voice at every touchpoint, no matter how small. Consider the words on buttons, loading screens, tool tips—even error messages and 404 pages. They might seem trivial, but tone of voice can take these experiences from mundane to memorable.
3. Your tone-of-voice guidelines are a big list of adjectives.
Adjectives are open to interpretation. What seems ground-breaking to one content creator might strike another as banal. Your tone-of-voice guidelines must reduce subjectivity and help content creators adapt to new situations and mediums. You can’t do this with adjectives alone.
UX leader Nielsen Norman Group analyzed a list of common tone-of-voice adjectives, then narrowed them to four dimensions:
- Funny versus serious
- Formal versus casual
- Respectful versus irreverent
- Enthusiastic versus matter-of-fact
NNG recommends plotting your tone of voice within these four dimensions—then backing it up with “this, not that.” Say your brand falls on the funny side of the spectrum. Is the humor playful or dry? Sarcastic or sincere? A few good examples, countered by what not to do, will help content creators understand how to toe the line.
4. Your brand guidelines don’t have any tone-of-voice documentation.
If your brand book contains logo treatments and color palettes but nothing on tone of voice, it’s time to rethink how you prioritize content. Your words shape your brand identify just as much as your design choices.
Perhaps your brand book has a few pages of key messaging. That’s important, but it’s not enough. Your team must not only know what to say, but how to say it across a range of settings. Without tone-of-voice documentation, content creators have only two options: Recite a script or go rogue. Neither one is likely to lead to a good brand experience.
5. You’ve never quantified your tone of voice.
Data can give you an objective way to measure your tone. And it’s far from a recent development. Naval researchers created the Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level in 1975. It’s a mathematical formula that uses sentence length and syllables to calculate complexity. You can work it out by hand, but most word processors do it with a single click.
Of course, technology has advanced since 1975. Today, programs such as Readable.io use algorithms to quantify everything from sentiment to formality and even gender. And they can do it on a large scale, by spidering thousands of pages, then scoring them individually to reveal trends across an ecosystem.
These tools won’t guarantee great content. But they can give you a baseline analysis. They can also alert you if your tone of voice starts to shift.
6. You have multiple teams or agency partners, but no one oversees them all.
A compelling brand story can make your business more memorable and relatable to your target audience. But does your PR department tell the same story as your sales team? Are your agency partners keeping each other in the loop? If no one is responsible for answering these questions, you have a content governance gap.
Even the best brand guidelines and tone of voice documentation can’t overcome a lack of governance. Every business needs a point person (or an entire team) to ensure that its content follows brand standards and supports company goals. Without it, your messaging can become muddled. Your tone of voice can splinter into different personalities. And your target audience can begin to lose trust in your business. Establishing this ownership can go a long way toward ensuring that your content has the right tone, regardless of its creator or format.
If any of these six signs describe your content, it’s time to take action. Survey your audience. Establish clear guidelines. Audit content performance and quality. Then empower your content team to govern tone of voice across staff members and agency partners. Ensuring a consistent tone of voice isn’t easy, especially across a large content ecosystem. But it’s worth the investment. If done well, you’ll start to see better engagement statistics, increased conversions and a more loyal customer base.