Writing for the world in real time

A guide to writing copy when the whole world is watching

You are a copywriter at a global travel company, responsible for social media channels with millions of followers, and comments flying in left, right and centre. Users want answers and inspiration — and they want it now.

But you’re not customer service so you can’t always help, and when you can reply, how do you stay on-brand in the moment? Whatever you write is going to be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people instantly and once you post that comment, there’s no way to edit any mistakes.

For many copywriters this might seem like a living nightmare. For the Social Care team at Booking.com, it’s just another day on the job.

Social involves some serious leg-work. The content side of our team manage, well, the content, whilst the care side looks after our community.

Staying on-tone, on-time and on-point (we try to be original in our replies) is no easy task. Couple that with character limits and the fact that your writing is out there for all the world to see means you’ve got yourself a challenge.

Whilst there are users that come to social to gush and share their positive experiences, many turn to social media when things go wrong. Walking this fine line between conversation and care is a balancing act that we’re not going to pretend we’ve got completely pinned down, but these are our guidelines on how to create a community that cares and keep them happy:

Know your product

“Does Booking do discounts?”, “How can I become a Genius member?”, “I want to book a villa for 10 people and my pets in Spain for a low price” — these are just a sample of the endless requests we handle daily.

Consequently, the breadth of knowledge required to be able to answer and direct users is vast. Where traditional digital writers have the time to do their research before they publish, our team have to be ready to provide an answer or contact in a far more limited amount of time.

The solution is to read more and use the people around you. If you have ways to communicate within your workplace, reach out to a relevant department and ask the question. Be proactive and tireless in your pursuit of business and travel knowledge — that niche Dutch island you read about on Unpacked might be what one user’s after.

Be sensitive

This is key. Every digital brand knows that when it comes to writing online, everyone can interpret anything in any way.

Fortunately, we have a strict tone of voice policy. Points include writing responsibly (‘don’t apologise just take ownership’) and take humour seriously (a wink not a belly laugh, i.e. no shows of your slapstick comedic talents). Always remind yourself of the brand you’re representing.

Look at the big picture

There’s only so many ways you can respond to ‘wow’ and sound original. Take the below example; tags, mentions, compliments — these are all great but how do you trigger a conversation and avoid repeating yourself?

Social media works in a way where all your responses clock in minute after minute, so a wall of template replies on a post just doesn’t work.

Instead, take a step back, communicate with your team and then assess what’s best. Has somebody already replied to a comment? What have they said? Does the user have a large following? How have our competitors dealt with similar cases? These are a few questions to ask yourself in order to combat trigger-happy writing on social.

Once we’ve looked at the big picture we tackle this in a whole host of ways — reply with a question (‘Ever been to Panama before?’), get equally excited about the content (‘We’re a little bit in love with the pool too’) or a link to an Unpacked article on the destination (this is less applicable to Instagram however). Diversity in your approach really is key.

Stay human

Above all, people want to feel they’re talking to a human being on social. Sure, brands have their own voices, but there’s nothing worse than asking a simple question and getting a press release in response.

Throw in a colloquial phrase, talk to them like you would in person, and you’ll dispel some of the fears users have that they’re talking to a page run by corporate drones.

At Booking.com, this also helps us differentiate ourselves from Customer Service: whilst their voice tends towards formal and professional, ours is more casual and chatty. Where they’d say ‘Kindly inform us of your issue”, instead we’d go for “If you’ve run into some trouble, reach out here…”. And though part of our social ecosystem does involve a chatbot, we’re mostly humans so let’s talk like them.

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Writing for a social community is less an artform, and more a finely-tuned technique. It’s a challenge, but when you nail a response for the world to see, that’s a feeling that makes it all worthwhile.