Applying a distinctive and consistent tone of voice to your online communications has many benefits - so long as you make sure that voice doesn't get in the way of web-writing essentials such as usability, accessibility and SEO.
If your organisation or brand could talk, it would talk in your tone of voice. It might say different things or speak in a different style to different audiences, but underlying all those communications there is - or there should be - a single personality with a distinctive way of saying things.
As the web matures as a publishing medium, online tone of voice is becoming a sophisticated marketing tool in its own right, providing the benefits of:
At this point we should clear up a few misconceptions we often hear about tone of voice:
Tone of voice is easier to feel than define. Take a chicken recipe from Delia Smith, and another from Jamie Oliver and ask what sort of person wrote this? Jamie's language is yoof-fully bish-bash-bosh, dynamic and all-inclusive; Delia is cordial and informative, but holds the reader at arm's length, a prim schoolmarm with a mission to educate about Good Food. Different personalities - different tones of voice.
Now choose a sports story. Read how it's covered by The Sun, The Guardian, the BBC online, a fanzine. Each will present a different emphasis, a different selection of facts; each will use slightly different vocabulary, syntax, even punctuation. All these tiny editorial decisions contribute to a distinctive tone of voice.
Now think of a market you know well and look at the sites of competitors. Ask yourself: how do they sound? For example, are they:
If each site was a person, which would you rather spend time with? Which do you trust more? These are all questions about brand, of course, but more specifically these are questions about the language of brands. And where there is language, there is tone.
With the web writing basics in place, you can start looking at tone of voice properly. The standard way to do this is to take your brand values and translate them into a list of adjectives or "tonal values". Unfortunately, many of these can be very similar - so many brands seem to consider themselves to be warm, human, professional etc. - who'd want to sound cold, inhuman, unprofessional...!? Additionally, no one really knows what these adjectives mean as they're highly subjective.
A strong tone has to be applied consistently; otherwise it will never be distinctive or engaging. You need to be able to roll out your tone to everyone involved in working on your content. You can't rely on a single person who is the unofficial "guardian of the voice". Which is where guidelines come in.
Proper tone of voice guidelines set out formally what your organisation's personality sounds like, so that all your written communications sound like they come from the same place. Tonal values, written examples and practical copywriting tips can all be used to help your organisation define its voice - and reproduce it time and again, even when your words are the work of many different authors.
So look for ways to define your tone more descriptively, with guidelines that:
Then think about all those little editorial decisions that affect your tone too. Do you write in British or American English? Does your content need to be written for ease of translation? Do you write "don't" or "do not"? Can you use slang? How much technical or specialised knowledge do your target readers have? Do you do humour? If so, what kind? Puns? Jokes? Black humour? It all helps to build a more complete, more readily replicable, voice.
You may have different areas of the site aimed at distinctively different audiences. You can respond to this by emphasising different elements of your overall tone of voice within each area. For instance, you might emphasise the tonal value "empathetic" in your customer service section, while you might lead on "inspiring" in your thought leadership section.
It's all right too, to use language of more complexity in one area of the site than in another, so long as it's pitched right for the intended audience. Jargon isn't jargon, after all, if your audience understands what you're talking about. This doesn't mean however that you're switching voice. After all, you talk differently to a 3-year-old than you do to your boss, but the words are all still coming from the same place, in the one voice.
This is where you should use your guidelines as they'll flesh out examples of your voice in different channels, for different audiences, emphasising different values.
Brands that do voice really well provide a consistent and engaging verbal presence in every area of their digital presence, not just in the obvious places like product pages and marketing emails. This could include transactional emails, online forms, error messages and the like - important touch points where your brand can easily be forgotten. And they're recognisably the same brand, whether they're talking to their international business audience or teenage customers.