Content marketing works best when you focus on what you say and how you say it.
Did you know that you can actually guess a person’s education level based on their preference for using “–ly”? Or that the majority of readers, regardless of demographic, prefer reading at a 4th-7th grade level?
Heck, have you ever considered the impact of voice and tone in your content? Most small businesses haven’t, but the big brands all have.
Let’s take a minute to look at five major companies: Apple, McDonald’s, Cover Girl, Annie’s, and Ford. They represent wildly different industries, but they’ve all got one thing in common. Voice. Just look at the quotes from their copy below, and you’ll have a good feel for the voices of each company.
“Meet a Genius at the Apple Store. Geniuses have extensive knowledge of our products, and they work with you face to face to provide technical support and troubleshoot hardware problems. Some repairs can even be completed right on the spot.”
Why it Works:
Apple’s brand targets a demographic that’s largely college-educated, affluent, and includes quite a few millennials. This copy works because it tells the reader they won’t just be working with someone who does a few tech repairs – they’re “geniuses,” and therefore highly qualified to fix problems with Apple products.
The immediacy of repairs gives readers the impression that the process will be quick, provided by a person they can trust, and completed on a personal level. The complexity of the copy is appropriate for the demographic, and the tone is intellectually humorous, making it perfect for the target market.
“Made from a freshly cracked egg? You bet. We use a freshly cracked, USDA Grade A egg for our savory Egg McMuffin breakfast sandwich. Now, that’s a way to start the day off right.”
Why it Works:
McDonald’s has struggled to adapt its brand to meet modern demands for healthier diet. This simple snippet of copy is an example of the brand’s attempt to rebrand as a healthy fast food option. Breakfast is a meal that matters particularly for health conscious mothers who are frequently bombarded with messages proclaiming the importance of breakfast to a child’s education.
The result is a message that helps the company persuade families to grab a McDonald’s breakfast on those mornings when there just isn’t time to prep a meal at home. After all, you can grab a “healthy”, fresh egg sandwich on the way to school.
“The Super Sizer by LashBlast Mascara
400% more corner-to-corner volume for full, fanned-out lashes!”
Why it Works:
This simple copy appeals readily to Cover Girl’s main audience… Young women looking for a quick and reliable solution to common beauty problems. No hassle. No fluff. The product name brings humor into the game, and the description provides a tangible result women can expect.
“In 1989, Annie Withey co-founded Annie’s Homegrown, Inc. with Andrew Martin with the goal of making a healthy and delicious macaroni and cheese for families. She wanted to show by example that a successful business could also be socially responsible. Annie chose Bernie, her pet rabbit, to be the brand’s “Rabbit of Approval,” and she put her own address and phone number on each box to encourage customers to connect with her.”
Why it Works:
Like consumers in all niches, Annie’s consumers want a personal connection with their brand, a story that provides proof of shared values, and information about the company itself. This little paragraph is appealing and likely to touch heartstrings in the brand’s target market (families with young children) by discussing the brand’s ability to positively impact both the planet and the consumer’s children. The level of connection offered is unique among major brands, as well, and likely to leave a lasting impression.
“The Toby Keith Good Times & Pick Up Lines Sweepstakes is here. And one lucky winner is in for some serious good times, with a bar crawl and private performance by Toby Keith. And then he or she will come home to a new F-150. All you have to do is enter for a chance to win. Good luck!”
Why it Works:
An automobile maker’s partnership with a country musician isn’t the most obvious union, but it makes sense when you consider the vehicle being marketed through the contest. A sturdy pickup truck that’s great for use on the farm or construction site – places where country music is also commonly heard.
The sweepstakes is direct, and offers an excellent chance for the company to capture contact information on a specific subset of their overall demographic. With this data, they’ll be able to create targeted and effective campaigns that speak directly to this group. For an automobile maker, that’s an especially valuable tool – they cater to the population at large and need tools to help break down their audience into segments for more effective and dynamic marketing.
These brands have a solid lock on using voice to reinforce branding, and it extends across their communications – from television spots to billboards and from social media to web copy. Pay attention to the voice of your favorite brands and compare them to yours. Make sure that you offer an equally appealing and present personality. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) overdo it, however.
Great. The top brands have one…but what is a brand voice? How do you create one, and how do you keep it consistent?
Your business probably has a style guide. If it doesn’t, it’s time to create one. Think about your customer avatar. Define their likes, interests, personality, income, and other identifying features, but don’t just use your ideals to do this.
Use your existing customer database. Gather data on who shops with you, and use that data to refine your content. Keep the following questions in mind when you are working on your editorial calendar (Yes, you need one. No, it’s not optional. Yes, I can help you – just ask.):
There are quite a few factors that you need to consider before you can create a clear and consistent brand voice. Remember that you are working to attract your customers and help your company to not only convert site visitors into customers, but also create brand ambassadors and fans. Defining your brand’s voice is the first step on that journey. It’s the personality of your business. Yup – it needs one…and it needs to be consistent, likeable, and authentic.
When your potential customer visits your blog, follows your tweets, or interacts on your Facebook page, they’re not looking for dry communications that lack personality – they want to get to know your company. Here’s what they need to know about you:
Your brand voice is what gives them the answers to all of these questions.
Don’t be afraid to polarize your demographic. If you are saying something worth saying, you will isolate and put off a few potential clients, but you’ll also draw others. Here’s a great example from the corporate world:
The moment you open the new MacBook, its gorgeous 12‑inch Retina display with edge-to-edge glass brings everything into focus. Every photo leaps off the screen in rich, vibrant detail. Over 3 million pixels render each letter with crystal clarity. And it all comes to light on the thinnest, most energy-efficient Retina display ever on a Mac, meticulously honed to deliver a bold visual experience within an impossibly minimal design.”
Obviously, that comes from Apple’s website. But it also tells you that their target demographic has a college education, places importance on visual imagery, carries their computer on the go, and cares about the environment and/or their electricity bill. This piece of copy clearly resonates with Apple’s target demographic – it provides benefits that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, though. And Apple doesn’t care. They know who their prime targets are.
Apple’s copy isn’t the most daring, however. Take a look at Locally Laid (LOLA) brand eggs for a company that pushed boundaries and made a killing at it. LOLA really had fun with their tongue-in-cheek approach, and it brought them national recognition. Sure, they chased off a few people who were miffed at their “vulgar” brand name and cheeky ad campaigns, but they also won a base of happy supporters who got the brand’s sense of humor. They knew how to communicate with their client base, set themselves apart, and make a normally mundane product fun and egg-citing. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…)
Now that you know what your brand voice is, let’s talk about how you use it…
The tiny actions you take define your brand voice. Think about it. If you’re writing to an audience of senior citizens, you might use terms like icebox and soused, but they wouldn’t work well for millennials. At least, not if you want them to feel like you understand them. Tell a group of tech-illiterate entrepreneurs to make sure they’ve optimized their pages using white hat SEO/SEM and posted their site to listing directories, and they’ll look at you like you’ve got six heads.
Know who you are talking to, and write in a way they understand. And drop the jargon. Please. No one needs it, everyone is sick of it, and psychologically it gets glossed over. Repetitive phrases are automatically completed and ignored by readers, making them worthless for you.
Stop trying to sell “high quality” products or “maximize the conversions on your site using a data-driven, results-oriented approach,” or prepare an alarm to wake up your readers after they’ve snoozed through those phrases.
Skipping the jargon doesn’t mean killing the feeling of being in an exclusive club that some brands go for. An excellent example is Louis Vuitton. The article titles on their site scream luxury and exclusivity without using jargon:
“LOUIS VUITTON STRENGTHENS TIES WITH THE AMERICA’S CUP”
“FRONT ROW AT THE CRUISE 2016 SHOW”
“12th HAVANA BIENNIAL IN THE CITY OF HAVANA”
If your target market is luxury travelers and fashionistas, chances are that they’re interested in the America’s Cup, know about the Louis Vuitton Cruise 2016 Show, and may be looking for a new and interesting destination to see this year. You’d better be aware of what they’re interested in and able to talk about it – if you can’t talk the talk, you won’t have the chance to walk the walk.
Some ecommerce retailers target a niche they don’t really know, but have heard is lucrative. In order to make a company like that fly, you need to know how your demographic thinks, what they feel and how to get them to emote. Discover why they buy and when. Build a brand that is seen as a true member of the niche, not an outsider. That’s not a simple task.
Consider reading publications your demographic loves. Targeting homesteading hipsters? Try reading Modern Farmer. Working in the Paleo/Primal niche? Check out Mark’s Daily Apple or Nom Nom Paleo. You get the idea.
Sometimes, getting into the mind of your demographic can be a daunting task. Consider hiring a little outside help to give you an edge over the competition. A professional writer who knows your niche and already has a decent following is an option, as are writers and marketers who work across niches and adapt quickly. Having a pro on your side can cut down on the stress you’re facing, too – you’ve got enough to do already!
Consistency is important. If your company has a different personality for every social media account and publishing platform, you are in trouble. You probably don’t have an editorial calendar, either.
Fix that, now.
When your company presents multiple personalities across different platforms, you confuse your audience. Your readers don’t know what to expect, and you can potentially lose credibility as a consequence. Ouch – especially since this whole content marketing thing is designed to improve your authority and credibility in your niche.
If you don’t feel like pouring money down the drain into content marketing that proves ineffective, doesn’t provide any measurable results, and wastes considerable time and effort, be authentic. Be honest. Most importantly, be consistent.
Consistency doesn’t mean posting the same things on all your platforms. Pay attention to the signals your audience gives you and adjust your content on each platform accordingly, but make sure that you write in the same style and tone, and don’t let your brand accidentally contradict itself. Readers notice.
Ok, I don’t know how to say this nicely. Some social media marketing managers are just plain stupid. Make sure your company puts a measure in place that requires your social media folks to make sure their material isn’t insensitive, offensive, or ill-timed. Consider the blooper Epicurious made in 2013 following the Boston Marathon bombing – the company tweeted breakfast cereal recipes while saying their hearts were with the victims, and followed the complaint posts with a cut-and-paste apology.
Not a smart move, and definitely not a sensitive one. Don’t do something similar.
Social media can be worse, however. No matter what your brand image is – from tough and punk to soft and sensitive, don’t play with social media trolls. More than a few companies have had their run-ins with trolls, and those that reply pay heavily. The attacks get worse.
Don’t make every post run through a complex approval process, either. I’ve seen government agencies and private organizations make this mistake. If you can’t trust your employees to post appropriate material on the fly, don’t use rapid social platforms like Twitter. Success on these platforms depends on being able to ‘converse’ with your followers and react quickly to current events.
So what’s the secret to keeping a consistent brand voice, even with an army of social media marketers and no time for reviewing posts before putting them up? A brand style guide and manual that clearly lists what can and can’t be published, even using suggested phrasings and words to avoid. Purdue University’s brand style guide is online, and gives a great example of how detailed yours should be.
In college, I had a few serious relationships, but I also had a few lousy dates. I met my husband while I was still in college, too. One guy I went on a date with was the son of an oil magnate in the Middle East, had traveled the world extensively, and made every experience he’d had on his journeys sound boring and lackluster. Forget the fancy sports car, his company was miserable.
Another guy I went on a date with was a grad student, and spent about 50 hours each week in the office, minimum. He talked about everything but work – from philosophy and poetry to art and music. And when he spoke about geophysics and computer simulations, he managed to make it fun and interesting.
Yet another date was with a guy who played the drums in a jazz band, bagpipes in a traditional Scottish band, and had even climbed Mt. Everest. But when he talked about the experiences, everything was so self-centered that I’m fairly certain a yak would have made a better conversation partner.
Can you guess who I married?
If you said number two, you’re right. I don’t even remember number three’s name, and the only reason I remember number one’s is because he was the friend of a friend.
Who does your brand sound like? The guy who did it all, was a success, and yet was boring as all get out, the one who had a really interesting life but couldn’t get past his own self-centered tendencies, or the fun, brilliant guy who worked like a maniac, but managed to stay interesting and involved in things outside his office?
I hope it’s the last one, there. No matter what tone or voice you adopt in your company’s content, make sure you are likeable, engaging, and produce material your audience wants to see.
Content marketing is an extremely powerful tool to increase your authority and credibility online, help you be found in search results, and encourage brand interactions and purchases…if you do it right. This article touched on a few of the major issues with your brand’s voice that destroy good content marketing efforts, but there’s more than one way to mess things up. If you’d like to make a great impact on your brand and see actual results from your content marketing efforts, keep in mind the following:
Consistency – in timing, branding, tone, and voice
Relevancy – to your audience (don’t write in a voice they can’t relate to)
Likeability – write in a voice that makes your audience feel like they are interacting with a friend, or at least someone they like
Value – you need your content to be informative, but don’t make it dry or you’ll lose readers. In content marketing, true value is found at the intersection of information and fun.
Planning – create an editorial calendar and follow it, but stay flexible enough to react to current events and news.
Style – there are certain phrases you would never say and others that you use frequently. Your brand should have these, too. Include these phrases in your style guide to help cultivate a brand identity, personality, and recognizable voice.
A brand voice that connects with your audience, is authentic, speaks on their level (or below!), and is likeable will help your content marketing succeed. If your brand voice comes off as faking values and dishonest, fails to resonate with your demographic, or communicates in a different lexicon than your demographic, it’s likely to fail miserably and could potentially backfire by decreasing your brand’s perceived credibility and authority.
Want to see your efforts succeed? Keep it real. Don’t try to make your brand something it’s not, and stand your ground on brand values. Yes, you’ll lose a few customers, but you’re also likely to develop some diehard fans and lifelong customers.
If you’ve got any content marketing questions, feel free to email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave them in the comments below. Know anyone who needs serious help with their brand voice? Share this article, and maybe they’ll take the hint…