How to Develop Your Website’s Tone of Voice

Aug 1 2011 by Ailsa Partridge | 23 Comments

How to Develop Your Website's Tone of Voice

There are two branches of Starbucks near my office, but I will always go to the one that’s slightly further away. Both sell exactly the same products, the decor is identical, and the queues are always a similar length.

Why go to the one that’s further away? I like the way the barista talks to me.

Although the content of our brief exchanges is no different from the conversation I’d have at the other branch, there’s something very different about how this interaction sounds and feels: tone.

His tone is unfailingly friendly and upbeat, which always leaves me with a smile and keeps me coming back to that particular branch.

My loyalty is certainly not unique. In a competitive market where businesses strive to match each other on cost and quality, most consumers’ choices will be influenced (consciously or not) by the tone of voice in which services are presented and delivered.

In many ways, it’s easy to choose an effective tone when your customers are standing right in front of you and you can see their reactions. However, a huge proportion of business has shifted from the verbal face-to-face into the textual via websites, emails and social networking. In this shift, many businesses lose their voices.

Faced with the task of writing web copy, someone whose spoken tone of voice is friendly and confident can turn mechanical and distant as if they were tasked with producing a formal report. What’s most dangerous about this is that they can’t see this unnecessary tonal shift putting off their customers in the same way they would if they were to conduct a meeting with a client in the same way as they write.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the common problems with tone of voice in web copy and how to avoid them. Beyond that, we’ll consider how to go about developing an effective tone of voice for a website and maintaining it through the use of tonal guidelines.

Voice vs. Tone

Before diving in further, we should first examine the distinction between tone of voice and voice itself.

Tone is a verbal expression of mood best adapted according to the audience. You present the same information very differently to, say, a 4-year-old as opposed to a 40-year-old. You do that through tone of voice: the words you choose and the way that you structure them.

Your voice, however, is your overall verbal personality. Regardless of whom you’re communicating with and at what level, your voice remains the same. This should be true for the voice of a business as well. Different media geared to different audiences may demand an alteration in tone, but voice should remain stable.

For an example, let’s take BBC News and their youth-oriented site, CBBC Newsround. Both are from the same organization, both cover similar material, but, as shown below, the tone is markedly different to match the respective audiences.

From BBC News, "Wimbledon 2011: Relaxed Murray ready to ‘up his game’"

From CBBC Newsround, "Wimbledon: Andy Murray says he’s ready for Nadal showdown"

It’s clear from the word choice and structure that the tone of the second example from CBBC Newsround is geared towards a younger audience than the first: it’s lighthearted and lively, whereas the first example is more serious and composed.

Despite the difference in tone, though, it’s evident that the source is the same — there is a consistent voice across both websites.

Setting the Tone

There are two key points to determine before defining the appropriate tone for your website.

Who is your target audience?

  • What is their age group?
  • Where are they located: urban or rural, domestic or international?
  • What sort of values do they hold: conservative, ethical, cautious, impulsive or economical?
  • More importantly, what do they want from you?

What does your website want to achieve?

  • Is it an e-commerce site designed to generate sales?
  • Is it a portfolio of your work?
  • Is it educational?
  • Does it offer an online community for users to engage with?
  • Is it meant to draw in new consumers, support existing ones, or both?

These are both points that should have guided the visual design of a website and, equally, they should be the force behind its content.

Forgetting the target audience or the ultimate purpose of the website sounds like an unimaginable faux pas, but it happens surprisingly frequently.

Let’s consider the example of Goldman Sachs below. The company has invested large sums of money to make the company appear competent, ethical and approachable, but their website tells a different story.

The above example isn’t just poorly written and unpersuasive, it also conflicts with the stated values of their brand. The grammar issues make them appear incompetent and the tone is distant and cold.

Developing Tonal Guidelines

Once you’ve determined your audience and your site’s purpose, you’re halfway to deciding on tone of voice. It may be helpful to consider the personality of an employee you’d want to represent your brand at this point.

For example, if you’re advertising housing for students, you want someone friendly, open and fun. If you’re selling organic fruit on the Web: you want your representative to sound healthy and ethical. If you’re describing services at a care home: you want someone kind, professional and understanding. You get the idea.

These adjectives are a good start, but they’re all subjective. The next step is to start defining what these adjectives mean and don’t mean.

Let’s take the student housing example:

  Friendly Open Fun
Does mean Informal: avoid jargon.
Conversational: could the copy be read aloud to students without sounding misplaced?
Inclusive: use uncomplicated language for students who don’t speak English as their first language.
Personal: use active voice.
Enthusiastic and upbeat: be passionate about the services on offer. If the copywriter believes in the services they’re writing about, that impression will be transferred to the reader.
Doesn’t mean Unprofessional: avoid grammatically incorrect language, even if it’s common in verbal conversation.
Overuse of slang: use it sparingly.
Untrustworthy: open and honest with students, and confidential with their data.
Patronizing: be straightforward but don’t "dumb down" any necessary information.
Excitable: don’t overuse exclamation marks or other punctuation to get the point across.
Unrealistic: don’t exaggerate to get the reader’s attention.

Guidelines like these don’t take long to put together, but will offer an invaluable reference to your copywriters, be that you, another member of your organization, or an external copywriting agency.

Going a step further and including examples of copy you do and don’t like is also worthwhile, because it’s easy for different people to interpret your guidelines differently.

Consistency is Key

Take your tonal guidelines and apply them to your whole website, including your contact information, your terms and conditions and even your 404 error pages.

Of course, readers will expect different vocabulary for legal information but that doesn’t necessitate a shift into passive voice and stuffy, "authoritative" language. Take a look at this section from Twitter’s terms of service:

The vocabulary is appropriate to the legal subject matter but continues in the active voice, even slipping in a pun in the middle to maintain a lighthearted tone.

Being bold enough to stand apart from aging conventions communicates confidence.

Things to Watch Out For

Watch out for other basic inconsistencies that will blemish your hard work on tone. No matter how seamlessly professional your tone is, a typo or misplaced punctuation mark will make you look foolish.

Here are two tips:

  1. A proofreader is not optional. Of course, the writer should proofread the first draft, but there is no substitute for a fresh perspective.
  2. Edit without mercy. Cut, cut, cut. If you can identify unnecessary words, then remove them and get to the point.

Summary

To briefly outline the points we’ve covered:

  • Tone of voice, used well, will strengthen brand loyalty and set businesses apart from competitors.
  • Tone can be adapted according to the audience and platform, but ensure that the voice remains constant.
  • The key considerations in choosing a tone of voice for your website are 1) the target audience and 2) the type of interaction you intend them to have with your site.
  • Producing a tonal guideline sheet (example shown above) will help establish and maintain a distinctive tone of voice. Used as a reference by copywriters, it will yield consistent results, especially where multiple authors are involved.

Related Content

About the Author

Ailsa Partridge is a copywriter at Cooper Murphy. Cooper Murphy is a copywriting agency that writes copy and develops tone of voice for the world’s biggest brands.

23 Comments

Jess

August 1st, 2011

Ailsa,

Thank you! The “does/doesn’t mean” chart is invaluable for copy and brand guides, and I feel it doesn’t get enough public attention.

And suddenly, I realize why I choose one Starbucks over another! :)

Best,
Jess

(P.S. – In your author bio: “Cooper Murphy is A copywriting agency…”)

Austin

August 1st, 2011

Hey Ailsa. Great article. Just caught this: “For example, if you’re advertising housing geared towards students, you want someone friendly, open and fun.”

Throw an “is” before geared. And you’ll be good.

Jacob Gube

August 1st, 2011

@Jess: Thanks. I’ve updated it.

@Austin: The wording is clunky, not because of Ailsa, but because of editorial on Six Revisions. To be fair, it is correct, it’s supposed to mean the same as “if you’re advertising housing for students…” I changed it for clarity, it now says “for students”.

sanjay

August 1st, 2011

Does mean and doesn’t mean are really nice tips, I didn’t know about them. Great article Ailsa!

Leilani Dance

August 1st, 2011

Great, informative article. This is quite helpful in creating my website. Thanks for sharing.

Pete Stevens UK

August 1st, 2011

First attempt – my copy was really really long
Second attempt – removed all superfluous words, but then sounded robotic
Third attempt – just long again now
Fourth attempt – coming up based on your post I’m going for enthusiastic & passionate as if writing to someone I know who needs the key info asap to decide on using my services.

How do you rate my chances? It seems to take a long time to write short copy ;)

Nathanael

August 1st, 2011

Excellent article.

Noticed a typo: “Edit without mercy. Cut, cut, cut. If you can indentify unnecessary words, then remove them and get to the point.”

Should be “identify” instead of “indentify”.

Candice

August 1st, 2011

Thank you for this insight! It is something important that get neglected x

Jacob Gube

August 1st, 2011

@Nathanael: Nice catch. I corrected the post.

Patricia

August 2nd, 2011

Super interesting article Alisa!
Question: I own a small catering company, my main target are people from 30-60 yo that can pay for my gourmet food service. Many of them, young and older talk to me in a distant tone, but my personality is informal without being disrespectful of course.
Should I behave like myself or adopt the other’s person tone of voice?? (which makes me feel unnatural)

Thanks!

Henry Louis

August 2nd, 2011

Hey, I didnt know that the tone of voice would play such a crucial role in one’s business. Thanks for mentioning out the parameter & how handling it. Thanks again!

francesco

August 2nd, 2011

thank you Ailsa,
nice article and very interesting tips.

Greg Taylor

August 2nd, 2011

Any time you edit without mercy, you are winning.

Mike Milner

August 2nd, 2011

Great article, we need to apply this stuff to our own site. ;)

Hoby

August 2nd, 2011

I’d say that the Goldman Sachs sample isn’t compelling because they don’t need it to be. They’re richer than god and couldn’t care less what their web page says, as long as it says it like they’re in charge.

Would YOU expend any effort to be expressive and friendly if you just successfully shook down the most powerful banking cartels in the world?

I think not.

Will Johnson

August 2nd, 2011

I think Alisa covers a lot of points that Bob Bly covers in his book: The Copywriter’s handbook. Breaking it down, dissecting the purpose of your message, and adjusting for the audience – classic advice.

One thing I’d add is testing your tone. If you’re not sure what’s going to work for you, you could split test any copy on the page – but just as Alisa said, you need to be consistent. If you test a friendly tone for one paragraph and the rest of the page is conservative, you’re not doing a fair test.

duncan gatawa

August 3rd, 2011

Theres a thin line between design and fuctionality of the site.Alot of the focus nowadays is usually to try and get the website to the top of search engines.
its very critical for a web owner to take time and decide what he/she wants the site to say and what kind of audience they want to reach.so in a big way, i do agree with you

Hannah Georgeff

August 3rd, 2011

Hey Ailsa: Wow, I appreciated your tone & even as a Social Media Manager I believe I’ll greatly benefited from your advice here. I’m inspired! Thank you!

Angi

August 3rd, 2011

Thanks for the Infos !!

Ann

August 4th, 2011

Thanks for the wonderful article! You’ve really done a great job of articulating some important concepts.

But! I’m wondering if adapting a different tone for people over 30 might have more to do with your assumptions about them than what they actually want. I’m 51, and I much prefer lively, friendly writing.

steve

August 7th, 2011

Learning something new everyday! Thanks for the article. So the Voice is your opinion, or your values and the Tone is to express it to your audiences in a humor way or serious way?

Jenn Staz

August 9th, 2011

I realize blogs are a bit different than websites that are behind one brand or company, but I will definitely keep all of these tips in mind when writing posts for my personal blog. A couple of things I’ll take into consideration right away: less punctuation (especially the excitable kind), and a tonal guideline for guest bloggers. Thanks for the helpful article, Alisa!

Helen

November 16th, 2011

Gosh, did any of you read the article? To proof read before you publish because typos make you look foolish?!

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