So you’ve decided to push your corporate communications out into the shifting seas of the internet. Whether you’re going out in a rowboat of a Twitter feed or packing the hull of your schooner for a permanent blogging voyage, the most important thing is to do it with style.
There are already hundreds of boats on these waters. Your mastery of style will decide whether your online communications float or are consigned to a watery grave. In the words of the novelist Tom Robbins, “The mere presence of content is not enough… it is style that makes us care.”
The term “style” encompasses many ideas central to the writing craft – voice, personality, point of view and theme. Indeed, if you haven’t done much serious writing, creating online communications for your business could pose a challenge. It requires brevity, clarity and consistency. Then again, if your writing voice is already approachable and human, you’ll win yourself over with readers instantly. You also run the risk of hitting an iceburg.
Take, for example, this public relations blunder that landed in the email inboxes of every Netflix subscriber back in September 2011. Mine started like this:
I messed up. I owe you an explanation….”
Whoa. I suddenly felt like a jilted lover. My eyes leaped back to the “From” line. Yes, I’d read it correctly. This was from one Reed Hastings, Co-founder and CEO of Netflix – a person I’d never heard of before – and he seemed about to cry.
The letter went on for nearly two pages, explaining that the company had recently made this and that structural change, and why customers felt “we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced… price changes.” (Basically, they had unbundled features of their service, charged more for them separately, and informed users it was an improvement.) When the change was first announced, I’d flinched slightly how they’d phrased the price hike, but now this Hastings guy was making it worse.
Why did this email fail so badly? Timing and damage control blunders aside, the tone and style of this supposed heartfelt communication came way out of left field, bringing the company’s motives into question. My reaction was: Who this guy to write me a “personal” note, unless it was to tell me I’d received a year’s free subscription for being a great customer?
As friend Reed has undoubtedly learned, choosing the appropriate style to use when writing directly to an online audience is tricky. There’s a lot at stake. You want them to like you, but you don’t want them to feel like you’re trying too hard. It’s the same when sharing experience and expertise in your blog – you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about without coming across as a pompous so-and-so.
Luckily, there’s a simple answer to these style questions: Be honest, and be consistent. If all Netflix communication was made to look like it came from Reed Hastings personally, and written in that wide-eyed tone, we would find it odd at first but it would soon be part of a quirky brand image. (“Your movie has been shipped in that lovely red envelope! Get excited for Tuesday! xoxo – Reed”). Honesty, however, would have served Netflix better before it made the pricing changes.
As for your business, the standards are swiftly changing for how much you can expect customers to know about your inner workings. We live in a world of almost unlimited information. The most you can do is stay ahead of the curve and be the source your customers go to first for news about your company. Style can do a lot to signal to customers: Hey, we want you to know us better.
I call the internet a shifting sea when it comes to communications because the audience is huge but the territory is uncharted. It’s worth spending some time figuring out who you want to read your blog, Twitter feed, etc. If it’s for your employees to know what’s going on in the boss’s head, go ahead and type up some journal entries. Just remember that you can’t control whose eyes find those raw ideas. If you’re courting potential clients, you’ll polish it up a bit – but keep it human. A blog is not the place for sales copy. Successful posts will do well with all audiences, especially those that tell a story or bring some unique aspect of your business to light.
Authorship is another question to answer before you sit down to write (or assign someone to be your ghost writer). Whether the blog contributors are one or many will have a huge impact on style. Some blogs are written by a group of authors, like the official Google blog, which gleans contributions from Google’s entire staff. They manage to keep consistency in tone and style between all those authors, probably with a style guide much like a magazine would have.
Other blogs, like the one I write for Lost Creek Consulting, come from one author. The advantage here is not having to train more than one person in the writing style you choose, and it can be a bit more nuanced and fun. I just found a great blog written by a plastic surgeon who owns his own practice, with lots of great personal rants about things like cosmetic surgery reality shows and the FDA (really, it’s worth reading).
Style is all-embracing, and the more you blog (or Tweet or email), the better feel you’ll have for what fits and what doesn’t. The important thing is to make that original content shine, and don’t try to weigh it down with search terms or selling points. Your product or service will sell itself – and customers will find it! – once they realize that your business ethic is authentic and your organization is run by real people.
Test your style boat for leaks before sending off on its voyage. Have someone – an expert, perhaps – read over your words. Grammatical errors are never good; they create doubts in the reader’s mind about your overall commitment to your message. Ask your test reader to let you know at which point their mind, or mouse, wandered. Keeping your style highly engaging is extra important in the ultra-distracting online environment (That brings up a side note: Always have your links open in a new window or tab. That way your readers can go watch the kitten video, then be back on your blog when you’re done.)
Going online with your corporate communications will expose you to an infinite number of contacts, potential customers and collaborators. Your blog, email list or social media account can be a great asset or risk to your communications strategy, or it could just bob along without gaining much momentum. Success or failure depends on the style with which you guide your communications between the waves.