Writers and computers share a common trait: a fussiness about words. Writers choose their words with care. Computers are selective about the words they notice as well.
Metadata helps computers understand writing. Writers should care about metadata. Metadata influences how their writing connects to audiences. Metadata is an important editorial tool, though writers often don’t appreciate the value it offers.
I can hear some writers saying: “Hold on! — That’s not my job. I don’t know anything about metadata — I studied literature in college.” Metadata sounds like the antithesis of creative flair. And in some ways it is. I want to assure my friends who are writers that I’m not trying to turn them into geeks. Instead, I want to suggest that by having a little understanding of the geeky side of content, they can be more successful as writers.
Metadata, put very simply, is computer code that explains the meaning of content. That computer code can seem forbidding. But such code offers practical benefits to writers, and helps make content more interesting.
Writers should think about metadata as a form of communication, just as pantomime and poetry are. Metadata expresses ideas that are conveyed to audiences.
Metadata is a special form of communication, however, Unlike pantomime, metadata is purpose-built for the web.
Metadata as Describing
The most common type of metadata is the description. All web articles have META descriptions, which are short pithy statements summarizing the article. These statements often appear below the article title in Google search results. How well they are written can influence whether someone clicks on the link to read the article. Descriptions, by their nature, involve editorial decisions.
Another important description relates to photographs. Writers need to tell people what’s in a photograph. If the description is boring and vague, why would people want to view the photo? Describing visuals is becoming more important as people switch off their screens, and have content read aloud to them.
Metadata plays a valuable editorial role. It indicates what’s important about the content. Let’s consider some areas where metadata can help writers.
Suppose you are a film critic. You’ve quit a boring job writing training manuals about industrial equipment, and can finally use your literature degree in your work. Even as a film critic, you can amplify your writing by using metadata. Contrary to what you might expect, metadata can help writers tell stories.
Let’s imagine you want to review a new French film about the painter Paul Cézanne. The first conundrum is deciding how to refer to the film. Do you use the original French title, Cézanne et moi, or the translated English title, Cezanne and I? Fortunately, by using metadata, you can skirt this decision, by including the titles in both languages. Metadata can indicate the language of content. Someone in France could use language metadata to locate English language reviews of this French film, and compare them with the French language reviews. Do French and English speaking critics rate the film in the same way?
Another decision might be how to categorize the theme of the film. As a writer, you want your review to appear with other reviews about similar themes. Is the film about friendship, or is it a buddy movie? These terms relate to a concept in metadata called controlled vocabulary values. The writer needs to decide whether the theme is more about the friendship between two men, or about friendship generally. The decision will influence who sees the review, based on their interests and expectations.
Metadata can describe many aspects of a film, such as all the cast and crew involved. Writers might wonder, how interesting is all this information?
From the audience perspective, some information will be interesting to almost everyone, while other information is of interest only to committed fans. For some, detailed information seems like a list of dry facts. But for those who enjoy a film, the credits at the end provide extra value that enriches their experience.
We can see the different editorial dimensions of metadata in the IMDb entry for the Cézanne film. (IMDb, the Amazon owned database, uses metadata extensively. But I’ll hide the code, and show only what’s presented on the screen.)
First, we have the storyline, or plot summary. Several sentences describe the film. To audiences, this is what’s important. Does the film sound interesting or boring? What is it really about (beyond friendship)? Audiences need to know if the film is potentially interesting before they will care enough to read a critique of it.
Metadata and Prose
The metadata for the storyline is prose, in contrast to the list of names of cast members. Some content strategists consider such prose as an unstructured “blob” — long passages, full of details, that aren’t broken out into a list or table. But it is a mistake to view prose content as being beyond the reach of metadata. Structuring content by breaking it into sections is a separate activity from adding metadata to content. Writers don’t need to “structure” their content into a list, table or other tightly defined unit to take advantage of metadata. Writers can, and should, add metadata to their prose. By doing so, they will highlight some of the most interesting material. Metadata is not a straight-jacket that limits how writers express their perspectives. Writers can write words, sentences and paragraphs as they please, and then add metadata to highlight important people, places and things mentioned in their text.
We can see in the storyline that the film concerns not only the painter Paul Cézanne (which we knew from the film title), but also the writer Emile Zola. After reading the storyline, people may be interested in learning more about the film, or may want to learn more about the subject of the film. Metadata can link this review to other writings related to the film in some way. Perhaps readers want to read reviews about other films concerning Paul Cézanne, or concerning the same time period. Metadata acts as a curator: linking to writings on related topics.
Let’s turn to the more fact-oriented metadata. To many writers, this material is dull. Because it is presented in a list or in a table, and deals with minutiae such as film duration and release date, the content seems to offer little editorial interest. Unless you are a big fan of someone in the film, or collect obscure facts to win pub quizzes, why would someone care about these details?
Stories from Metadata
For the writer, such detailed metadata presents an opportunity to tell more stories. It may not be immediately obvious, but some of the details are unusual, or notable for some reason. Since these details are described in a way computers can understand, the writer can easily compare these details with details for other films. The writer can tell readers what’s significant about the film — in terms of casting, location, historical firsts, or contribution to overall performance for different kinds of film.
Metadata offers writers a lens to think about different dimensions of a topic. By identifying various characteristics, metadata highlights connections between two or more of them. This film is one of a number of friendship-themed movies that use the musical composition ”Roses of Picardy” by Haydn Wood. (Other films include A Passage to India, and Charlie Brown’s Halloween special.) What’s going on with this use of music? There’s a story there, somewhere.
Metadata can bring attention to details that might not otherwise be noticed. Writers can use metadata to discover and highlight details of interest to audiences.
Metadata can be a writer’s friend. It can help writers tell stories. Writers, for their part, can help computers appreciate their words and ideas by using metadata.
To become friends with metadata, writers will want to know more about how to create metadata and include it in their content. They can learn about how that’s done in my new book, Metadata Basics for Web Content. Read the book, so the content you write will be content that is read. Make it your job to identify metadata that will connect audiences with your writing.
People face tough choices in their lives everyday — choices without one clear winner. Perhaps available choices have different advantages, or all choices involve some kind of compromise. Content should illuminate what’s at stake when making these choices. In many situations, content fails to do this. It hides what’s at stake, doing so in the name of simplicity.
When Simplicity is a Ruse
Many of us, myself included, don’t like fiddling with complicated financial decisions. We wish there was a page we could go to and tap a button that says “Don’t bother me with this again — just take care of it” and we’d never have to think about it again. Instead, if we find such a page with such a button, we later find out that we’ve made a decision that is nearly impossible to undo. That same website offers another page with an endless loop of popups asking us: Are we sure we want to cancel, given that there is a $1000 penalty? It might as well ask us if we want to suffer lots now, or suffer a good bit indefinitely.
Financial news channels like CNBC and Bloomberg advertise smartphone apps seeking to manage your money. Some apps promise to find you the best credit card, while others promise easy and cheap mortgages. Tech investors fund countless startups who claim their app offers a new level of simplicity for financial management. These apps have slick UIs, and appeal to prospective customers who imagine themselves as take-charge and in-control. With just a couple of taps on the app, you can execute your decision without the annoying fuss that other firms make you go through. Target users know what they need: an app that lets them make big decisions wherever they are, even while running a half marathon during their lunch hour. Other ads show day traders thumbing their apps, making big buys while walking toward their private jet. Miraculously, the chaotic world of finance becomes a zen-like zone of clarity. Everything is now simple.
These two-tap solutions suggest they offer everything the user needs to know, even if sometimes that’s not true. The apps imply financial decisions can be boiled down to a couple of numbers, and content never has to get in the way of taking action. The best deal never involves a teaser rate that will change, or draconian terms and conditions invoked if you change your mind later. Making a rapid decision never requires one to think about the customer service experience after the fact. Users are asked to trust that all these issues have already been accounted for, and that the app has only chosen options that are free-of-problems, and are the absolutely best ones available anywhere.
Many businesses repeat the mantra of simplicity in connection with their customer proposition. Instead of being a genuine belief, the mantra is often just empty words. Simplicity, a rock-solid idea, can be cynically manipulated to trick customers into believing the convenience they experience is in their best interest.
Simplicity became a marketing buzz word at the same time as user experience (UX) became a commodity. They became features to brag about, rather than experiences to faithfully deliver. Simplicity is a good thing, but that statement needs to be qualified. True simplicity is paradoxically difficult to offer.
Easy Now or Easy Later?
When people working in UX or behavioral economics talk-up the ideal of simplicity, they often are actually championing the notion of convenience. Convenience implies something is easy-to-do, while simplicity implies additionally that something is easy-to-understand. When a company boasts of offering an app that lets you make choices on your smartphone, saying what you need is in the palm of your hand, they are appealing to convenience more than to simplicity. Understanding involves more than taking action in a moment-in-time. It involves seeing how the future of that action will unfold.
For much of the history of the web, people worried about drowning in information, a phenomenon called TMI (too much information). Yet a recent Pew survey of American web users revealed that “worries about information overload are not widespread” now. That sounds like a good thing, and in many ways it is. People shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by information. Smartphones have helped people keep up with information, and their small screens have brought discipline to previously long and complicated content.
But part of that progress has occurred at the cost of removing information that is valuable. The same Pew survey revealed that Americans think that “schools, banks and government agencies expect too much from people”. These sectors are routinely considered difficult to deal with, due to how much information they expect their clients to provide them. To understand why banks and government agencies can’t be as simple to deal with as Amazon, we must consider how such institutions differ from a ecommerce retailer.
Compared with financial, educational and government institutions, retailers can automate their processes to a greater extent. Retailers control most choices about supplying, pricing, presenting and delivering goods to customers. When retailers automate these processes, they remove related complexity from customers. They handle much complexity on the backend, so that users don’t need to experience complexity on the frond end. Simplicity is easiest to achieve when offering straightforward transactions, such as booking a concert ticket, because little information is required from the customer, and the customer needs to understand little in return.
An insurance company, on the other hand, needs the customer to make various decisions that involve multiple steps. Insurance companies can’t presume what the customer wants. Customers need to be actively involved. It is more difficult to automate customer choices, because the customer needs to understand what choices they are making.
Decisions that have Consequences
Trivial decisions are easy to outsource to other parties, but important ones require active participation. People are short on time, and often low on energy. People understandably want choices to be easy. But they are not well-served when content implies decisions are straightforward, when in reality they involve many considerations.
Many customer decisions are iterative, multi-faceted, or nonlinear. Customer priorities and circumstances are difficult to reduce to a few common variables. Imagine being given two or three choices for a hair style when booking a hair cut online, with no further input allowed. While seemingly convenient, such a process won’t ensure a happy outcome. Even though haircuts are generally low-value purchases, they have big emotional consequences for the buyer.
Any transaction that potentially involves “buyer’s remorse” after purchase, where making changes is difficult to do, requires some active involvement from the buyer to indicate what they want. These decisions include:
high-value, feature-rich, or maintenance-demanding products that will be owned a long time such as cars
emotionally symbolic purchases such as family vacations
personalized, long-term service relationships such as insurance and education.
By their nature, decisions that can involve buyers remorse are tough choices. We’d never experience regrets if the right choice was obvious before we made it.
Tough choices typically have many inputs, often happening over a period of time. Certain tasks resist automation, such as deciding on and making medical appointments, or doing taxes. Many decisions are one-off ones, or are infrequent, so that circumstances will have likely changed since the prior time the decision was considered. People can’t just set preferences that will be triggered each time the decision needs to be made.
Some tough choices involve comparing two or more items that have many dimensions to them. Other tough choices involve a single decision to do something that involves some risk. Perhaps the perceived cost of the decision is high, or the effort involved to commit to the decision deflates one’s motivation.
Too Much Information, or Too Little?
Publishers resort to generic ideas to determine how much detail to provide customers. People routinely complain about having to read long documents. Research shows that people feel overwhelmed when offered too many choices,. As a famous, widely-cited experiment demonstrated, when people were asked to choose which breakfast jam to buy, offering too many choices resulted in lower sales. Common sense and experimental research both seem to suggest that publishers should limit the amount of information presented to audiences. Don’t risk making the experience a chore to do — give people what they say they want, which is not having to read much. The case for information- and choice-rationing sounds straightforward. Sadly, we can’t afford to hide an important qualification: what’s simple now isn’t necessarily what’s simple later.
Streamlining information and limiting options is a great tactic for simple decisions like buying jam. But it can be a bad tactic for helping people make tough choices.
Too much information is a symptom, not the core problem. The core problem is that making an informed choice is difficult, due to the nature of the decision. Some businesses eagerly take that chore away from customers, by limiting their choice. They may justify limiting choice by arguing that something that looks complicated does not look trustworthy. Complicated content obscures what’s best for the customer. According to this logic, if the proposition looks simple, then it will be trusted. These businesses consider trust as a matter of optics, rather than of substance. People don’t need to be informed, they just need to feel something is simple.
When publishers remove information that’s critical for customers to know, they are offering fake simplicity. They are restricting vital information, and in so doing, influencing the decisions customers make. Fake simplicity hides information and choices that have consequences for the audience. Fake simplicity hides potential problems from users. Real simplicity addresses potential problems. Informing users about issues and tradeoffs doesn’t make the content complicated — it makes the content useful.
Let’s look at a familiar example of real simplicity applied to an iterative decision. The solution reveals information that could be problematic for users. That solution is the traffic information available on Google Maps. The user can just look at the map, and see how heavy traffic is. It couldn’t be simpler from the user perspective. Behind the curtain, the app draws on complex processes to deliver this information. Google pools data from all its smartphone locations to produce a composite picture of how quickly traffic is moving. It is complex from Google’s perspective, but simple from the user perspective. And it provides the user with vital information they care about in an easy-to-understand manner. No one complains Google Maps has too much information. Its transparency is what makes it useful when making driving decisions. Even though in many cases there is one best option when choosing a driving route, the dynamic variability of traffic means that alternatives and adjustments always need to be considered.
Many apps appear to be convenient because they remove things you should be aware of. Smartphone content in particular frequently hides critical information for the sake of superficial simplicity. Content may:
Hide explanatory information informing decisions
Hide choices or options.
Publishers may hide information or options using UI tricks such as saying “more” or “what’s this?” to de-prioritize important information. They may leave out information people would want to know about, because the information is not legally required to be disclosed — at least at that stage. Often, the gotchas are loaded at the final stage of consideration, in the form of an T&C agreement check box. Sometimes firms offer false choices, believing that having only one attractive option is the best way to get people to make a decision on a complex issue. Or the user interfaces restrict choices that users might want. For example, many people are happy to use Instagram to take photos, until they realize that Instagram doesn’t offer the choice of downloading the photo for use outside of the Instagram ecosystem.
Supporting Genuine Choice
User interfaces are easy to simplify. Human emotions aren’t. When people aren’t sure what choice to make for a decision that has consequences, they want both to understand, and to trust the information available. Trust derives from integrity, and telling the truth.
When the choice is tough, content that suggests all options will make you happy, or there is only one best choice, doesn’t inspire trust. True, customers don’t want too many choices. Normally, more than four choices at once is too much. But people want genuine choice, and know how choices differ and they will be affected by each. They know that all options don’t result in equal levels of long-term happiness.
Choice is an emotional issue. It involves personal expression. One of the purest examples where people want to express choices is an online petition. They participate in a petition not to complete a transaction where they get something in return immediately, but to make their views known. People want choices offered to reflect their real preferences. “Simplicity has it’s limits. Make the process too simple and you run the risk of encouraging ill-targeted, unfocused petitions” notes David Karpf, a George Washington University professor who has studied petition websites such as MoveOn.org and Change.org. These sites don’t try to make choice a single action, but break choices into a few simple steps.
“The feeling of choice…promotes wellbeing. Our wellbeing depends on the ability to exercise choice…” notes Michael Bhaskar in his new book, Curation. People want choice that is meaningful to them personally. They are skeptical when sellers present false choices such as having a “best value” package prominently displayed in the center of options that aren’t good deals. They flinch at choices where it is hard to discern the differences among them, or evaluate which is best for a given situation.
Promoting Real Simplicity
If hiding or rationing information doesn’t help customers make tough choices, what does? There can be too much information — if it isn’t relevant. Real simplicity highlights the parameters that are most important when making a decision. It shows what to consider, and provides the means to choose. Real simplicity doesn’t try to make the choice for the user. It helps the user know what’s important about the choice to consider. It knows what issues have had consequences for people in the past, and reveals these to people now making such decisions.
Real simplicity doesn’t derive from word choices or screen layouts. It embodies decisions about the kinds of information to feature, deciding what choice parameters to prioritize because they ultimately matter most. Moreover, real simplicity offers a framework for understanding and comparing these parameters. Readers have a context to see how different parameters influence their overall choice.
Don’t limit choices unless that is part of your up-front proposition
Don’t condense several decisions into a single package of choices that are hard to discern
Don’t offer choices few people will want to make, to make one seem better
Don’t bury explanations of important criteria
Provide several meaningful choices that will appeal to different kinds of people
Emphasize what is most different about each choice compared with others
Break discrete issues into separate decisions, instead of bundling unrelated issues into difficult-to-grasp decisions requiring a leap-of-faith
Emphasize trade-offs involved with different choices when they exist
Offer ways for people to compare different aspects of a decision across different options, so they can focus on issues of greatest importance to themselves personally
Some of these guidelines trespass on decisions relating to product offers and pricing. Content can’t be separated from these issues. Product managers should understand that attempts to drive customer behavior toward specific outcomes that are optimal for the business are not necessarily how customers consider their choice. We see this issue now in the cable TV industry, where cable operators want to force customers to accept bundles that aren’t valued by the customer. Unless there is alignment between how customers consider and value choices, and how firms offer choices to their customers, the firm’s reputation will suffer, and customer retention be vulnerable to market challengers who offer choices more aligned with customer needs.
Tough Choices are Individual
Tough choices aren’t categorical, divided into good choices and bad choices that apply to everyone. Tough choices involve right choices and wrong choices as they apply to individuals. Take the example of vacations: going to Aspen is not a “good” choice. Aspen will appeal to skiers who can afford it, but won’t to people on a budget or who don’t care for mountains. The individual’s situation and context shapes what’s ultimately best. Even mundane decisions, such as purchasing a new home water heater, involve significant individual variation in circumstances and preferences.
Some of the information needed to support tough choices needs to be disclosed prominently on forms and in tables. Features, specifications, applications, add-ons, exclusions, replacement and servicing costs, renewal pricing, incentives, projected maintenance, refunds and cancellation fees. Everyone can benefit from knowing such details. People can notice these parameters and assess how they may be affected by them personally. Yet content can do more than simply add transparency.
Tough choices, at heart, involve human stories. Why did someone make the choice they did? Different people will make different choices. Each person will have their own reason for their choice. These considerations can be highlighted in stories.
Stories are a powerful form of content, and are well suited to helping people make tough choices. Stories can show why others made the decisions they did, and how that decision worked out for them:
What was their situation at the time of their decision?
What did they consider important, and how did they evaluate the choices available?
How happy have they been with the choice they made?
What do they wish they had done differently?
A great story might be one where a person gets advice from a friend about a decision. The friend is happy with the choice they made, so the person decides to make the same choice. Later, the person realizes they aren’t really happy with the decision they followed. He realizes that his situation is different from his friend in an important respect, and he would have been better off making a different decision. Some of the most powerful stories happen when people learn from mistakes.
Stories aren’t always simple — especially if we equate simplicity with minimalism. They can involve many words, and twists and turns. But stories can make complex situations understandable and memorable. They can help individuals identify what’s personally important about a situation.
Conventional wisdom says that brands need to speak with one voice. I think that advice is incomplete, and can be sometimes counterproductive.
Content strategists often talk about the importance of the voice and tone of content. The words a writer uses convey more than literal meaning. Perhaps as you read these words you are wondering who wrote them. You may be asking yourself who the author is, and whether you should pay attention.
Voice and tone are about the broader meaning of words. Voice is the implied persona of the author. Tone is “the attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about,” said I.A. Richards, the moral philosopher and literary critic who first developed the concept in 1929. I like to think about tone as the emotional intelligence the author reveals.
Voice is how you speak in general, and tone is how you talk in specific situations. Voice is your general attitude, while tone is your attitude in specific circumstances. For example, someone talks with the detached casualness of a hipster (voice), and reacts with irony to discussions about politics (tone). The attitude you infer shapes how much you like the author.
There are two aspects to likeability: the extent we self-identify with the category of person we perceive someone as being, and the extent to which we judge their behavior as compatible with our own standards. Voice addresses the self-identification aspect, while tone addresses the moral judgment aspect.
The concept of literary voice has been co-opted by the commercial world for some time now. First, companies seeking to shore up their corporate identity adopted the idea of a “brand voice,” which applied to short form content used in advertising. More recently, companies have started embracing the notion of a “content voice” to cover all their content. But as the notion of voice has stretched to serve new purposes, its assumptions may need revisiting.
The corporate takeover of voice as a concept has been motivated by a desire to inject personality into organizations. By having a distinct voice, brands hope to be seen as people, not as faceless corporations. They reason: “People don’t want to read some corporate blah-blah talk. We need a distinct voice that differentiates us from everyone else.”
Personifying organizations is tricky. When a prominent American politician argued that “corporations are people,” he was mocked. People rarely expect corporations to be their personal friends, even if they don’t want the organizations they deal with to be robotic. Corporations aren’t people, except when people decide to act like corporations, as in the case of celebrities. One can run into trouble buying into the myth that brands are just like your next-door neighbor, or your favorite novelist. Brands in many respects are more complex than individuals, and equating a brand persona with a human creates confusion.
One widely offered bit of advice concerns the need for a consistent voice. Nearly everyone who addresses the topic of brand voice or content voice repeats the recommendation to keep one’s voice consistent. The recommendation rests on two assumptions: 1. that consumers expect brands to have a consistent voice, else they will be confused, and 2. that brands are more impactful when they use a consistent voice.
The advice for content strategists is well captured by the folks at MailChimp, who have been at the forefront of promoting voice and tone guidelines for content. “You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes.”
There is indeed value in having a consistent voice for an audience, but that does not imply brands should have the same voice for everyone. And while brands should have a unifying purpose, it doesn’t follow brand should have a single voice to express that purpose.
Even when drive by a common purpose, brands can have diverse missions, and as a result, different groups notice and relate to a brand’s purpose in different ways. Brands should not come across as being one-dimensional by having a voice that’s too narrow.
Individuals have a single, recognizable personality largely because the attitudes we express unconsciously reflect both our personal history and our organic make up. We have limited capacity to be all things to all people; our attention can’t be spread everywhere. Even so, people aren’t one-dimensional; we can have many sides to our personality, sometimes even contradictory. Our cohesion comes naturally, without seeming robotic.
Voice and identity
Organizations are artificial entities, and need to be purposeful in how they coordinate their activities and communicate them. Without coordination, they seem chaotic; with too much coordination, they can appear robotic or artificial.
A voice helps us answer who the speaker is: their intent and their perspective. A voice is not simply what is signaled, but how it is perceived. Often, brands spend too much effort worrying about what they are signaling at the expense of considering how it is perceived. For perception is a matter of individual interpretation. Perceptions, by definition, will vary.
To date, advice about content voice has largely assumed that people will perceive the voice in the same way. The assumption is: the more consistent you are in your voice, the more likely people will see you as you want to be seen. Tone should be dynamic, modulating according to different circumstances, but voice should be the same always.
This preoccupation with consistency of voice can risk freezing out audiences a brand may wish to reach.
The proscriptive character of voice guidelines can resemble the corporate identity guidelines used by big brands in the past. Branding teams became known as “logo police” because of their preoccupation with the sanctity of the logo. The logo was the symbol of the unity of the corporation, and minor inconsistencies and deviations were thought to harm the brand.
Visual and service branding has since evolved beyond assuming that consistency is the highest priority. Many corporations are developing “dynamic brands” that morph to adapt to different contexts and audiences. Even the logos change. The goal is to present an impression on customers that seems living, not rigid.
Many brands still maintain tight controls and lay down explicit guidance. But growing numbers of brands rely on implicit guidance based on example rather than rules, and allow a looser and more dynamic interpretation by operating units for how to express the brand.
If voice is meant to reflect the brand, but it’s no longer axiomatic that the brand must be rigidly fixed, then perhaps content voice should be flexible as well.
The limits of fixed voices
Ideally, the goal of a content voice should be for audiences to know who you are, and what you stand for. Voice tells audiences what they can assume about you based on the way you communicate.
The goal of consistency can result in bland advice. Voice guidelines may tell writers to sound “smart but not elitist.” Such guidelines may be sound and be applicable to all audiences, but not provide the patina of personality desired.
The alternative is to develop voice guidelines with a strong personality. MailChimp is recognized as a well-developed example of a content voice with a strong personality. With its lighthearted voice and cartoon avatar, MailChimp embodies a voice personality the Japanese would describe as kawaii — teeming with cuteness. It embodies the firm’s culture, informal and friendly. It’s different from most IT voices; it’s quirky and has its fans.
The danger with an approach like MailChimp’s is to offer too much personality. Sounding different and appearing unique may be a goal of the brand, but is not necessarily a goal of consumers. Consumers are primarily seeking the actual product, not the content supporting the product. The benefits of voice differentiation are limited: the more successful a brand is at attracting certain audiences, the more likely it is to alienate other audiences.
MailChimp is apparently successful with how its content is perceived by customers in its target markets. But no matter how good their service, some potential customers may be put off by their voice, and by Freddie-the-Chimp’s jokes. Fun and informal doesn’t necessarily convey gravitas, or imply serious standards compliance or fault-free reliability of delivery performance to a dour corporate IT procurement officer. The tone of their contractual information may be more serious, but the general impression given through their voice overall is one of fun. As long as their voice is both fixed and iconic, they are defined by what audience segment is willing to self-identify with their voice.
Brands don’t need to act monolithically
Brands don’t necessarily mean the same thing to all people, even when the brand is driven by a common business strategy and purpose. When brands mean different things to different people, they shouldn’t try to act the same to everyone.
Let’s consider some common situations. Many organizations have divergent stakeholders who are attracted to a common offering but expect different things from it. Health organizations deal with patients, doctors, and researchers. All are interested in health, but in different ways. Countless businesses sell similar or even identical products to both businesses and consumers. How the B2B customer uses and evaluates products can be very different from a B2C customer. Finally, nonprofits focus on an issue or service but have widely different stakeholders. The concerns of large foundations that are donors will be different from small organizations or individuals that are recipients of grants or services offered by the nonprofit.
When brands serve very different constituencies, they need to talk to them with different voices. It is not enough to simply change the tone according to different situations. Different constituencies will need to perceive the brand as reliable according to the values that most matter to them. The brand’s voice needs to reflect that.
An example of a brand that serves different constituencies with different voices is Oxfam. The charity has a mission of being a “practical visionary.” According to Wolff Olins, Oxfam’s branding agency, the charity uses two voices: simple direct language to talk about practical topics such as emergencies, and a rich language to talk about visions for solving problems. These different languages correspond to the different constituencies: practical support is sought by people and groups in need, while visions are developed to attract interest by funders and large donors.
When to use one voice, when to use two
A single consistent voice is appropriate in some cases, but not others. To illustrate, we can divide brands into two types.
The first type of brand is confident they have one audience that all wants the same thing from them. The brand may offer many products or address many topics, but does so in a consistent way. The brand’s advantage is about its process: how they do things is special, rather than what they address. Whatever it does or sells, it delivers it in a consistent way, emphasizing some particular brand value such as efficiency, convenience, selection, price, or value. Walmart, Amazon and Gilt will all have different voices even though all sell a range of products. But each brand will use a consistent voice regardless of product it is selling.
The second type of brand is more defined by the specialty they address than their process. What they chose to address is notable, and they are experts about that specialty. They attract interest from a range of people who have different concerns and levels of understanding. Each different constituency has particular needs. They need to be addressed in different ways, according to their interests and level of understanding. The voice needs to speak to what’s at stake for the constituency. We can imagine such a brand having two distinct voices. Perhaps one is a caring voice, aimed at non-specialists who rely on the services of the brand. These people already are sold on the brand’s expertise: they just want to be assured they can take advantage of it easily. Another voice might be an expert voice, competent and efficient, aimed at proving to other experts they really are the best at what they do. Such a constituency of peers might include investors, hiring candidates, business partners, or the trade press.
Voice and tone guidelines are helpful tools — without them content effectiveness is hampered. But the guidelines need to reflect not only the brand’s goals for how they wish to be seen, but also consider how audiences need to hear things. Voice and tone guidelines for content have evolved from the practice of branding guidelines, and accordingly often have a brand-centric orientation, rather than a truly audience centric one. There rarely is there much audience input into the development of voice and tone guidelines.
Rather than rush to implement guidelines for staff to follow, brands should first test content with likely users to see how it is perceived, and learn the expectations of users. I like how MailChimp has done a lot of work with tone to make sure that it adapts to different user situations. The tone is emotionally intelligent, taking into consideration the user’s likely frame of mind in a given situation. Other brands should considered user needs for tone the way that MailChimp has.
User needs are important not just for tone, but for voice as well. Users can’t define your voice, but your voice needs to work for them. Voice can help brands relate more effectively to their audiences, but it’s important brands don’t come across as a tribe that some feel excluded from.