Most web copywriters argue that web copy should be more direct and conversational than most print materials; but how can you adopt this tone without compromising your brand identity? With a few rules and techniques you can set a tone that is appropriate for the web while respecting your brand.
Why Web Copy Should Be Conversational
1. People do not read on the Web in the same way they read print materials
People don’t read on the Web: they scan. Anything that makes the text more difficult to scan and absorb impedes communication. Formal tone elements, such as longer words and sentences, and third-person perspective, make the text more difficult to comprehend.
2. People use the Web differently than print materials
People use the Web to find specific information. They are not there to browse. Page visits are often only a few seconds long. If visitors can’t find the information they are looking for, they quickly go elsewhere.
A more formal tone puts a greater cognitive burden on visitors. The greater the burden, the less comprehension. You’re just a click away from losing potential customers.
3. Web tone is conversational by convention
If your competitor has web copy that makes them look approachable, then you don’t want to look stuffy in comparison.
We are not suggesting that you dumb down your web copy. Rather, the goal is to adapt a conversational style that is appropriate for your brand. Conversational style has room for plenty of variation. For example, a conversation with your banker will differ from a conversation with your spouse. Simply understand your brand and use the right techniques.
How to Write Web Copy That Fits Your Brand Image
1. Use active voice
Active voice makes clear who is doing what. You should use it for web copy regardless of your type of brand. Web copy in passive voice might sound more formal, but it can also sound vague, unreliable and possibly deceptive.
Active voice: “We will contact you by the next business day.”
Passive voice: “You will be contacted by the next business day.”
2. Choose the right perspective
Second person perspective is often the best choice for business web copy. Third person perspective is too stuffy. Most of your site should be written using the second person pronouns “we” and “you.”
Second person: “We look forward to hearing from you. Give us a call.”
Third person: “ABC Company looks forward to hearing from you. Give them a call.”
First person perspective may work for some elements of your website (such as blogs) where the style is more relaxed and it is clear who is speaking. First person perspective may also be appropriate for a one-person company where the person embodies the brand.
First person: “I look forward to hearing from you. Give me a call.”
3. Use contractions
Most web copy uses some contractions. Without contractions, phrasing can sound too formal and trip up the reader. Don’t overuse contractions but make sure that your web copy still flows.
Without contractions: “Do not hesitate to give us a call. We would be happy to help you.”
With contractions: “Don’t hesitate to call us. We’d be happy to help.”
4. Keep sentences and paragraphs short
Sentences and paragraphs should be short to aid comprehension and contribute to the conversational style. The more concise your web copy, the better. By some estimates, web copy should be one-third to one-half the length of the same article in print.
5. Use a mix of casual and formal words
Word choice is important for establishing tone. Some words are casual; some are formal. For traditional brands, it is best to use a mix of both.
Casual tone: plenty / lots / tons
Formal tone: substantial / myriad / numerous
6. Avoid slang
Slang can quickly sink your web copy into “bar room” conversation. Try to avoid it.
Slang: “Our latest product is off the hinges!”
7. Use cliches carefully
Cliches can be useful to invoke a casual tone, but don’t overuse them. Remember that you also want to be direct and concise. Cliches can make web copy more wordy and indirect.
Cliche: “When the bottom fell out of the market….”
8. Avoid foreign words and phrases
Use foreign words or phrases only if there is no English equivalent. “Schadenfreude” is acceptable, “raison d’etre” is not. Your brand may be traditional, but it doesn’t need to be stuffy.
9. Use a few asides
Asides create a relaxed tone. Use them, but not too often.
Aside: “At our annual meeting (in the beautiful city of Halifax) our shareholders….”
10. Try a single line paragraph
These are great for emphasis, and it invokes a casual tone. Be careful not to overdo it.
Single line paragraph: “Quality is our number one priority.”
11. Eliminate empty words or phrases
It is tempting to pad the web copy of formal brands with extra phrasing. Eliminate the fluff and keep to the point.
Empty phrase: “At this point in time, we are ready to….”
Amended phrase: “Now, we are ready to….”
12. Use correct grammar and spelling
Even with a conversational style, spelling and grammar rules still apply. Errors in spelling and grammar cast doubt on your credibility. It is critical that formal brands get this right.