Content strategy: Beware the chatty tone of voice

It started off small. Bottles of vitamin water cracked jokes about curing hangovers in the supermarket queue. Shampoo bottles sassed about recycling habits (or lack thereof) when you picked them up off the shelf. Meanwhile, one unnamed milkshake brand decided that nothing says ‘dairy’ quite like, er, Danny Dyer?

Somewhere along the way this conversational copy slipped off of billboards and bottles, and spilled into every journey. Before we knew it, we had punny copy populating support pages (instead of the information we actually need), while quips replaced explanatory text on the way to checkout. 

Soon every brand wanted us to not just buy from them, but be their best friend. Remember how on your first day of a new school, one of your parents warned you that the friendliest and keenest kid was likely a little odd? Well, humans are fickle creatures. The trick is not trying too hard. Most chatty brands slip up because they can’t shut up.

Peculiar personalities go mainstream

I'm not saying that getting tone of voice (TOV) right is easy. It’s difficult to balance business goals with a voice that seems natural to the brand speaking it. This voice has to adapt depending on intent and context, and needs be deployed by a team creative enough to keep it sounding novel and fresh.

Nine times out of ten, clients we work with say they want to sound “approachable but authoritative.” This is understandable. After all, there isn’t a brand on earth that would want to sound rude (unless, of course, you’re Hollister's ex-CEO). But some personality attributes are now such buzzwords that brand voices have begun to blend into one.

Increasingly, we’re seeing the likes of ‘witty’ or ‘kooky’ added into this roaster of go-to adjectives. While on the surface they’re appealing, they are also purposely ambiguous. Because how do you quantify ‘quirky’? What kind of humour do we mean when we say ‘funny’? How are these qualities translated into content? More often than not, this desired voice is based on an existing brand. The good news is, we know exactly who's responsible for the now-ubiquitous “I’m your best buddy” brand voice.

The Innocent effect

Cited in proposed tone of voices from here to Timbuktu, Innocent’s whimsical words are well-established in the world of marketing. And it’s an effect that’s not been lost on Innocent. In 2016, co-founder Richard Reed remarked to the Observer: “I do think, oh my God, will my long-term contribution to the species be that I was the guy who introduced really annoying body copy on packaging?”

What makes Innocent so special (and therefore so steal-able) isn’t just how distinctive it is, but how consistent. Its personality is always present, but it doesn’t dominate the conversation. Its voice is perpetually playful, but its tone changes depending on where it appears. And as we can see in the example below, you can provide users with the information they need, like contact details, while balancing it with the idiosyncrasies of your organisation. 

Image showing Innocent's contact page copy

In this way, Innocent treads a line lots of brands struggle to. The team behind Innocent know when to leverage their voice, change their tone or get out of the way because they know their audience. They do their research. They understand their users’ needs, motivations and requirements at every point in the conversation. 

Forget content, context is king

Your TOV shouldn't be static. Think of it like your normal voice. You are always 'you', but the version of yourself you express changes depending on who you're talking to (for instance, your mum or your boss). Similarly, the voice of a brand – the 'who' – stays the same, but the tone – the 'how' – changes depending on the purpose of the content. 

Next, we'll look at a London-based, online retailer whose brass and bold voice makes them both appealing and memorable. But its problem isn’t that it lacks charisma, just that it doesn’t always know how to capitalise on its own strengths. For instance, we found this slice of questionable copy in their FAQ section.

Example on-page copy that includes everything the writer wants to communicate about voice and brand, but nothing the user actually needs: 'Looking at your letterbox? Dwelling on the door mat? We understand. Waiting for your items can leave you on sweaty, breathless, and wanting more.  If you’re not sure what delivery method you selected, you can check your order confirmation email as it has everything you need to know.  Some products, such as Personalised or Direct Despatch items may take a little longer as they are not made or despatched from our own warehouse but from a trusty partner in crime. There’s an ETA on the product page if you can’t quite remember.'

All seems fine, right? You’re being friendly and setting the scene before jumping in. Now imagine you’re a user. You’ve ordered a package and you want to know how long delivery will take. It’s a straight forward question, so you would expect to find out quickly and easily. What you don’t need is a couple lines of heavily branded content standing between you and your answer. You just want to know how long the delivery will take. 

Further, the paragraph includes everything the brand wants to communicate about its voice and brand, but nothing the user actually needs. The writer has clearly never worked in a call centre, but also fails to understand the context of the content. TOVs need to flex and change to meet users where they are, rather than forcing them to navigate a rigid, branded bubble. For an example of how you can use content to rejuvenate your FAQ/support area (and how you can use call centres to inform your content), take a look at the award-winning work we did for Virgin Media Ireland. 

Conversely, there are brands who discard their otherwise friendly brand voice and choose formality in the support section. Responses to common queries are long, drawn out and somewhat jarring, and it takes the user time to pick through the complex language. Neither of these tactics work. Just give the user the information they need, in language they can understand, and move on.

Screenshot showing text that takes a long time for a user to find the information they need

Users are task-led and time-poor. We’re all stressed and juggling ten million tasks, balancing a baby on one hip or struggling to decipher tiny words on a smartphone while on a bus. We rarely casually browse anymore. Sure, we scroll, but when we land on a page, we do so with a clear purpose.

This is where content and UX tie together nicely, and where we see some problematic crossovers between content marketing and UX writing. A witty TOV may excel at attracting new customers, but when it comes to instilling confidence at checkout or communicating terms and conditions, it might not fare well if it’s not flexible. So talk to your audience. Find out what they want. Write the words they need to read, not what you want to say. This all begins with user research and testing. 

UX your writing

The best kind of TOV is one that retains brand consistency, but adjusts to the purpose of the page. It isn’t dogmatic and never demands the audience’s time, but earns their attention. It’s fluid. It balances your brand’s brilliance with changing user needs. And it shouldn’t be worry. We can communicate personality in sentence. A ten-word limit in a wireframe is far from impossible, it just requires a little ingenuity.

The first rule of a UX writer is to always begin with a user need. The second rule is check back after you finish to make sure what you just wrote answered it. Good content is rooted in relevancy. It appears where is it supposed to. It serves a need or drives a behaviour. It says something. It’s not just mindless chatter, because we know our words matter.

If you would like to pick our brains about our strategic content services or tone of voice expertise, get in touch via hello@nomensa.com or give us a call on +44 (0)117 929 7333. 

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