Let me begin by saying that I am not, by training or by inclination, a marketing expert. I don’t claim to know everything about branding strategy, nor the intricacies of brand “identity.” All I have is lots of hands-on practical experience. I’ve worked as a copywriter in online/offline content for organizations of every imaginable stripe: from writing dry technical pieces for medical companies, to developing absurdist, funny nonsense for children’s books.
One of my strengths as a copywriter – one that has gotten me a lot of work, for which I’m very grateful – is versatility. I’m good at quickly picking up and mimicking a brand’s tone, often while maintaining my own voice; the latter portion is what keeps me most interested. People have authored books and taught entire courses centered around writing on brand; this post does not claim to be so comprehensive. Instead, it’s an attempt to detail my own (fairly uncomplicated) process.
A Quick No-Fuss Guide to Capturing Brand Tone
*1. Research, research, research *
I assume you’ve done a bit of this before you even landed the freelance gig – poking around their current content and picking up tone. Now that you have the job, delve a bit deeper. Some established companies have a Style Guide – although it’s more uncommon than you’d think (and if you’re freelancing with a start-up, odds are YOU’LL be writing the Style Guide).
Ask if they have one anyway; at worst, you’ll look eager and conscientious. If they don’t have a Style Guide, look more closely at their current content. What’s the voice they’re using now? Formal, informal? How slangy do they get? How do they normally structure pieces? What are common terms and references? Start figuring out their current “rules” – that’ll be the foundation of your work.
*2. Figure out the target audience *
In the best situations, you’ll be able to meet directly with your client and ask them specific questions about who they’re trying to reach (and how). How old are their target audiences? What does your client want them to do – click through, share on social media, read, download, take action?
Sometimes, this information has been covered in your initial interview – but now is the time to get specific. Do not be afraid to ask. Again, the aforementioned meeting is the optimal scenario, one in which your client has plenty of time and energy. I’ve also been in situations where a wild - eyed, overloaded project manager hires me in a panic, because they need truckloads of content done yesterday – no time for close questioning.
On other gigs, the client has looked at me beseechingly: um, what kinds of audiences do you think they should target? In those cases, get the most information you can about your clients’ objectives (even if you can’t have a longer meeting) and take an educated guess, based on their product and the tone of their existing content. Don’t be afraid to check out their competitors’ content in order to pick up some tips on voice.
*3. Determine the optimal marriage of existing tone + target *
So, you’ve looked at your clients’ existing content and learned a little about their goals. Now find the intersection – how you can nudge tone to meet specific objectives. For example, if clients are trying to reach millennials via sharable social media pieces, that’s going to call for a jaunty, snarky, approachable tone. If they want academics to read a pamphlet, that calls for a more formal, weighty voice.
If you can pair the client’s existing “rules” with a voice that appeals to their target audience, you’re golden. Often, that’s a matter of common sense. For example, if a public health non - profit wants to develop blog posts that appeal to readers outside of their field, you’ll need to find a tone that covers the seriousness of a public health issue with an approachable, clear style – broken down into easily-digestible blog form.
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*4. Know that there’s normally wiggle-room *
When you’re playing around with tone and personality, it’s easy to slip in some of your own voice – as long as you keep target audiences in mind and follow the basic “rules” of your client. Maintain good communication with your client; when you’re first beginning to write for them, send drafts early to make sure you’re capturing tone. Be ready and willing to revise, if necessary.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can begin reasonably exploring the boundaries of the brand’s voice. Most clients, in my experience, don’t want an on brand automaton; they want someone who brings their own creative spark. That’s what makes content engaging and fun to read. I’ve never needed to delve much deeper than these 4 steps, personally.
This kind of simple process (plus a healthy willingness to revise and adjust according to client specifications) has gotten me plenty of work. In my experience, writing on brand doesn’t have to be a slog; you, too, can capture tone without too much effort – and best of all, you never have to stop playing with it!
Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.