Use example copy to support your tone of voice

Choosing the right customer scenarios can help readers understand your product's benefits

Establishing and using the right tone of voice for online copy is important in making it effective, and particularly in making it cohere with the rest of your marketing. An organisation's tone of voice doesn't have to be showy or attention-seeking, but your tone should be consistent. Online, your tone of voice is sometimes your only opportunity to set yourself apart: on a page of search results, for example, or in an RSS feed. When we talk to clients about tone of voice we often focus on language and style - how we want to sound to a reader, and practical choices in the copy that help us achieve it. But if they're carefully chosen, benefit-led examples can support the brand too. The real-world illustration of how a product or service helps customers is a tool we come back to again and again. It's a classic way of illustrating the benefits rather than the features of what you're writing about: describe a plausible situation in which the product would help. Choosing the right benefit makes an immediate connection with your reader. Let's say you're writing about a cycle computer that can use GPS to plan a route. Here are 2 ways to illustrate its features with an example:

'Find the best route to work - you can even choose to avoid major roads (and hills...)'

Track your development through the season - plan and record training distances, times and climbing stats.'

These two examples describe the same feature, but choose different benefits to appeal to different types of customer. You can choose to use the benefit that best matches your target audience, or - with a product that appeals to several audiences - use both examples to illustrate your product's flexibility. This is the bread and butter of marketing copywriting, but there's a more subtle way in which examples can help support your tone of voice.

Choose your example copy carefully

Paying attention to the content you use in illustrations and examples can give a little extra depth and cohesion to your branding. Imagine you're writing about a piece of software that lets people create documents. When you illustrate this with an example, what kind of document will you show being created? You might choose:

  • an academic essay
  • a letter to a friend
  • a quarterly financial report
  • a blog post

Each of these gives a slightly different spin to how readers will imagine the product being used, and affects the ease with which they can imagine themselves using it. Have a look at Apple's features page (it's a long page, but you don't have to read it all). There are screenshots throughout the page illustrating various features: but which web pages have they chosen to use in the illustrations?

  • a story about the environment and green energy
  • a New York Times feature on Obama's inauguration
  • an article from Rolling Stone magazine

These all feel 'Apple-y'. They're the kind of thing an 'Apple person' might read. Further down the page, there's a screenshot illustrating Safari's 'top sites' feature: we can see that the example user's top sites also include Facebook, Spin (a music magazine) and bikemag.com (a mountain bike magazine). Let's face it, this person probably owns a Mac. Compare Google Chrome: it has a similar 'top sites' feature, but in this case all but one are Google-owned sites.

Is that realistic, or just a bit unimaginative?