Finding an Online Marketing Voice (That Isn’t False, Cheesy or Salesy)


photo of microphone

Voice is everything in writing. I worked very hard in my academic publications to create a recognizable voice, not just a voice the reader could hear speaking when reading my work but also a voice that was recognizable across different publications. This is not an easy task and few academic writers even attempt it. Academic writing by nature is supposed to be neutral: the narrator is a reporter of facts and ideas that comes to logical conclusions. Opinion is not welcome and neither is personality.

So how did I achieve voice in my academic writing? I deliberately constructed a voice that was curious, speculative and unafraid of digging deeper and deeper in order to come to conclusions that were not visible in more superficial approaches. The most common comments about my academic writing are ‘you made me work hard’ and ‘this is extremely detailed’. I considered my writing a success when I got those comments. I deliberately made myself an expert in finding the refreshing, new, unexpected, possibly even counterintuitive reading of the text.

There were two problems with this strategy while I was an academic: 1) finding the headspace to maintain such a demanding approach to writing and 2) diminishing choice about where I should publish. In the UK academic system, the demands on humanities staff time are such that it is difficult for anyone to publish enough to maintain a standard that allows for movement to new jobs, let alone that meaningfully breaks the traditions of academic writing. I was not happy to just tow the line and follow the rules, so when I found myself being pressured to seek publication only in ‘high-impact journals’ (ie, the most boring conservative in my field), I really started to question whether I wanted to continue to pursue this type of publishing.

The ultimate answer was ‘no’, which led me on a path of learning all about voice in blogging, web content, social media and email marketing. Voice is so much easier to establish and maintain in this type of writing, but I don’t think it is not easy to claim that voice and run with it. In fact, I think developing an online marketing voice is especially problematic for creative writers because they are drilled over and over on the idea that the voice of the character or the voice of the narrator is not ‘you’. Having to speak as oneself, or as one’s own marketing advocate, rather than a fictional character or narrator exposes a personal side of the writing that is never directly claimed in fiction.

However, I think it is just a matter of thought, planning, a little bravery and a little experimenting to get the right voice in marketing materials.

What Online Voice Is Not

I’m going to go right back to basics for a minute here. Voice is not content, topic or subject. It is not news, an article idea, a blog post, a tweet or a Facebook post.

Voice is not what you talk about it is how you talk about it.

Over and over, my marketing clients had terrible trouble with this concept. They always thought that the subject of their website content, their blog posts and their social media posts was their voice. At an educational business, for example, I was told that the voice was ‘about education’ and that it included ‘a lifelong learning voice’ as well. Having made sure I had the relevant conversations with staff there, it was easy to see that the voice they wanted to put forward was curious, friendly and ethical.

Putting this into practice meant, for example, writing an article about lifelong learning that took the approach of expressing curiosity about and support of inclusive, worldwide online learning. That’s as opposed to, for example, writing the same article from a skeptical point of view that interrogated the realities of making such an initiative work. With clients such as these, leaving the abstract explanations aside and giving examples in the relevant voice turned out to be the easiest, most efficient way to work.

This was so often the case that I eventually came to the conclusion that it was only people who have had experience with creative writing or English literature who can really understand this concept enough to apply it to their marketing. This in turn led me to an even more exciting conclusion: writers have an unfair advantage here. Creative writers are best placed—better than any trained marketer—to create an online voice that is not false, cheesy or salesy.

What Online Voice Is

Your online voice is not you; it is a version of you. This is the version of you that would tell your friends, family and colleagues all about the book you just wrote, the new business you just set up or the new course you’re going to offer. This is the version of you that lets the best of your personality shine through and does not apologize for it. In practice, if your book is about global warming, you might express a sense of justified outrage throughout your web content and social media posts. If your new business involves coaching small business owners, you might want to sound like a more experienced helpful friend. In short, this voice can speak to your readers in any way you want, but it needs to do so with consistency, confidence and enthusiasm.

Consistency

Once you have created a character you need to stick to it. If the voice you are using is working for your audience, you will be acquiring more and more attention on the basis that they enjoy receiving your material in the voice, style and form that you provide it. This doesn’t mean don’t ever deviate from a small number of types of content or ways of presenting that content, but it does mean you shouldn’t do a 180 a few months into building an audience. You can’t convincingly move from being a card-carrying conservative to being an environmentalist, for example. Your audience will lose faith in you if you try. The finished product needs to sound natural, but it will be the result of a rigorous editing regime, just like any quality piece of writing.

Confidence

There are all sorts of cliches out there about believing in yourself and I hate to be the type of writer who draws on them, but here it is necessary. When writing your marketing materials, you have to sound like you believe in what you’re offering. This does not mean boasting about how great you or your books or products or services are (unless that’s the type of voice you’re aiming for). However, if you sound awkward, stilted or unconvinced whether you can entertain, interest or teach your audience, it will come across. This does not necessarily reflect your mindset but could be a little wobble in your writing. As stated above, your online voice is not you; it is a version of you, which means just writing whatever is on your mind is not an option.

Enthusiasm

You can express enthusiasm in so many different effective ways. However, I constantly see marketers going on and on about how incredibly amazing their clients, their work and their followers are, even if we are talking about a client that does port-a-potty rentals with a Twitter account that has two spam followers. This is probably the one way I would NOT recommend expressing enthusiasm: by clearly exaggerating the merits of anything and everything. Enthusiasm in my view can be genuine appreciation, excitement when your causes or interests are appreciated or supported by others, sarcasm about or disappointment in detractors of your cause or ideas, or perhaps justified outrage if your topic has an activist element. The main thing is to make sure you don’t overdo it or sell yourself short.

How to Create Your Online Voice

  1. Choose Words and Catchphrases. Identify 5 words and catchphrases that work for your voice. Use this list to get started and keep going with your own words:energetic, young, energetic, expressive, safe, suspicious, interested, curious, desperate, bored, loves life, dangerous, calm, relaxed, daring, brave, outdoorsy, zen, observer, justified outrage, gratefulness, fun, authoritative, objectiveOnce you’ve created this list, make sure you give it a read through whenever you’re doing any writing for your site. Use it as a guideline and as an inspiration.
  2. Identify Your Audience. This can be quite a challenge because you don’t want to try to identify an audience that doesn’t exist. To do this in a small way, I’d recommend finding three websites that you’d like to emulate (in your own way of course) and start coming up with some characteristics of their audience. To do this in a big, organized, research-driven way, take a look at my blog post all about identifying your audience. In the meantime use these questions to get started:
    • What does your audience like to read (besides your own books)?
    • What topics/causes are they particularly committed to (heritage, human rights, feminism)?
    • What do they do for fun?
    • What do they do for a living?
    • Who are their friends?
  3. Identify Your Techniques. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that writing for marketing is boring or easy. It is not and if effort is not put into it, it will show. I firmly believe that it is just as possible to make marketing writing reach out of the page and grab you as it is in any other form of creative writing. What’s more, marketing writing does not have to be perfect, partly because it is more ephemeral than traditionally published work (people don’t read it that carefully) and partly because it’s easily fixed (unlike print). Choose two or three techniques that can help build your signature voice from the following list:Rhetorical questions, asides, alliteration, sentence fragments, quotations, referencing authoritative sources, overstatement, understatement, sarcasm, irony, humour
  4. Experiment. You’ve got words and catchphrases, a good idea of who your audience is and techniques for getting your message across in the voice you want. What you need to do next is experiment—with blog posts, web content and social media posts. This is the point where most writers really hesitate and it is indeed very scary to put your work out there for the world to love, hate or ignore. But the thing with online writing is that you can chip away at it, slowly building up followers or trying out new things until you find that all important formula that makes people want to share what you’re offering. This is the point where we grit our teeth and just get on with it.
  5. Get Feedback. Thanks to all the fantastic little innovations we have in digital marketing, feedback on posts can be gathered in a number of different ways. You are no longer limited to getting your best friend to read your posts and tell you what she thinks in the nicest way possible, though gentle advice such as this might be a good place to start. Other useful measures are Hootsuite Analytics, which details the most shared or liked social media posts as well as follower, or Google Analytics, where you can see which posts on your website are the most popular and how traffic is getting there (eg, social media, organic search, referral). You can even set up experiments to see what type of content is likely to be shared and what type of content is likely to be ignored by your audience.

Did you find this post helpful? If so please let me know in the comments below or, better, share it with your followers!