There’s a growing trend in B2B marketing that is often expressed in brand guidelines as ‘write the way you speak’ or ‘use a conversational style’. This signals a big shift in B2B tone of voice that I think is great news (for reasons given below). But I also think it’s worth keeping two things in mind as we embrace this change:
1. Context is everything.
2. A friendly tone of voice is no substitute for having nothing to say.
Why ‘write the way you speak’?
The traditional B2B voice — serious, formal, often long-winded — was all about building trust through institutional authority and heritage. But as marketing has moved online and become entangled with blogging, tweeting and other social trends, the old voice no longer does its job.
In a more social context, trust doesn’t derive from stiff, cold authority. It comes from openness, honesty and warmth. And this is why businesses increasingly want to be associated with a more plain-spoken, friendly tone of voice – even when speaking to other businesses. Most of our clients have been moving in this direction for some years, and the trend is picking up pace.
This is great news for B2B marketers and writers because, at long last, we have permission to treat our audience as human beings who respond to human qualities in writing. We can leave dull, convoluted language behind and tell stories that use a more varied range of tools to engage, educate and sell.
Be careful of context
My first caveat about ‘write the way you speak’ is perhaps too obvious to state, but for the sake of completeness, here it is. Clearly, people speak in different ways in different contexts. So which ‘way that I speak’ should I be using when I write a piece of B2B content?
What I should be doing, surely, is writing the way my audience speaks; or, more specifically, the way they want me to speak in the context in which I’m addressing them. A CIO may be quite sweary when he’s down the pub and be perfectly happy for his friends to swear at him. That doesn’t mean he’s happy for his bank manager to swear during a business conversation, or for an IT service provider to do so in a blog.
As shorthand for ‘be human, be genuine’, the advice to write the way we speak is just fine. But obviously brands need to provide more complete, specific guidance to avoid forms of communication that are inappropriate to the context and the audience.
Don’t forget the message
The second, more serious, point that I want to make about the shift in B2B tone of voice is this. We need to be careful not to become so caught up in an exciting new style that the marketing focus becomes all about tone rather than the message or content being conveyed.
However well we ‘write the way we speak’, if there’s not a worthwhile, interesting and valid message beneath the words, our audience will see right through us. After all, the whole shift in voice is driven by a more canny audience, looking for an honest and open connection. Content that dresses up marketing hype in language carefully crafted to sound friendly and transparent is the opposite of what they’re looking for.
But as long as we have something of substance and value to say, ‘write as you speak’ should help us to sound like human beings rather than faceless organisations when we say it. Which is a very good thing indeed.