In a recent piece on her blog, author Justine Musk describes the process of finding your own voice and owning your life. Her articulate, engaging piece is focused on the entrepreneur or individual’s personal journey. But her message resonated with me as I thought about the struggles that many companies face in articulating their own stories and finding their voice in the market.
The surge in popularity and buzz surrounding content marketing has opened up a tremendous opportunity – but also created a great deal of responsibility and anxiety – for businesses to tell their own stories. As Musk says, “When you are a presence that lacks a voice, you create an empty space that another voice – a dominating voice that knows no boundaries – is only too happy to fill.”
Are you taking the steps to find your voice as a business, and reflect that out to the market, or are you letting your competitors, the media, customers, and others shape your message?
Voice vs. Brand
Building a brand is smart on every level – from building trust to establishing the context for how your message is heard in the world. But it’s important to answer the question: Where does your company’s “voice” fit in in terms of brand? And how do you find it and define it?
Voice is part of your branding and yet separate from it. Your brand encompasses many things:
- Knowing who you’re speaking to
- What you’re saying
- How you’re saying it
- The creative/design aspects – both graphic and copy
- Articulating your USP or unique selling proposition
- The channels you use to share that message
- The process that you use to adhere to these points with consistency across channels
Voice touches all of these things, but embodies specific aspects of it more completely than others. Let’s break down each element into detail.
Knowing who you’re speaking to:A company’s voice has to have resonance with customers and prospects for it to work. It has to resonate with your vision and your perspective, but it also (most especially) has to resonate with your audience.
Consider this – would you use the same voice to talk to a Tucker Max fan that you would use to talk to a follower of Kenneth Copeland Ministries? It’s an extreme example, but my point is simple: you must know who you’re talking to. If your voice doesn’t match their needs and expectations, your messaging will miss its mark.For more information on learning what your target audience wants, see my article, “7 Ways to Find What Your Target Audience Wants and Create Epic Content.”
What you’re saying:You also have to know what you want to say. What’s your big message? What is your business trying to accomplish in the world? And bluntly, so what? Why is your message of broader significance, to the market in general and to your target customers in particular?
Your messaging matters both in terms of clarifying the right tone or vehicle to say it – and also clarifying the message itself. Your messaging needs to straddle an important line: it’s where you have to express what’s true about your business and also connect that to what’s most important to your customers. If your business has been well designed to fit a market need, this will be a natural fit. But for other firms, making that connection requires deep introspection to identify the highest priorities on both sides of the fence and craft a compelling connection.
How you’re saying it: Musk makes an excellent point about voice: you have to keep looking until you find the right medium for your unique voice. For a person, the answer could be painting, writing fiction or dance. For a writer, you could drill down and argue that the medium could be long-form narrative or biographies or romance novels or blog posts about SEO. From a business perspective, there are multiple layers to the “how” you communicate:
- Your tone
- Your approach
- Your medium
I want to double down on medium, because this is a critical piece of the content marketing discussion. If you look at a pre-created content marketing plan, it often ticks off items that you have to do. Write and publish one new post each business day on your blog. Develop and place one guest post a week. Create a great opt-in guide for your e-newsletter list. All of these are valid, and I would argue important, strategies.
But here’s the thing: not every strategy works for every business. Some entrepreneurs hit their stride when they launch a podcast. Others are natural writers. Some businesses can’t effectively convey their essence without visuals and movement, and video is a natural platform for them to find their voice. The big takeaway here is this: if you’re not getting traction with one kind of content, keep experimenting.
I’m not advocating experimenting to the point of sunk costs, but I am arguing that it’s important to test enough so that you can find your voice and the content style that works for you. The right medium can make all the difference for a business struggling to articulate what it is and why that matters in the broader world.For more ideas on putting different types of content to work for your business, check out these articles:
- 10 Steps to Creating a Mobile-Optimized Content Marketing Strategy
- How to Build a Kickass Content Strategy
- How to Double Your Content Marketing ROI in 2014
Voice is what you say and how you say it
A valid question from marketers is: so what exactly is your voice? Think of your favorite writer, especially novelists, but perhaps a talented reporter or non-fiction writer. Plots and characters make up fiction. Descriptions, interviews, and facts tend to make up journalistic pieces. But two writers can handle the same story in very different ways.
The same concept applies to the way companies do business, and how they express their voice. Consider, for example, two lawn care companies serving the same territory. One might work to have a super professional image, with their staff dressed in uniforms, driving spotless vans, and using branded equipment. Their competitor is 2/3 the cost, but the workers show up basic work clothes and don’t have fancy pamphlets about how to make your azaleas thrive. Each company might be the right fit for their specific kind of customer. The way in which they communicate those differences happens at every level:
- What forms of content they use
- The vocabulary they use to describe what they do
- The overall tone of their pieces
- The way that they describe, and appeal to, their ideal customer
- The optics or visuals of how their messaging is presented
- The bigger message behind what they do
- What benefits are emphasized to their potential customers
Knowing your customer, and thinking about what you want to communicate to that customer through your interactions, is how to get a solid sense of your voice.
Making your values and vision explicit
For many entrepreneurs, launching a business is a values and vision-driven exercise. Whether you want to transform an industry with bold changes or simply make the world a better place, the way you tell your story is how you take the implicit and make it explicit. Your values and vision drive what you do: but it’s through storytelling that your message finds its connection to the right people.
As Musk says, “Your voice takes your inner life and makes it manifest: gives it shape and substance and meaning for others.”
For businesses, it’s about taking the DNA that drives your internal culture, builds your products and shapes your whole business and communicating that. How can your values and vision, conveyed through your voice, become what people envision when they hear your company name? How can it create an intangible sense of who you are and what you do, and create the intellectual and emotional reaction that they have when they interact with your business?
Four practical ways to find your company’s voice
Define your voice values: Circling back to the idea above, most entrepreneurs had a value or a vision in mind for their business when they launched. Whether the goal was to solve a specific problem or to become a hub of innovation, that speaks volumes. Ask yourself tough questions about what values are most important to your company and look at how that’s reflected in your voice. For example, if thought leadership is your most crucial value, you’re likely to convey that in a specific way. In another situation, your top value might be helpfulness or customer care. Each of these values strongly drives your communications toward a specific type of voice. The Voice Bureau offers a free assessmentthat helps you determine your company’s voice values.
Tag-line try ons: One of the most obvious places that your voice emerges is your company’s tagline. You can get a good indication of voice by what taglines resonate. If you’re looking for quick feedback from your marketing, doing a simple market research survey or a series of interviews on what tagline best represents your brand can give you a useful barometer. A number of market research services give you access to on-demand audiences that can give you answers in minutes.
A/B test it: We’re most familiar with the idea of A/B testing in the context of testing designs for conversion rates or headlines to see what drives clicks. But it’s also possible to A/B test for voice. The variable that you’re chasing is a bit more intangible, so it requires some thinking. But one strategy would be to send email marketing to test subjects in your prospect or customer pool and see which drives a higher level of engagement. Each email would represent a specific type of “voice” that you’re experimenting with. This could be reflected in your choice of headlines, copy, and subject matter. By measuring engagement, you’ll be able to determine a winning voice.
Write your real CEO letter: Every annual report begins with a letter from the CEO or the Chairman, reporting on the year’s highlights. But what if you wrote that letter – to your customers, your colleagues, your prospects – from a completely truthful place that explores what you want to say and how you want to help them? Write this without an intent to publish, so that it feels safe to be completely transparent. What emerges from that exercise may have to be massaged or reshaped, but could contain the seeds of your most authentic, powerful voice.
Finding your brand’s voice is an ongoing effort. But it’s necessary for building a strong brand, for connecting with your audience, and for having a successful content marketing campaign. What techniques have worked best for you in determining your company’s voice?