Brand Tone of Voice: How to decide whether to be lit AF or just very good

There was a time when I’d enjoy a corporate social media faux-pas as much as anybody else. Whether it was the time that a disgruntled HMV employee found out that she’d lost her job (but not her access to the company’s Twitter account), or the infamous #SusanAlbumParty, there was always something exciting about seeing the sanitised, legal-department-approved mask slipping. However, I’ve now made a career out of being the man behind the Twitter curtain (twurtain?), so I can’t help but empathise with the stomach churning feeling that comes with the realisation that you’ve made a very public mistake on behalf of a client.

Now, I hasten to add that I’ve never made a mistake any more dramatic than publishing the wrong draft of a post, and the acute embarrassment from that situation (which is making me anxious even thinking about it now) has proved to be sufficient conditioning for me not to publish anything without double and triple checking first. I can barely imagine the quality control process that the person behind Ticketmaster’s Twitter account, who paid tribute to David Bowie by declaring “We salute you, Rocket Man!”, now has in place just to avoid ever repeating the nightmare-inducing ordeal that no doubt follows when you accidentally cause an enormous music corporation to announce the death of Elton John.

Of course, human error is something that will always be present in some form. A bigger cause for concern for me is when the backlash still occurs when, technically speaking, you do everything right. If your chosen tone of voice grates against the expectations of your audience, you can expect a truckload of negative feedback every time you post, even when you post exactly what you intended to. That’s not just a reputational problem, but will also leave you vulnerable to to the risk of missing genuine engagement because it’s been buried in a pile of ‘constructive feedback’ from users who have taken issue with the way you’ve chosen to communicate.

To understand tone of voice, think of your brand as a character. This is the person that the user sees in their mind’s eye when they interact with you on social media. The tone of voice that you choose to employ to get your brand’s message across is the actor that’s playing the character. Make a bad casting decision, and the character won’t be believable. For instance, if you needed to fill the role of a Spanish immortal warrior, you probably wouldn’t cast Sean Connery. (Oh…)

One recent example of the tension caused when there’s a disconnect between a brand’s chosen tone of voice and its audience’s expected tone of voice is BBC Sport’s activity during the Olympics. Clearly, a decision had been made to post in an informal, colloquial tone of voice, almost certainly to boost shareability. However, when you’re the BBC, there’s a certain expectation that comes with being the country’s state broadcaster, and no amount of talking like a YouTube vlogger is going to change that.

Imagine Alan Yentob saying this…

Predictably, the tweet was greeted with, at best, mockery. At worst, the kind of daily-mail-reader-this-is-an-affront-to-the-licence-fee-payer-faux-outrage that can be expected of any minor slip-up that the BBC makes. The problem wasn’t the content in and of itself, it was the fact that when the user thinks of the BBC, they’re more likely to think of Huw Edwards than Russell Brand. If the content doesn’t match up with the expectation, you’ll either undermine your own reputation, or even worse, look like you’re trying very hard to do so.

If you’re a well-known brand, your reputation precedes you. If the tone of voice you’re going for on social media absolutely has to differ from it, then at least be subtle about it. Taking a strategic approach to this can actually help to alter the expectation that users have of your brand, but this takes time. Start by giving the user what they expect, then over time start to move towards how you’d like to be perceived. With each step, your social reputation will follow where you lead it, but you can’t run too far ahead. Every brand wants to become more ‘relevant’, but there’s really nothing to be gained by alienating your existing followers straight away.

So, think about what your audience expects when they think of your brand. What kind of person do they imagine speaking to them when they read your stuff? Next, and more importantly, what kind of person do you want them to imagine? If there’s a difference, it’s time to start thinking about character development, not recasting.