Writing as myself is relatively easy. Once I have an outline, I can basically just let it flow, adding whatever quips and bits that make me happy.
But most of my clients don’t want me to write as myself. They want me to write as them. And one of the biggest challenges I’ve found as a copywriter and content writer is to first find someone else’s voice, and then write in it.
When you’re lucky, the client will provide a style or brand guide to get you started on the right foot. A good style guide will provide helpful clues about target demographics, company vibe, and hopefully some examples of content that fit their style.
But most small businesses don’t have anything like this written down. So when you send your first piece of content to the client, it can feel like taking a shot in the dark. You have no idea if it will fit their expectations.
So I’ve implemented a few steps that have helped me to home in on a client or brand voice — without just guessing and hoping.
1. Ask about tone
One of the first things I do when working with a new client is to ask them about the tone that they’re trying to convey.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the client to have a very vague notion of what I’m asking. Usually, the response is something like “fun” or “informative but conversational.”
That’s better than nothing, but not by much. “Fun” can mean dramatically different things depending on who you’re talking to. It can be playful and friendly. Funny and a little sarcastic. Family-focused or decidedly adult.
Ask the client a little more about the company and product. Is it a luxury? A necessity? Are you promoting a certain lifestyle or job? Does the brand have sex appeal? Is it family-friendly? The more you can learn, the closer you’ll be to understanding how the brand should sound.
2. Ask about audience
A great way to get closer to the client or brand voice is to discuss their audience. When we know who we’re trying to reach, it can be a big help in figuring out how to reach them.
Millennials have different problems than, say, retirees. They also have different pop culture references, slang, technology know-how, and financial situations. These factors can all affect how you speak to them.
“Fun and playful” for a millennial may include Stranger Things and hot girl summer. “Fun and playful” for retirees may include grandchildren and gardening.
Even within a generational demographic, you will need to dig deeper. The older Millennials are in their mid-30s. They’re often established in their careers, starting families, and buying homes. They get references to late 80s and early 90s pop culture and are often less in-tune with what’s brand new.
The youngest Millennials are just finishing college and are about to start their careers. They’re mostly unmarried, renting or living with their parents, and they probably don’t know who Andrew McCarthy is. But they sure know how to use Snapchat. (As an old Millennial, this technology completely eludes me.)
So figuring out exactly who you’re talking to is a must. It will affect not only what the content is, but how it’s delivered.
3. Look at previous work
Unless you’re working for a brand new business, there is probably some content out there representing the brand already. Ask to see it.
Blog posts, website content, even social media feeds can offer you valuable clues about tone. If you notice that every third Instagram caption addresses the readers as “friends”, that’s a great clue! The client is trying to establish themselves as a trusted part of their audience’s community. So they may want a warm and friendly brand voice.
When I find words or phrases in past work that stand out to me, I’ll put them in a list. Referring to my “on brand” phrase list can help me to find the voice. I may sprinkle some of those phrases into my writing, or I may use them as a jumping-off point to create my own.
Some brands are comfortable swearing. Some aren’t. Some like puns, rhymes, and wordplay. Some don’t. Making lists of these traits can get you much closer to finding a brand’s voice.
It can also help to look at content the client didn’t like. Maybe you’ve been hired to take over their blog after they chose to part ways with their previous writer. Ask the client what they didn’t like about the previous writer’s work, and take a close look at it. Is the writing stiff and formal? Too wordy? Hard to follow? Knowing what they don’t like can be almost as helpful as knowing what they do like.
4. Request samples
If you’re starting from scratch, ask the client if there is other work out there that has the tone they’re going for. I’ve had clients send me to hotel websites, restaurant websites, and famous blogs to emulate their style.
This should go without saying, but emulating a style is not the same as copying content. Copying is unethical and illegal.
For example, I have a client who likes the style of a certain famous blogger. This blogger writes in short sentences with very short (1-2 sentence) paragraphs. He has a clear introduction that follows a basic formula, and a conclusion that ties it all together. So I write blogs for this client following the same basic outline. The resulting articles are 100% original, but they have the same feel as that blogger’s work.
You can also do your own research to learn about a demographic that you aren’t a part of. If I were to write for a brand that was targeting retirees, I’d start with articles on AARP’s website. No one knows retirees better! For teens, I would probably start by finding some Instagram accounts with a big teen following to see how they’re talking to each other.
To wrap up
Some clients will be able to answer all of these questions without a problem. They will have a clear vision of their brand and the image they’re trying to convey.
But for others, this can be a challenge. Even if they have these ideas in mind, the client may have never articulated them before. So it’s up to you to work through them with your client. It can involve a little extra prodding up front, but the quality of your work be better for it. And happy clients mean happy copywriters.