I once worked with a B2C client that offered a college prep product for high schoolers. They wanted help expanding their content engine and getting the word out; in their mind, their problems were related to capacity, not quality of content.
See, they had their audience figured out (or so they thought). Their blog articles featured liberal use of memes and casual conversation. Videos featured students talking about preparing for college or tackling hard exams. The only reason this stuff wasn’t hitting was because it wasn’t out there enough, right?
But as we dove into the problems that faced their specific target audience, we found that many of the assumptions that had been made were wrong. Sure, high schoolers like memes just as much as the next person, but they don’t want to see them coming from a brand that feels like they’re trying to force a connection—it came off as manipulative. Sure, it was nice to see videos with high schoolers explaining college readiness topics, but their audience wasn’t looking for guidance from their peers—they wanted to see and hear an expert talk. But even before I had seen any of this content disconnect, I knew right from the start this was going to be a brand with some trouble because of a key red flag.
They didn’t have an established style guide.
An established, documented brand style sheet is essential for any content team that wants to hone their voice for their audience. At the most general level, these documents can be a few pages long and dive into the minutiae of how you want to be presented and perceived in the market. Put to work overtime, these guides can turn into invaluable hundred-page documents that answer even the most specific questions about word choice, presentation, and tone.
If your brand doesn’t have any documented brand style, then you’re essentially hoping that your entire content team is silently on the same page about hundreds of different editorial points without any form of concrete reference. This likely isn’t a bet your brand should be investing in.
At this point, you either have no style guide and need guidance for getting one started, or you have an established guide you’re looking to hone. In either case, it can be daunting to figure out what you want to tackle next. Brand voice contains thousands of variables that range from the specific (does your brand use contractions or avoid them?) to the vague (what attitude does your brand try to convey?), which makes choosing a starting point hard.
A good place to start is with the foundation of your voice. These elements tend to be a bit more intangible, and they affect everything that comes out of your content team. I like to refer to them as Tone, Complexity, and Purpose:
These three elements can’t define your entire brand voice, and they will need constant tweaking and detailed supplements over time. But messing up any one of these attributes can absolutely cripple your content engine, while an odd word choice here or there might not hamper you so much.
Image attribution: Sylwia Bartyzel
But how do you know where your brand should fall along these brand attribute scales? Sure, you can start with educated guesses, but ultimately the proof is in engagement. Social media provides an excellent space to listen to your audience and figure out how they want to be interacted with. The trick is making sure you have solid measures to tie back to your foundational brand attributes.
Complexity is a good place to start because it actually has some of the more concrete measures for your brand to bite into. To get a feel for you brand’s ideal complexity, copy messages and posts from your social platforms (Facebook ideally, since it imposes the fewest limitations on posters) into a readability score generator. I personally like to use the Flesch-Kincaid scale.
These readability scales will examine elements like word and sentence length to assign text a rough score that corresponds to a grade level. Using these tests specifically on social interactions is going to be inherently rough since they are designed for longer blocks of text, so expect a margin of error of a few points in either direction. For reference, most people can read at an 8th grade reading level. Unless your audience is unusually well educated, you’ll want your content to at least match this level of readability.
Tone can be a bit more difficult to quantify, but it isn’t impossible to do so. Here, it’s often best for your content marketers to actually read posts themselves, rather than to leave analysis to a computer. (While there are some fascinating conversations happening in linguistics about how to measure formality, we just don’t have reliable tools at our disposal to do this yet.)
Start by getting a list of posts of your shared content from the past six months to a year, and list them from highest to lowest engagement (you can absolutely include shared or retweet posts of your content in this list). Then, go through these posts and have members of your team assign a score of one to seven (informal to formal) for every post text, comment, or message. You should quickly be able to see some trends from your more popular content, and then it’s up to your team to decide how to synthesize this score into language for your brand.
Understanding what is most useful to your audience is actually quite easy: People tend to share things they find useful and that they think their friends may also find useful.
The primary metrics you’re going to want look at here are how far your content goes when shared. There can be a load of confounding variables here, from irregular ad spend to posting time and everything in between. To wade through some of this information, you can also cross-reference your list from most shared to least with some sentiment data. Highly shared, highly positive content is likely hitting the right place for your audience in terms of utility. Try to focus on formats or story approaches that fit this top-performing material.
Image attribution: Wilfred Iven
Updating how your brand speaks is an ongoing process. Your social media marketing offers powerful ways to evaluate where you currently stand, but the most useful practice you can instill in your team is to have a constantly growing, constantly evolving style guide. Use this tool to prune out what doesn’t seem to be hitting and encourage creators to focus on language or topics that remain consistently relevant.
After that, all that’s left to do is let your brand be the welcoming, engaging, useful presence you’ve always meant it to be.
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Featured image attribution: Clem Onojeghuo