Every company pays close attention to the tone of voice it uses on social media, and for good reason: in today’s connected world, brand success is highly correlated with a superior digital experience, a subset of customer experience (CX) that notably includes apps, websites, online ads, and social media.
A recent study by Salesforce shows that a staggering 80% of consumers consider the experience a company provides just as important as its products and services, while 67% are ready to pay more for better customer experience. Given the countless hours we spend on our phones every day, from messaging friends to going on Facebook or LinkedIn, ordering deliveries, reading news, paying our bills, sending emails and trading stocks, it is evident that digital experience, through which we see, evaluate, and build connections with brands, is of critical importance.
“Wars of apps” often reveal a shift in consumers’ focus
Increasingly consumers choose brands over others if their mobile apps and overall online experience are better. This can potentially lead to no less than a revolution in certain sectors, where traditional considerations such as trustworthiness, expertise and reliability are displaced by new concerns about convenience, intimacy, and speed, which have become our generation’s mantra. For instance, younger consumers may see a 150-old bank that has seen its customers through multiple crises as old-fashioned and outdated and prefer to it a fledging virtual bank with no tangible assets or branches, but which comes as an app with a sleek interface that allows them to conduct common transactions in an instant with a click of a button.
Another example showing the extent of the risks many consumers today may accept taking when attracted by a convenient and emotionally satisfying digital experience: the US investing platform Robinhood, highly popular among millennials, which was designed to enable the masses to invest conveniently and easily, with a mission statement hinting at a face-off with Wall Street establishment. While Robinhood’s proposal has proven to be extraordinarily successful from a quantitative viewpoint, the company has been embroiled in multiple scandals, from the alleged “gamification” of stock trading to inexperienced investors committing suicide after suffering massive losses to its abrupt restriction of its users’ trading in certain securities amid the GameStop frenzy earlier this year. However, most of the app’s users are not detracted, and the company is working on its upcoming USD40 billion IPO. All this is happening while “safer” and more conventional alternatives, such as retail brokers Charles Schwab, Ameritrade and E*TRADE have offered commission-free trades since 2019.
These two examples illustrate how core values that one would rationally associate with financial services are losing at least some of their appeal in favour of new attributes that pertain to a large extent to the quality of our visual and sensory interaction with our phones. The same principle applies to most other industries: We have come to experience and evaluate brands on our phones. And we do this not only through apps, but also very importantly on social media.
Social media, branding and engagement
With corporate success increasingly driven by the quality of the digital experience a company offers and the feeling of trust and intimacy with the brand it creates, social media has grown to play an outsized role in any marketing plan, so much so that in the extreme, a target audience’s favourable disposition toward certain character traits may lead a company to rethink its very own identity and values. Think of an incumbent bank, which, challenged by new fintech entrants whose only presence is digital, decides to alter its communications style to sound less authoritative (read “stiff”) and more forward-thinking (read “inspiring”).
In the realm of social media, the spoils go to brands with a winning tone of voice. According to a study conducted by consultancy agency Sprout Social, the top two factors that make a company’s social media best in class are engagement with audience (61%) and transparency (45%). Content (40%) and storytelling (32%) only come third and fifth, which signify consumers tend to rank brands more on the basis of the quality of their communications than their actual content.
This fact makes a lot of sense when considering that a brand voice is often seen as a distinct personality, with which consumers can relate as if the brand were an actual human being. Indeed, if given a choice between receiving information from a charming individual full of character and receiving slightly better information from a robot, one may choose to pick the robot for the data but would rate the overall experience much lower. A consumer will thus likely choose to conduct most of his business with the human-like brand and only when absolutely necessary with the emotionless brand.
Hence, one of the most critical challenges faced by brands on social media is to successfully conjure up a recognizable tone of voice that reflects the traits of that distinctive, recognizable persona and allows you to engage and build an intimate relationship with your target audience based on the strong emotions that are associated with important modern values such as transparency, honesty, and openness, to name a few.
Finding the best tone of voice for social and digital
While unequivocally and comprehensively defining – or updating - the right tone of voice for a given company, product and target audience will always be a painstaking exercise, the following guidelines may help tick all the key boxes.
Consistency with the company’s values
Your digital tone of voice should be fully consistent with your company’s mission, values, and overall brand voice so that it sounds authentic. Venturing far from where you started risks coming off as unnatural. If your company values include reliability, or if you operate in an industry where a lot is at stake, you may want to avoid sounding casual or using humour.
Meeting customer expectations?
If available, research may help identify tone of voice attributes your target audience expects from companies operating in your industry. While this may be valuable to validate your own conclusions and avoid pitfalls, such research should not take precedence over essential considerations such as the company’s unique identity.
Your digital tone of voice should be documented so that all writers contribute using the same style, with minimum editing efforts. Such documentation should include a description of your persona’s traits, recommended vocabulary and grammar constructions, and plenty of do’s/don’ts examples to illustrate how rules work in practice.
Compatibility with your target audience
Is your tone of voice appropriate for all your target audiences? Are you in a situation where, by focusing most of your marketing efforts on the younger generation, you adopt language that is fit for that segment, but alienates the rest of your customers? In the extreme, are you trying so hard to engage with a specific target audience that it comes off as deliberate or phony?
Language and lingo are always evolving (a fact particularly true on social media), and new events – even outside the industry – may shape the way a company communicates. As such, your digital tone of voice should be reviewed and updated regularly, lest it become out of date.
By being unique and recognizable, a tone of voice will be much more likely to be easily remembered by your target audience and to help build a special relationship with consumers. This can be achieved by preferring certain words over others, using special sentence constructions or the company’s own vocabulary. Apple offers a great example with a confident style and concise copy made of short, simple words.
Familiarity and trust
We generally trust something we are familiar with. This implies that the tone of voice should be consistently applied, with no exception, so that both the form and language of every message may be recognized, enabling readers to comprehend and process each new piece of content easily. Failing to do so would result in consumers being confused about the brand identity, thus damaging the perception of trustworthiness and the relationship.
Human-like or corporate / formal or informal
Following the advent of the smartphone and the explosion of social media, the communications style of many industries has shifted from purely formal and corporate to more human-like. While it remains, for good reasons, a norm for certain industries to keep using a more corporate style, a more human style elicits positive emotions that are more conducive to building a committed relationship. In many sectors, companies are on the fence on that topic, as the implications of too sudden a shift may be colossal.
Do you feel your organization should do more or better in terms of its social media initiatives? As we have seen, finding the right tone of voice is critical to building long-term, intimate relationships with your target audience, leading to higher market share and ultimately corporate success. More than ever, the battle for customers is taking place on our smartphones. Some brands have made early moves, some are still on the fence. Please feel free to let us know about your own views and experience.