Mastering Tone of Voice in B2B content marketing
Despite the inexorable rise of the visual in B2B content marketing, words still matter.
And there are two things to think about when you think about words: what you say and how you say it.
Both are hugely important but this post is about the second one. More specifically, it’s about Tone of Voice.
Why Tone of Voice matters
Tone of Voice isn’t just decoration for your ideas, it actually carries meaning. It says things about your topic and, more importantly, it says things about you, the speaker.
Get it wrong and you’ll lose your audience before they ever really became your audience.
Get it really wrong and your audience will stick around just so that they can hate you.
But get it right and you’ll make your message ten times — maybe even a hundred times – more convincing. I’m not being metaphorical here, I’m being literal.
So you can get your Tone of Voice right or spend money attracting 10-100 times more traffic to make up for all the people you’re losing by getting it wrong.
This is an incredibly important part of content marketing – but it’s also where most content marketers screw up. They have good ideas and a strong case; but their target audiences will never discover that. So it makes sense to actively manage your Tone of Voice instead of just letting it happen. We’ve done workshops on this but, to be honest, it ain’t rocket science. Reading this post should do the trick.
The Three Cs of Tone of Voice
When you start to take Tone of Voice seriously, you need to know what good looks like. And, while I hate awkwardly alliterative assemblies of assets (The Four As of Mnemonics), the goals for your Tone of Voice happen to be Three Cs. Tone of Voice is there to make your content Clear, Confident and Compelling.
- Clear – Content exists to communicate. Clarity means using the simplest language available without blurring. For a lot of B2B marketing, it also means a judicious use of jargon – the shorthand of technical fields. (Some people who write about writing advise against all jargon. I don’t agree. Use the jargon your reader knows.)
- Confident – Probably the most important Tone of Voice ingredient. Confidence attracts. It makes your audience feel, “I’m in the hands of an expert here.” And that makes your content:
- Compelling – When you write, you’re holding out your hand and saying, ‘Come with me. I have something to show you.” Clear and confident writing makes the reader (or viewer or listener) come along willingly. If you fail, they drop your hand and wander off. And you have to go and find another sucker to bore.
Good writing is specific – highly sensitive to content, context, audience and agenda. There may not be only one ‘right note’ for each piece, but there does need to be one target. As a writer, you need to know exactly what tone you’re aiming for (even if you don’t pause to describe it).
It’s like choosing a key in music. Or choosing the tuning of your instrument. When I’m in control, I know the tuning. When I lose that – go out of tune – it’s often because I’m faking authority by writing about something I don’t fully understand (an occupational hazard for tech marketers like me).
So a brand’s Tone of Voice has to allow for a range of flavours. But they’re all based on a core personality. If you get the Three Cs right, that personality will be likeable. Because people not only listen to likeable people, they tend to agree with likeable people.
Of course, ‘leading man likeability’ is only one kind (Gary Cooper. Tom Cruise. Tom Hanks.) There’s also ‘character actor likeability’ (Edward G Robinson. Joe Pesci. Gary Vaynerchuk.)
The different flavours of your B2B voice
Describing Tone of Voice can get really nuanced. But in practice, a lot of that subtlety dissolves, leaving a few main flavours. Or maybe it’s like making a perfume: establish the base notes, then add the grace notes.
For B2B content marketing, the base notes should probably include things like:
Open – not tricky
Honest – willing to admit some downsides instead of only shouting about the positives
Passionate – to show you care about the things you’re writing about; No one likes bloodless writing.
Authoritative – because you’re writing about something you know inside-out
And your grace notes might include things like:
Witty – we tend to avoid out and out “funny” (nothing’s worse than a bad comedian) but we like a wink here and there
Edgy – a few shots of attitude and energy go a long way
Statesmanlike – you don’t want to be stuffy but sometimes you might want to be a bit weighty and grown-up
Breathless – going in the other direction, you might want to get excited and hyperbolic (have fun with it but don’t lose credibility)
Angry – passion can often include negativity (I wrote about this in a recent blog post on Econsultancy) but use it carefully
This list can go on and on, but you get the idea: lay down your core Tone of Voice values, then let yourself sprinkle in different flavours for different pieces (you probably don’t want to mix tones in any one piece – it’s like using too many typefaces).
The only Tone of Voice I’d avoid like the plague is Cute. Only Disney characters like Cute. If you’re using lots of exclamation points, you’re probably straying into Cute-land.
Managing Tone of Voice
If you agree that words matter in content marketing; and that how you say things is almost as important as what you say; then you’ll want to manage the tone of voice of your content. Here are some tips:
Include Tone of Voice in your briefs
Create a special section for it in your briefing template
Think about Tone when you read draft content
Sometimes something just isn’t quite working. Maybe it’s the tone.
Create a Tone of Voice Guide
Just a 2-5 page summary. With examples of the right tone and the wrong tone.
Collect examples that you like
And share them with your writers and briefers
Allow your writers to experiment
You can always revise later
Hope this helps. If you have other thoughts or tips on Tone of Voice, do share them here.
Photo: Creative Commons. Library of Congress. (It’s Tommy Dorsey).
Bob Apollo | March 11th, 2013
Remarkably unranty by your recent standards, Doug – but very much on the money. Spot on with the idea that the piece has to have a personality, to which I’d only add that it’s often worth writing for a personality as well. What is the profile of your “perfect reader”?
Doug Kessler | March 11th, 2013
Thanks, Bob. Rants are but one flavour in the rich pageant that is content marketing.
I like the idea of tapping into the personality of the ideal reader, too.
Jesse Kohl | March 11th, 2013
Great points. There are so many articles out there now on how to approach content marketing, but this one clearly highlights the value of paying attention to the finer details. I feel like I read so many content marketing posts with the aim of helping people achieve quantity, while this post gave clear tips on producing quality. Thanks for writing.