Why are tone of voice guidelines so woefully lacking?

If you look at a typical brand or organisation’s brand guidelines, you’re sure to see a few common tick boxes. Logo rules? Check. Gradients? Yep. Fonts? Absolutely. But tone of voice? More often than not it’s a page, maybe two – if it features at all – in a 40+ page PDF, comprising of a few floaty statements and top level tips. “Engaging”, “jargon-free”, “friendly”. It’s like asking for design that “looks good”.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with these tips and statements as such. Top level “vibes” are useful to get a sense of things as a copywriter. But they’re too vague. Guidelines are meant to be a rulebook. They need to be practical. And without practical application pointers alongside the bigger picture stuff, then how can writers be expected to create something worth reading?

In conversations around tone of voice, MailChimp rightly comes up often as a brand who have put time and attention into articulating its Content Style Guide. But there are plenty of other organisations you might not expect who are smashing it too, such as the The University of Leeds or even The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA). What puts these three examples ahead of the pack in my opinion is that they’ve gone beyond the floaty statements and nailed down the mechanics of how you create the tone of voice. MailChimp goes into granular detail on writing for its different formats and platforms. Leeds University carefully couples every “what” with a “how”. ICSA plots out the road to good writing from A to B in clear and informative steps.

These three examples show that tone of voice can be well-articulated to great effect. It can be done. So why isn’t it being done more? Why are these examples so rare? Why are we still seeing these long, clunky guideline documents from brands big and small that don’t give tone of voice anywhere near enough time as design? Rob Mitchell, co-founder of We All Need Words, writes for Design Week that “the hard part of any tone of voice project is finding a lateral way to put all the brand stuff into words.” That it’s high time “visual identities budged up a bit to share some of that rebrand limelight with their wordy cousins.” And I couldn’t agree more. The attention that goes into the visual needs to go into the linguistic too.

If we don’t commonly see rules as important to copy, it’s surely at least part of the reason that there’s so much weak writing around. There’s golden work going out every day, but there’s also, as Velocity Partners’ Doug Kessler has eloquently established, a deluge of utter crap.

Would copywriting as an industry be better if we held it to account more? I sure as hell think so. And one place to start is by organisations taking the time to lay down some rules and articulate their voice and tone. It’s not an easy or thrillingly exciting task but the results could be epic.

I’m no rigid stickler for the rules. Rules should be played around with, toyed with, sometimes even broken. But I also think that the rules should be respected and at the very least known, even if they are then consciously ignored.

Why the ‘Conversational Copywriter’ is Marketing’s Next Must-have

The Conversational Copywriter

Is ‘conversational copywriter’ just another marketing term to add to bullshit bingo? Quite possibly, yes. But, however you want to define it, the copywriting landscape is evolving.

‘Copywriter’ in its purest form used to be, and in many circles still is, the catch-all name for the token words person. And in recent years we’ve also seen a shift into niches such as technical copywriter, SEO copywriter, creative copywriter, marketing copywriter etc, etc.

It’s a word that a lot of us hate as it’s reductive, misleading and even just plain ugly. But it’s the one we’ve got. So why not throw an adjective in front of it to give it a little more character?

With that in mind, here’s why I think the conversational copywriter is going to be the next big thing for the marketer’s arsenal.

1. With great UX design, comes a greater need for writing talent

The world of design used to be dominated by graphic and web designers. But in recent years, (thanks to the growth of technology and the increasing empowerment of the consumer) they’ve had to make room for user experience design – or UX – to get a look in, too.

More and more companies are putting thought and attention into their UX strategies, and a UX rep or entire specialist teams are becoming typical features in any organisation worth its salt.

But is something lacking?

At its core, UX is all about presenting information in a way that is useful and accessible to the end user. It’s about what the person experiences on a website, how they interact with the content and creating seamless navigation.

And this is as much about words, tone and messaging as it is about design and navigation. So, where’s the focus on UX copywriting?

Specialist UX writers exist, and UX writing as a whole is certainly a growing medium. But I think it’s about to get a hell of a lot bigger.

2. The rise of automation will mean more voiced technology

You can’t load a news site without seeing a headline on AI, the Internet of Things or automation. What a day to be alive. But it is true that technology is slowly seeping into every element of our lives – and we’re loving it.

People are using nine mobile apps a day on average, while 63% are comfortable interacting with a chatbot. And everyone seems to have found a friend in Alexa or Siri.

But pleasant as it is to imagine that there’s a friendly copywriter sat typing furiously inside every machine we use, the reality is, technology’s automated ‘voice’ is growing.

Combined with the rise of UX, this has created the need for conversational user interfaces (UI), aka platforms that mimic a conversation with a real human.

But to build these platforms, and to build them well, we’ll need more people that can write for them. However ridiculous this sentence reads; a human touch is needed for giving voice to a robot that sounds like a human.

The number of writers that specialise in conversational UI will surely grow to meet this need.

3. People are demanding authenticity, which will extend to tone and copy

According to PwC, 35% of consumers ranked ‘trust in brand’ among their top three reasons for choosing which retailers to shop at. And look up any advice on marketing to millennials and the word ‘authenticity’ will undoubtedly feature.

Audiences will settle for nothing short of authentic. If trust is at all in question, they’ll simply take their business elsewhere.

The concept naturally extends to tone of voice – one of the key ways of building (and losing) trust along the user journey. ‘Conversational’ is becoming a more common stylistic tone across the board (although it has to be said, with varying levels of success).

There’s a difference between writing in a ‘human’ voice conversationally and writing for a robot in a ‘conversational’ way (with a chatbot for example). It’s a nuance that is often unfortunately missed. To quote my editor, Libby: “Don’t wish me a good day! You’re a machine!” And she’s not alone… 48% feel that it’s creepy if a chatbot pretends to be human, while 60% feel patronised if a chatbot starts asking how their day is going.

To project voices that are authentic and that people respond well to, we’ll need more specialist copywriters powering the technology to achieve the right nuances.

4. More brands will look to copy as a lucrative differentiator

I’m no business mogul, but I know that it’s harder than ever for businesses and brands to stand out. Over-saturation of markets, a huge amount of competition – cutting through the noise, remaining relevant and achieving longevity is a challenge.

But tone of voice and copywriting can be a key differentiator.

Look at MailChimp Paddy Power, the Dave channel, Old Spice, Firebox, Bellroy, Dollar Shave Club and more. Their tones of voice are recognisable and powerful in a myriad of ways.

So much copywriting out there online, in print, at events – wherever – is just terrible. Why not be the organisation that champions it, and bring your voice to the fore?


What’s next?

The copywriting renaissance is long overdue, but it is coming. It’s happened for video, it’s happened for design and it’s happened for UX.

It’s now time for copywriting, and in particular, the ‘conversational’ copywriter – to finally get its time in the sun.

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