The 3 key elements of a successful digital tone of voice

Defining and describing a tone of voice is hard enough. Getting all your writers to apply it consistently is harder again.

 The 3 key elements of a successful digital tone of voice

And if your voice is part of your general brand guidelines and you’ve got to apply it to the web, it gets harder still: you’ve got to make sure your language isn’t just on brand, but also accessible, scannable, front-loaded, benefit-driven, keyword-friendly and all the rest.

If you have a voice that’s designed to be distinctive and quirky, all that web-friendly stuff can seem like a bit of a wet blanket, a layer of pedantry designed only to stifle the magic. In a recent seminar, I heard a tone of voice “expert” announce that “seo is the death of copywriting”. Naturally we cannot agree with this rather archaic, print-based view of the world.

Online, people come to your website with specific questions in mind and key tasks to fulfil. The usability of your site and its content – the ease with which people can find their answers and complete their tasks – is their defining experience of your brand. No amount of crazee language can compensate for a flawed user journey, a broken link or out-of-date information.

The skill of the web copywriter is precisely to make sure that the experience of using the content is intuitive, while at the same time retaining the flavour of the brand voice. To help us get this right we find it helpful to see a tone of voice, when executed online (and indeed everywhere else), as composed of 3 elements: the messaging, the information design, and the style.

1. Messaging

This is how you choose to position and present the messages you choose to put in front of your users. Do you, for instance, say “careers at Acme plc” (dull) or “10 great reasons to work for us” (more engaging)? Do you say “Email us to check what sofas we have in store” (hard work) – or do you have a regularly updated page called “Sofas in stock now” (helpful)?

When someone looks up an FAQ on a utility site such as “What do I do if I can smell gas?”, does the answer they get begin: “Your safety is important to us…” (irrelevant marketese), or does it start: “Call this emergency number at once” (responsive and to the point?). Does your corporate history detail every trivial date of only internal interest, or does it try to focus on key milestones likely to be relevant to your key audiences?

As these examples illustrate, language isolation is only part of getting this right. It means thinking strategically about your content – about what your users need at what points in their journey.

With the “I can smell gas” question, it means understanding that the best way you can show users you care about them is to give the number at once, not go into some marketing boilerplate. Sometimes it requires technical fulfilment or stakeholder collaboration: the sofa availability page might be hard work to implement, but the resulting positive brand perception is likely to be immense.

2. The information design

This is about making the content scannable, visually accessible, easy for a scan reader to move around and work out how to find what they need.

If your tone of voice says your language is “friendly” or “helpful” or “straightforward”, but your content is presented in great slabs of text with minimal signposting, no reader is ever going to see it as such. Structure as much as style needs to be friendly, straightforward and all the rest. 

3. The style

This is what people traditionally mean when they refer to tone of voice – all the little language decisions you make when putting your content together. Do you say “gift” or do you say “pressie”? Do you say “Acme plc is…” or “We are…”? Do you say “don’t” or “do not”? and all the rest.

It’s important to get these points of language right, but in the web-friendly scheme of things, they come after the messaging and the information design – both of which contribute more significantly to how well your digital content expresses your voice.

Here are a few examples of what we mean:

Apple messaging example

Messaging: here the heading is as straightforwardly informative as can be – no clever wordplay or audacious claims. Because its brand appeal is so well established, Apple can go with a very simple, confident message that speaks volumes about the desirability of the product while apparently saying very little.   

American Airline Information

Information design #1: This page looks quite scannable at first, but the heading is very generic and the copy is not very inspiring: “Our people are the primary reason for our success” feels rather formulaic. The bullets on the right are rather forbidding and not very well explained.

Google information design

Information design #2: Here, on the other hand, a genuinely scannable approach to the structure of the content has led to a creative approach that goes way beyond the usual corporate clichés of the “Work for us” page. The tone is light, contemporary and originally phrased: “We love our employees, and we want them to know it”. And though the headline is searchable, scannable and accessible, the copy is far from prosaic boilerplate. example

All 3 elements: Here is a fantastic example of all 3 elements working together very well. The homepage of fills the critical top-left hand corner of the page not with a big glossy pic of a sofa (as many retailers still persist in doing), but with some well-worked copy that combines key USPs and service messages with engagingly-phrased softer claims (“our sofas are really very comfy”). The service statements are qualified in a naturally transparent way that inspires trust (“delivery is usually FREE”) and even basic sales claims have a touch of voice (“ is miles cheaper than the high street”). The overall effect is of a friendly, helpful business that genuinely believes in its products. And there is that invaluable “in stock” page – the only place I need to look if time is of the essence.