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Voice in a Changing World

Friday, September 16th, 2011 by Lucy S.

When Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) computer engineer Ray Tomlinson sent himself the first email message in 1971, marketers couldn’t have imagined the tsunami of change that would follow. Forty years later, electronic communications impact nearly every aspect of our lives—and our work. Increasingly, marketers communicate with prospects, customers, partners, and other audiences digitally. And those digital channels keep evolving.

While we might not know what’s coming next, one thing is certain: new communications vehicles will spring from the minds of geniuses to change the world yet again. And as marketers, it’s your exciting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating job to keep up.

At the Content Bureau, we view the evolution of marketing communications through the prism of words. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about voice—the personality that shines through words. Some companies dedicate numerous pages in voluminous style guides to describe their voice—others, a single page. And while they may offer guidelines for specific mediums, such as blogs, web, or print, not many address how voice might change from one medium to the next, or whether it should.

Curious about how companies are addressing the issue, I visited a few company websites and then their Facebook pages to see whether the voice shifted—and how.

For IBM, its third-person, suit-wearing, highly polished voice didn’t alter much. If anything, IBM has its jacket on and its tie tighter on Facebook. I suspect the Facebook page simply pulls boilerplate text from IBM’s other marketing assets, instead of adapting content for the social media context.

  • The website: “So how can an organization anticipate, adapt, and respond to whatever complexity the global economy, competition, and changing technologies present?”
  • The Facebook company overview: “International Business Machines Corporation, abbreviated IBM, is a multinational computer technology and IT consulting corporation. IBM  manufactures and sells computer hardware and software and offers infrastructure services, hosting services, and consulting services in areas ranging from mainframe computers to nanotechnology.”

Accenture takes a different approach. While its third-person voice belongs at the board table with IBM’s, its Facebook presence doesn’t feel so restrained. Accenture talks directly to its retailer customers in this wall post: “Faced with the challenge of replacing aging store systems? Bring life back to your stores.” It’s clear Accenture has deliberately gone “business casual” for Facebook.

I also checked out two consumer companies with very distinct voices, Monster Energy and Southwest Airlines. Monster Energy’s voice evokes a 24-year-old hardcore extreme sport dude.

  • The website: “We went down to the lab and cooked up a double shot of our killer energy brew. It’s a wicked mega hit that delivers twice the buzz of a regular energy drink.”
  • The Facebook page:  It maintains that same voice, but personalizes it further: “At Monster, all of our guys walk the walk in action sports, punk rock music, partying, hangin’ with the girls, and living life on the edge.”

Monster’s voice is consistent between the two mediums—still that 24-year-old surfer dude—but we meet him off hours on the Facebook page.

Similarly, Southwest’s website and Facebook page both feature the company’s friendly, relaxed, colloquial voice. In fact, its Facebook page and home page feature much of the same content, though it does add a personal touch to the former by putting names to the Southwest voice: “Welcome to the Official Southwest Page! You are chatting with Laurel, Christi, Brooks, Gabe, Whitney, and Verity!”

Clearly, marketers are approaching new channels differently—but I suspect many aren’t consciously addressing voice. It’s probably time to do so.

Digital communications let us communicate with people in ways previously impossible. You probably know more about your customers, about where they are right now (thanks to mobile phone GPS), and about what captures their interests. This knowledge combined with more personal social media channels presents an opportunity for tweaking voice on a granular level. For example, Monster might add surfing terminology on microsites, tweets, and blogs dedicated to surfing. The trick is to not let these adjustments change your company’s voice on a fundamental level.

If it seems like a delicate balancing act, that’s because it is.

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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