You’ve got all this content, on social media and a blog and email blasts and print ads. It’s being created by five or ten or twenty or a hundred different people, maybe in multiple departments and offices. If it’s all going to work together to reinforce your brand and create the results you want, it has to coordinate somehow. Different channels can very easily feel disjointed or detached from the larger brand if there’s no consistency, but identifying a content voice for the company will give you and the many content creators involved a guide for how to make every piece “feel” like your brand.
First off, what is a content voice?
The easiest way to think about it is as the representation of your brand in language. If your brand was a person, how would they communicate? What type of words would they use? Would they use long, poetic sentences or short, snappy ones? Would they tend to be more earnest and hopeful or sarcastic and wry? If you’ve already developed a brand story and are doing content audits to see how you’re doing at telling it, those same key words and ideas you focused on can be a guide to help you identify the voice. If that’s your brand’s story, who would the author be? If you’re not deep into brand storytelling yet, don’t worry. Just think of your content voice as how your brand would sound in words.
What is it not?
Your content voice is not one person, and it’s definitely not your entire team pretending to be one person, either (looking at you, all those brands who create obviously fake identities for their social media reps). It’s also not your CEO. It’s not any single figure head. It’s the idea of what your brand might sound like as a person, but it doesn’t need to actually reside as a single person. Think of your favorite magazine. There are different authors, they all have their own writing styles and potentially cover different kinds of stories, but the articles all have a certain quality that makes them make sense together and makes them seem “right” for that magazine. Most of the time it comes down to a certain perspective on the world and a certain tone that is not solely in the words of a certain person.
The reason I keep repeating that a consistent voice is not about everyone sounding like one person is that it can be far too easy for a desire for consistency and clarity to end up with somebody becoming the content police and thinking they need to codify every single style element or word choice to have that clarity, when that’s absolutely not necessary. Having a clear content voice is not a reason to strip the individuality out of the content being created by individuals. I know we’ve been spending all this time talking about how important consistency is, but it’s also important to allow for enough variety to keep people interested in your content. It’s about finding a balance.
So how do you identify it?
One way to start is with a word cloud of descriptors like I used above. Smart, funny, wry, helpful, witty, hopeful, earnest, straight forward, thoughtful, poetic. Get some of the people who are going to be the most involved in the content creation process in a room, virtual or otherwise, and pick a handful of descriptors that you think resonate with the brand, and then define them. Some of these things mean different things to different people, so it’s going to be necessary to provide a certain amount of clarity on what exactly you mean by wry or helpful or whatever terms you pick, though allowing for some variation in interpretation is good and keeps your content from seeming produced by an assembly line. The definitions should be guides, not shackles.
You’ll also want to decide, once things are identified and defined, how they’re reflected by content. What types of word choices or tempo or formatting are going to help communicate the voice you’ve identified with your descriptors? After this, it’s trial and error to refine it and solidify it in a way that people understand. This is where having a CCO or a managing editor or similar can be critical. If you don’t have one in actual job title, it’s worth it to identify someone who will functionally serve as the content gatekeeper and guardian of the content voice, who can be the one to ask for revisions and be in charge of shepherding the content voice into something that is reinforced enough within the team of content creators that everyone has an innate sense of when something fits and when it doesn’t.
And while you’re at it, make a style guide. We’ll talk more about documentation and how to do it without overdoing it in the coming weeks, but a style guide is one of the easiest and best ways to make sure that, as content expands and people come and go from your team, there is an ultimate reference for the key elements of the content voice. Without getting into the kind of detail that we will later, the key to a functional and effective style guide is knowing what to define and how specifically. It can’t and shouldn’t be the entire AP Stylebook plus organization specific guidelines for every conceivable scenario and type of content, but it should give guidelines for what you’ve identified as the most important style elements that you either think are important markers of your voice or that there are a lot of variations on how to handle and you want to be consistent.
It has to be flexible.
Despite all the discussing and defining and documenting involved in identifying a brand content voice, it’s actually something that has a lot of flexibility. Like a person, the voice can change depending on what’s appropriate for the content. Same as you and I can speak differently depending on who we’re talking to and what the subject matter is, your content voice can be just as flexible while still sounding like “you.” You’d know how your friends would tell a sad story versus a happy one, or how they talk to their mother compared to how they talk to you, but they still sound like them. The core things don’t change, and it’s those core things that have to be the focus.
If you were going to define your personal brand content voice in three descriptors, what would it be? We’d love to hear! Oh and because fair is fair, mine would be helpful, clever, and thoughtful.