How much do you think about the tone of your website and digital communications?
Tone (or tone of voice) is the way in which an author (whether individual or an organization)) approaches a subject for a specific audience.For example, tone can be formal or informal, serious or funny, or it can be some combination (e.g., formal and serious, or informal and funny).
The tone of a website should reflect the brand or identity of the organization; a company’s tagline projects a certain kind of tone (think of Nike’s sporty “Just Do It” or Allstate’s earnest “You’re in Good Hands with Allstate” or Dollar Shave Club’s playful “Shave Time. Shave Money.”)
Our own design teams have always assumed that a casual and conversational tone is generally a good thing in digital communications. For example, a button called “Okay” is more engaging than a button labeled “Submit.” It does the same thing, but feels different, yes? A conversational approach is more lively and likely to hold the user’s interest. But even when using a conversational approach, there can be interesting differences of tone based on what kind of audience you’re talking to.
Here are a couple of examples from around the Web:
Amazon.com is often used as a model of ease of use, in large part because of its friendly prompts, which guide the user through the shopping (and checkout) experience. A friendly, but sincere tone permeates its customer service section, as well as other parts of the site.
Example: Duluth Trading
Duluth Trading’s eCommerce site, on the other hand, makes its humorous tone the centerpiece of its website, even within its customer service messaging. For example, they emphasize their No Bull guarantee. This breezy, irreverent tone works, because it feels earnest. Duluth Trading has really achieved something with its combination of humor AND trustworthiness:
Web Portals (Web Applications)
Intuit works very hard at explaining things clearly to users on its websites, including the QuickBooks Online portal, geared to small businesses. But their prompts speak in the language of an intelligent but helpful accountant, and the overall tone is one of professional courtesy:
By contrast, ManageWP’s online portal for managing WordPress websites has a fun feel. A sense of playfulness can be found throughout the site, both in the graphical elements as well as the standard text. That fits well with this site’s orientational towards technical (and let’s face it, even geeky) users who are apt to welcome the humorous approach.
The differences in tone in the examples above are based on each company’s decision to appeal to a certain type of audience. Those appealing to a broader audience (Amazon or QuickBooks) take a more conservative approach in tone and use of language. For example, Intuit’s subject matter is finance, where an irreverent tone would not be appreciated. For certain specialized audiences (men who shave, or webmasters), humor can enliven the conversation.
Research Proves Conversational Tones Work
Recently, the Nielsen Norman Group did a study to explore how tone may impact brand perception amongst website useres. A few of the things they discovered in exposing users to some “fake” brands with varying tones of voice are:
- Trust and credibility are essential. A brand may be perceived quite differently if its tone does not convey trustworthiness. And tone of voice is a key way of influencing the perception of trustworthiness. Choose language wisely when discussing aspects of why customers should trust you.
- Even traditionally dry industries like finance can benefit from a little conversational language. If if you’re running a serious business, in other words, you don’t have to be cold or formal in the way you talk about the business. Users will appreciate a conversational tone.
- Consider the needs of your users when choosing a tone. A playful tone for a serious business or organization may make you stand out from the competition. However, depending on the industry, an overly friendly or irreverent tone can undermine the perception of professionalism.
Trying to get your tone just right? It’s always helpful to consult the standard writer’s manual by Strunk & White: The Elements of Style. (You can’t go wrong with a straightforward approach.)