Tone of voice, writing style, way of speaking, whatever you want to call it, finding the right one is essential to communicate effectively, particularly when it comes to B2B marketing. A good tone of voice allows you to build a connection with your audience, while keeping it consistent across all your channels helps show consistency and professionalism across your entire business.
It’s an essential part of building your brand, as important as choosing your logo and brand colors. Your logo is the physical representation of your brand, your tone is the vocal representation. If your logo didn’t appear on your content, would your audience know it was yours? A consistent writing style serves that purpose.
Brands with a particularly strong tone of voice are able to communicate who they are with just how their content is written and are able to build strong emotional connections with their audiences (and even with B2B marketing, building an emotional connection is extremely valuable).
Finding your tone of voice
While content is important to B2B marketing strategies, you don’t want to just jump into it without a clear tone of voice. To make sure you’re producing consistent content, you should first go back to the start and look at what makes your company tick.
If you’re already in the content game and finding it’s not making much of a splash, you might want to do a bit of an audit. Gather a representative sample of the content you have already produced, from web pages to email campaigns and social media posts. Cast a critical eye over the content, or even ask someone from outside your company, and see if your content is easy to differentiate from your competitors.
If it’s not standing out from the crowd, you may want to reassess, by going back to the core principles of your company and brand.
Here are some of the core questions you should be asking yourself when it comes to establishing your brand’s way of speaking:
- Who is your audience?
- What products/services are you offering?
- What differentiates you from your competitors?
- What values were your company founded on, and what are they at the moment?
- What’s unique about the people in your company?
- What’s the purpose of your content?
The answers to these questions should be at the core of your marketing tone of voice. In the rest of the article, we’re going to take a look at these questions and how they inform your decisions.
Who is your audience?
When it comes to content, you want it to be accessible, understandable, and enjoyable for your target audience. Let’s break down these three “-ble”s and what they mean when they come to your tone of voice.
Your audience needs to be able to make heads-or-tails of your content. You need to know what level of expertize they’re likely to have, both in terms of their own industry and yours. How much jargon and technical language should you throw in there? Ideally no more than is necessary because it’s not super fun to read a load of acronyms and buzzwords, but at the same time, you don’t want them to feel patronized by over-explaining common industry terms.
This can be quite variable, as it might depend on the type of content you’re putting out. A technical whitepaper aimed at executives and above might be loaded with technical terms (often with a glossary), while a casual blog post about how your development team spends its Friday afternoons might not.
An easy rule of thumb might be that the more people you intend to see a piece of content, the less technical and jargon-laden your tone of voice will be.
The references and language you speak need to be understandable to your audience. The majority of content is produced in English, but it’s highly likely that your audience might be English-speakers from a different country from you or multi-lingual people who speak English as the business language of their country.
And English can be a very tricky beast if you start to compare how differently certain terms and phrases work between different countries (or even different states/cities/counties). There are certain idioms and colloquialisms that can be lost on an audience that’s not from the same area as you. Unless your content is targeted at a specific area, it’s probably best to avoid them altogether.
But then, maybe your company’s origin is a big part of your brand. But even then, you can’t just fill your content with local idioms that would be indecipherable to people not from your area. Maybe just an occasional one, with a light-hearted explanation of what it means, will help you connect with people outside of your area.
The same goes for cultural references and jokes. You can’t expect your entire audience to have absorbed the same pop culture as you. You might have an amazing joke that perfectly explains an issue you’re trying to address, but if it’s based on Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, then only fans of mid-20th century Japanese cinema are likely to get it (or at least they might claim they did, but can you really trust them? - shout out to Rashomon fans who got that one!). It’s best to keep your cultural references as broad as possible so that they’ll be as understandable as possible.
Even in super-serious-B2Bland (as B2B marketing so often gets miscategorized), your content needs to be enjoyable to some degree. People are more likely to read, engage, and retain the content they’ve enjoyed reading. The easiest way to do this is to make your content humorous or fun, but as we said above keep that humor as broad as possible!
But there are some subjects and content types that don’t lend well to jokes (or maybe your audience just doesn’t have much of a sense of humor). Even then, you can make a piece enjoyable to read through good quality writing and sharing your information in interesting ways.
Different people might have different ideas of what they enjoy about content. Finding out what that is when it comes to your audience is essential in developing the right tone of voice.
If you’re looking to inject some fun into your content, check out our article on how to bring humor to B2B marketing.
What products/services are you offering?
The types of products and services you offer can be very important in determining your tone of voice. Got a serious product? Maybe your style should be serious. Got a fun service? Maybe you should be more lighthearted.
But it’s not for you to assess whether what you’re offering is fun or not, you need to think about how your intended customers are going to be using it. Let’s take a look at two hypothetical products and how their use might alter your voice.
Example 1: Security software
Digital security is extremely important to any business that uses the internet (which is the vast majority of them in most countries these days). Compromised networks can have drastic consequences for a business, which can potentially impact a huge number of people’s lives. As such, network security is serious business, which means the tone of voice of a company that sells it would probably be quite serious, highlighting the importance of the service and communicating its effectiveness, often backed up with some solid data and figures.
Example 2: Workplace messaging app
Being able to communicate with other people in your company effectively is important to running a business, but it can also be fun! It can give a space for colleagues to share fun ideas, chat about current events, and get to know each other. A big plus of workplace messaging systems is that they can get rid of a lot of busy work, like pointless meetings and emails. The tone of voice for this company will likely be upbeat, friendly, emphasizing the power of communication, and perhaps with the occasional cheeky wink towards potential “extra-curricular” uses for the app (like running an office fantasy football league).
What differentiates you from your competitors?
It’s extremely rare in the B2B world to not have any competitors. Even if you think your company is utterly unique, it’s highly likely there are indirect competitors. Regardless, examining how your competitors speak can be an effective means of developing your tone of voice.
Ideally, you’ll want to stand out from the crowd, but it can also be a useful exercise in getting to know the “industry standard” of terminology and things you need to communicate in the style of your content.
However, that pertains more to the content of your content (if you know what we mean), in terms of true tone of voice, it’s a fine line you need to walk when it comes to positioning your style in response to your competitors. Setting yourself up as the opposite of your competitors can be a good place to start, but you could find yourself changing your voice to react to your competitors, rather than developing your own unique voice.
Let’s take a look at some hypothetical examples.
Example 1: The plucky upstart
Fresh new start-up on the scene in an industry with loads of established competitors? Maybe you’ll want to emphasize how you do things differently from your competitors (maybe with some buzzwords like “disruption” thrown in for good measure). But what if your competitors see what you’re doing right and start copying you? You’ll have lost what makes you unique. And what if you reach a point where your company isn’t the upstart or fresh new thing? Good news: your marketing has worked so far. Bad news: it wouldn’t make sense to use it.
Example 2: The old familiar
Your company’s been around for a while. You’ve got the experience, resources, and loyal customer base that younger companies can’t match. With this in mind, you’ll likely want to speak from a position of authority, with a voice that emphasizes your heritage and superior capabilities compared to younger, smaller companies. But what happens if your younger competitors catch up or, worse, outdo you? Now you’ll look foolish, with claims of superiority ringing hollow.
In these two examples, the obvious next step would be to change those companies' tone of voice for content from that point onwards. But to keep things consistent, they would probably need to go back and update older content to match the new style, which could be a major undertaking, especially if you’re under pressure because you’ve had to quickly change your tone.
It’s better to avoid such a time-consuming process altogether by coming up with a unique tone of voice from the outset, one that's proactive about how great you are, rather than reactive to what your competitors are doing. That means you can plan any changes in tone of voice, along with any necessary updates to older content, in advance.
What values were your company founded on, and what are they currently?
Company values can be an important aspect of establishing the way you speak. If you know what those are, then great! If not, you might need to go digging.
Why is your company producing its products or providing its services? The easy answer is “to make money”. But in all but the most callous and hyper-capitalist businesses, there will usually be another reason.
In B2B businesses, values are often along the lines of “helping people’s working lives run smoother”, or “helping people build something better”, but hopefully you’ll be able to find something more concrete and specific than that.
These values should be kept in mind when it comes to developing your tone of voice. Got some down-to-earth, no bullpoop values? You should reflect that in the way you speak and write. Got some lofty, idealistic values? Then your language choice should be built around that.
As companies develop, often their values change, and your tone of voice should reflect that too.
What’s unique about the people in your company?
Your content can be a great reflection of the people who make up a company. Adding these kinds of personal touches can really help build a connection between you and your customers (which is potentially even more important to B2B than B2C).
Got a load of sci-fi geeks on the staff? Maybe sprinkle in some Star Wars references where appropriate (but keep them broad, as we said above. Everyone knows who Darth Vader and Yoda are, not many people know about the exploits of Wedge Antilles).
Maybe you’re a bunch of dog lovers. It’s a good bet that plenty of your leads and customers are too, so finding a way to include that in your writing could be useful.
It should go without saying that you should avoid inside jokes or explicit references to individuals without their permission, but it can be a great way to inject some personality into your content.
Another “it should go without saying”, there’s a time and a place for these kinds of references in your content’s voice. A social media post or a lighthearted blog post? Fire away. But maybe avoid gushing about your company's “bring-your-dog-to-work-day” in serious whitepapers (unless it’s a whitepaper on the effects of human/dog interactions on productivity and workplace happiness, or something along those lines).
What’s the purpose of your content?
At this stage, you might have a reasonable idea of what your voice should be, and ready to consistently use it across all fronts. Well, let’s slow down a little bit before you go charging off as we say this: your tone of voice needs to be consistent, but it shouldn’t be the same across every piece of content.
Your tone needs to be able to fit different types of content, but it can be flexible within those guidelines.
Informative content like whitepapers tends to be serious, academic-style pieces, so if you’re aiming to be humorous, you’d tone it down for that type of content (although an informative blog post can get away with a few laughs).
If it’s a piece of content that’s more for entertainment purposes, like a slice-of-life blog post about working with your company, you might make it a bit more lighthearted and ramp up the joke factor.
Think about it, most people are able to adapt their way of speaking to different requirements and scenarios, and you should be able to do so with your brand. It’s not about changing your tone for every different piece of content, but molding it to the right purpose.
Once you've landed on the right tone of voice, it's a good idea to formalize it in document to be shared with everyone who produces content and copy related to your brand. This will allow you to ensure consistency across all of your marketing channels.
At the end of the day, a brand’s voice is a constantly evolving process. But once you have that core, consistent tone of voice that represents your brand well, it becomes much easier to change things slowly over time, than have to start from scratch.
Ever had issues with your brand’s tone of voice? Maybe you’ve got some top tips on how to create one? Let us know!