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Discovering and using the right tone of voice for your small business

By Will Stevens - May 18, 2016

The words you use, whether it’s on your website, in your emails, or on social media, help people understand what your business does and how it does it. On the face of it, it seems straightforward enough. For example, if you’re having a sale you can send a tweet saying “Amazing sale now on!” with a link. That’s enough to get your message across, right?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that the tweet conveys the basic information you want to communicate – that you’re holding a sale – but what else is it saying about your brand? The use of the word “Amazing” and the exclamation mark both suggest that the company publishing the tweet is appealing to a less formal market. The tweet would work for a clothing brand, but if a business selling accountancy services was to publish it, it would likely confuse and put off potential customers because they would expect more formal language to be used.

Working on your tone of voice ensures you communicate with people in the way they expect. It also helps you develop your brand identity. This is important as it helps attract people who are likely to buy from you, while ensuring that people who aren’t a good fit for your product or service can quickly tell that what you offer isn’t for them.

Let’s look at how you can develop a tone of voice for your business.


Step one – Understand your business

Ultimately, your goal in developing a consistent tone of voice you can implement everywhere is to ensure that people understand what your business does and how it does it. So a good starting point in developing a tone of voice is understanding your business.

Now you may already know an awful lot about your business and how it works, but as we’ll be combining this information with other data you may not have thought about before, it makes sense to go over the basics before moving on to new things.

Here are the main areas you should think about:

What does your business do? – Are you selling a product or a service? One product/service or multiple products/services? Do you deal with customers directly or do you operate business-to-business? Note down the key attributes of your business.

Why did you start your business? – Often your business’s story can provide a good starting point for developing your tone of voice.

How has your business changed over the years? – If you’ve been running your business for a while, make sure you note down any significant developments that have occurred.

You should end up with a solid overview of your business and its goals and aims.

Step two – Research your rivals

Once you’ve covered the basics of your own business, it’s time to start researching what your rivals are doing. Here are the areas you should be looking at.

What are your rivals’ stories? – Just as you have for your own business, build up a picture of how your major rivals developed their business over time, what they do and how they started. Pay particular attention to any brand values they have made available publicly.

How do your rivals communicate with their customers? – Next, start looking at how these businesses communicate with their customers. Look at their websites and their adverts, you should even buy from them to see how they communicate during and after the sales process. Take note of the kind of language they use. Think about why they have picked a certain word or phrase and the kind of person they’re looking to appeal to.

For each company, you should be able to relate it back to the information you found when researching their history. In particular, there should be a lot of overlap when it comes to their brand values and the way they communicate.

You can also repeat this process for brands you do business with in your personal life. When you do this, consider what it is about you that has made the brand in question communicate with you in the way it does.

You should be able to see patterns in the way brands communicate with certain kinds of customer. If you can spot these patterns, you’ll be able to replicate them yourself.

Your rivals can help you understand your own business

Your rivals can help you understand your own business

Step three – Understand your customers

The next thing to do is to spend some time understanding your customers and how they expect businesses to communicate with them. A large part of this is understanding the different kinds of people your product/service will appeal to.

At this point it may be tempting to skip this section by claiming that your business will appeal to “everyone”, but there’s no such thing as a business that has universal appeal. If you fail to research your customers, the chances of your business failing will greatly increase because you’ll be spending time and money chasing people who are never going to become your customers.

Here’s how you can start to understand your potential and existing customer base.

Research – Asking potential customers whether they’d be interested in a product or service such as yours, or asking existing customers for details as to why they chose to do business with you is a great way to learn more about the kind of person you’ll appeal to. Ideally you should be capturing demographic data such as age, sex, income and so on to help you build as full a picture as possible.

Unfortunately, this kind of research can be expensive and so may be out of the reach of many small businesses. The ideas that follow are good if you’re on a budget.

Use competitor research – If your business isn’t trying to do something completely new (and many successful businesses are based on existing models) then simply adapting your competitor research to your own needs is an excellent way to build up a picture of your potential customers without breaking the bank. If you choose this option, you early work may rely somewhat on hypothetical situations and assumptions, but you can always refine your model later.

Broader demographic data – There’s a whole host of information about the UK population available on the Office for National Statistics website. This can be a great way of building up a hypothetical picture of the kind of customer you want to attract, although it is probably best used as a way to supplement the data you gather through the methods outlined above.

You can learn more about market research in general from this video.

Use web analytics – There’s a huge amount of demographic information available via web analytics tools and it’s often available for free, or for a minimal outlay. The downside is that you need an existing customer base to get the most useful data. However, you can conduct some market research before your business launches, and then use analytics data to refine things as you go. You can get to grips with understanding your website visitors in this webinar.

Step four – Segment your customers

Once you’ve gathered data on your potential customers, it’s time to segment them. Customer segmentation is useful as it allows you to divide people into groups based on characteristics they share.

You can then use this information to underpin both your tone of voice and your wider marketing efforts. For example, would you want to send the same offer to a business with just one employee and a business with 1,000 employees?

By dividing your potential customers in to segments, you’ll have a better understanding of their similarities and differences. Segmentation is a huge topic so to get to grips with the basics in this guide from Hubspot.

If you want to go even more in depth on things, have a read of this huge guide from Moz.

Step five – Develop your tone of voice

By this point you should have everything you need to start developing your tone of voice. That’s because your tone of voice is really the way you’ve decided it’s best to communicate with all the customer segments and personas you’ve developed in the steps above.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you finalise your tone of voice:

Do try and bring your own personality into things, especially if you’re a one-person business.

Don’t try to be too off beat. It can be tempting to stand out from the crowd. A good example of this is drinks firm Brew Dog, whose tone of voice is very different from its rivals. Although this can work really well, it’s also a big risk. Brew Dog’s success is largely down to the fact they operate in a sector that’s focused on fun-seeking young people. Can you imagine an approach like Brew Dog’s working in an area such as office leasing?

Do draw up a short explanation of what your business’s tone of voice is and it works for your potential customers. (We’ll look at an example in a second.)

Don’t change your tone of voice on a regular basis. Not only will it give you lots of extra work to do, it’ll also be confusing for your customers.

Do implement your tone of voice everywhere you’re communicating with customers. That means email, social media, your website, adverts and so on. If you don’t you’ll have wasted your time developing a tone of voice, and you’ll confuse your customers.

So how do you develop that tone of voice? Well, the best way to do it is to write a short mission statement, based on all the data you’ve gathered and the overall aim of your business.

Here’s an example:

Example Business is a firm which provides virtual office services to small businesses. Our aim is to ensure our customers appear as professional as possible at all times. The majority of our customers are solo business owners, or very small teams. Often they are in the very early stages of business. Our tone of voice is relaxed, but somewhat formal (Eg: Contractions such as “you’re are fine, but slang and informal terms of address are not). However, we always attempt to demystify things for our readers and never use jargon or technical terms when they can be avoided.

There, in those few lines, you have a good overview of how our fictional company will communicate with people.

Let’s look at how that can be put into practice.

Step six – Implementing your tone of voice

So by this stage you should have an overview of what business’s tone of voice will be. The next step is to actually start using that tone of voice.

To do that, you’ll need to develop a style guide. If you think of the paragraph you wrote in step five as the guiding principle for your tone of voice, then the style guide contains the hard and fast rules that ensure your tone of voice is always correctly implemented.

Your style guide should cover general grammar issues (for example which kind of quotation marks to use) and business and industry specific issues such as examples of jargon that should be avoided, company branding rules, layout considerations and so on.

Writing a style guide can be time consuming, so a good short cut is to use the Guardian Style Guide to cover basic grammar issues, so you only have to write the brand and sector specific elements from scratch.

You can read more about creating a style guide here.

Remember – anyone who is working on communications for your business needs access to your style guide. And be sure that you use it yourself when you’re writing any communications for your business.

Summing up

Developing your tone of voice can seem like a lot of work. But much of that work will have uses in other areas of your business, especially on the marketing side of things.

Taking the time to understand your customers and speaking to them in the way they expect can give you a huge advantage over competitors who haven’t put in the groundwork.

Any questions? Tweet us @123Reg or head over to our Facebook page and we’ll be happy to help.