The tone and approach you take on the web is crucual to your content strategy and helps prevent errors which may hurt you.

Having been a Virgin Mobile customer for a long time I have always found the cutesy tone of their emails a little annoying. I know that they are trying to be friendly and hip and hyper-approachable but the odd typo in their messages and the fact that they are signed ‘The Virgin Mobile Team’ always strikes for me a jarring note which makes their tone of ‘we are all mates at the pub’ sound artificial and unconvincing.

Now, we are in the social media era where brands want to be our best friends in the hope that we shall talk about them to our real best friends and it will all translate into dollars which their bottom lines sorely need. Cutesy, plain-speak and lingo-friendly are all buzz words emanating from Content Strategy corporate rooms across the globe which is all the more surprising why so many actually fail to get it right.

Case in point when Kenneth Cole, the American shoe designer, tweeted about the Arab Spring and the Cairo uprising referring to his latest shoe collection going online. There are two possible ways to read his post: one, he is in the market to make money and drum up business and though the Cairo uprising was a serious event, he was making light of it in a tongue-in-cheek way because getting way too serious on a day when you are facing a hundred different corporate pressures is just not kosher. Or two, he truly is so self-absorbed and navel-gazing that his online shoe collection truly is the beginning and end of his personal universe and the notion of people dying in Cairo only acquired meaning in relation to the amount of publicity he might get.

Kenneth Cole has tried to explain that his Tweet was more towards option one, his detractors, understandably, would like to believe a version of events which leans towards option two. The truth, probably, is somewhere in between. Leaving an judgements aside it is not hard to imagine the intense pressure felt in the cut-throat shoe designer world where no opportunity to sell shoes in a really tough economy can be left unexploited, and it is easy to imagine how a lapse of judgement could happen in that climate. The events in Cairo, after all are a universe away from the world of New York and while bullets may have been flying and blood being shed in Egypt it would all be felt in a remote way, whereas the pressures of the immediate environment would be all too real.

When you balance all this against the ease with which a Tweet can be put together you can see that the margin for error grows exponentially. A Tweet, after all, employing a few words and taking just seconds, is hardly a Press Release which would be poured over by at least a copywriter, a PR expert, a marketing executive and a product VP before being released for consumption.  

Pressure and business go hand-in-hand so there is no guarantee we will not see anything like this sooner than we might like. The real question is whether there is anything which can be done to preserve the immediacy and freshness which makes Tweeting so attractive without putting in place the same structure which last century made Press Releases symbols of corporate blandness.

The answer lies in the Content Strategy that is in place.

What A Winning Content Strategy Should Do

When you create content on your website you are creating more than just some smudgy pixels to fill a page. In order to really work for you your content strategy should do the following things:

01. Create value for the reader. Whether you are placing an opinion piece, some news or something a little more technical, the cardinal rule of content is that it must have a pay-off for the reader. A reader who gives you his time and gets nothing back in return is unlikely to ever return to your website for anything.

02. Showcase your qualifications. You may have an eCommerce site, be a blogger, journalist or author. If your content does not play to your strengths and convince in what it says you are wasting your reader’s time and, quite possibly, your own.

03. Be Authentic. I know this is easier to say than actually do. Being ‘authentic’ for a start has began to sound gimmicky and it also means different things to different people. Without lying in any way being authentic in a marketing scenario means that you work out a marketing persona in reverse. While the traditional marketing view of creating a marketing persona includes the creation of ideal customer profiles with complete histories, likes, dislikes and hobbies, reversing the process creates a ‘voice’ for you as a marketer, or a company. In case you think this means ‘letting it all hang out’, relax. Just like a marketing persona is an idealised form of a customer intended to help personalise your marketing efforts by allowing you to visualise the person you market to, so your marketing voice is an idealised form of who you are. I am not coldly logical, capable of assessing every variable in any situation in everyday life and the disconnect this creates causes issues even for me but on the web I am now clear as to the tone I adopt and because it is not far removed from the real me, it becomes easier, sounds fresher, is certainly truer than if I adopted a more stilted, removed style and is unique to me.

04. Know your limits. Offline I am fond of black humour, mainly because I use it to deflect and release tension is situations where things indeed may seem hopeless. What may work well for me offline where it’s backed by visual cues and inflection of tone, online will not, so I never use it. This is just an example but it gives you a clear idea of what should and should not be done. I have seen corporate websites which ask you to vote on your favourite reality TV star – a lame attempt to try and saw ‘we are just like you’. They are not and the net result is puzzlement from the visitor’s point of view, at best, offence at the very worst.

05. Be open. I wrote a post called Truth Marketing where I quantified the kind of open, disingenuous style of marketing I have seen in action and which I always advocate. Had Kenneth Cole Tweeted: “Cairo is burning and I sympathise but we still need to sell shoes to make a living, dammit!” he would have got a decidedly different reaction and much more sympathy than what he did. The whole point of Truth Marketing is that in this day and age we are all media savvy and marketing aware. Customers know when they are being marketed to. Be sincere, open and free of artifice and you get a response back which far exceeds that of any gimmick you may devise.

06. Be consistent. You are creating a voice to talk with online so that those who connect with you will understand a little of who you are, what you do and what you are like. Nothing spoils that effect than inconsistency.

Had Kenneth Cole had these guidelines in place it would have been highly unlikely that he would have been so flippant about Cairo and Egypt’s attempts to become more democratic, no matter what pressure he felt. Guidelines, like training, are there to safeguard you. Use them for the purpose they are intended, cut no corners and you are unlikely to suffer from Kenneth Cole’s fate.