When my business partner Claire Mazur and I developed the idea for our company, Of a Kind in 2010, establishing our voice was a serious undertaking. We were creating a website to sell pieces from up-and-coming fashion designers and also to tell their stories, and we knew that figuring out how to speak to our audience — not just what to say but also how to say it — would be key in shaping people’s perception of what we were doing and selling.
Having come from the world of magazine editorial, cementing that tone was something I was excited to tackle. And though this project was especially crucial to our ecommerce business with its content-heavy approach, really, every company under the sun has to think about the voice and the personality of its messaging — how do you write an Instagram caption or respond to user feedback if you don’t know what your business sounds like? Do you open customer service emails with “Hey, Kanye!” or “Dear Mr. West?” Below, four tactics that have helped us define our vibe that we think will serve you well, too.
1.Know who you’re talking to
Before Claire and I started Of a Kind, we spent time identifying our target customers. Initially, we were talking to these imagined people — think Kate, the corporate creative who mourned the loss of Domino magazine and loved Michelle Williams’s style. But now that we’ve been in business for nearly four years, we have some knowledge — data! — re: who our customer is: She’s a 30-year-old woman who shops at J.Crew and Etsy and reads Refinery29 and The New Yorker.
Having this intel means we can not only create content that we deem relevant — say, “22 Bikinis for Grown-Ass Women”—but we can also make knowing references. We can namecheck Regina George (Mean Girls!) and Joan Didion, and she’ll get it.
Granted, not everyone who comes to our site fits this bill, and we have to walk a fine line. Plenty of publications avoid going down this road at all for fear of alienating a reader or a potential one, but it cuts the other way as well: If you do it right, you show your fans that you really get them and become fast friends.
2. Consider your familiarity with the person on the receiving end
Our ad copy doesn’t read the same as our newsletter content, which is different from the tone of our customer service messages. When we’re encountering someone for the first time— say, in a display ad — we play things a little straighter. We don’t use words like “rad” because we think people have to warm up to us — and that we have to warm up to them.
Bottom line: You need to consider both the context and your relationship with the person consuming each drop of content you produce. You wouldn’t want someone to stumble upon a tweet and be put off by your company because you come off as too insider-y, and, on the flipside, it’d be a bummer to alienate a super-user by responding to an email about a tech glitch in a way that read as too chilly or impersonal. The same way that social-media experts say you need to create different posts for the various platforms you’re using — well, you need to establish different iterations of our company voice for each of the ways and places you’re talking to people, too.
3.Create a banned word list
Sometimes it’s easier to define what feels wrong than what feels right, so start there. We don’t use “bauble” or “frock” — women’s magazine words that people don’t say in real life. Anything that’s aggressively fashion-y — or French — is also on the no list (i.e. “au courant”).
If you’re a food app targeting sophisticated home cooks, maybe “jiffy,” “nosh” and “kid-friendly” are off-limits. Or a beauty site with a teenage audience? Perhaps you decide to steer clear of “luxurious,” “dewy” or “pamper.”
Building this document is a good way to discover whole categories of words that just don’t fit your brand, and having a sheet to reference is a stellar way to teach others the writing style — it helps give the whole issue of voice some hard-and-fast rules that everyone on your team can follow.
4. When in doubt, err on the side of approachable and conversational
I was going to start this point by saying “Unless you’re a super-serious financial institution or something,” but then I realized that doesn’t actually hold: The online bank Simple does a fantastic job of being direct and informative … and friendly and accessible. In most cases, buttoned-up, big-word copy feels artificial, like it’s trying too hard or has something to prove, and users can see right through that. Ultimately, you want people to trust you and connect with you, and that’s a tough ask if they feel like you’re wearing a mask.
What are your rules for your brand’s voice? Tell us in the comments.