Your Company’s Tone on Social Media Matters More Than You Think

Consumer perception further impacts trust

Not every brand can pull off comedy eclipse_images/iStock

Social media has been praised for helping brands become more conversational. Approachable, everyday language and humor can humanize brands, and this gives companies a new avenue for connection: A whopping 84 percent of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising, which means brands have to get creative in attracting their attention.

But some brands fear that they’re in a cycle of diminishing returns: 81 percent of marketers believe the experience offered by their brands determines their performance more strongly than their communications do. Some consumers clearly agree: In one year, customers lodge 879 million complaints against brands via social media itself.

If our communications are supposed to be securing brand loyalty and boosting sales, how are they sometimes doing the exact opposite? It may have a lot to do with our tone.

How tone influences interactions

Nielsen Norman Group found that while friendliness and trustworthiness are both valued by consumers, the trait that correlated closely with how desirable a brand appeared was trust. And tone had a big impact on how trustworthy a brand appeared—friendliness and irreverence sometimes hurt how professional a brand was judged to be.

NNG found that every industry, however—including “dry” sectors like finance or insurance—could benefit from more conversational language. Banks that used more casual language while providing straightforward information were deemed more trustworthy and approachable, while banks that adopted a more formal tone when sharing the same information were considered “dull” and “intimidating.” Ouch.

Albert Mehrabian’s classic framework of communication determined that only 7 percent of our communication is conveyed through our words themselves, and the rest springs from our body language and tone, which make up 55 percent and 38 percent of our communication, respectively. So, when we’re communicating via social media, email, phone or text, we’ve lost 55 percent of our ability to communicate our messages. Tone suddenly takes on much greater significance.

And that matters because perception is reality when it comes to marketing and sales, and consumer perception further impacts trust—which is a huge factor in converting sales. Like it or not, the quick assessments people make about your brand ultimately influence whether they buy from it. But tone is one buying-decision influence that your brand has complete control over.

Adopt a better tone

Brands considering a new tone can sometimes feel overwhelmed: There are so many ways to communicate—and so many ways to interpret communications—that they feel at a loss. The truth is that we all intuitively know what’s appealing or expected of us, just like we immediately understood what Mom meant when she said we needed an attitude adjustment.

Here are three ways to strike a tone that won’t sabotage your sales and marketing efforts:

  1. Communicate from your audience’s perspective: Jeff Winters, CEO of Sapper Consulting, a company that helps brands earn higher-quality leads, has a lot of experience in developing emails and calls that convert. “The key is that the focus isn’t from the perspective of a salesperson or marketing person,” he says. “You have to approach it like someone who writes movies or TV shows or does improv—an entertainer perspective will win a lot more responses than a business perspective.” While an energetic and captivating approach is important, Winters agrees with NNG’s finding that irreverence can be off-putting. He says that entertainment writing is about aggressive specificity—people don’t laugh at vague or unclear comments or respond to messages they don’t understand. The storytelling that’s appealing to your audience still has to be fueled by clarity to hit the mark.
  2. Think about the emotional state your audience will be in: A participant in the NNG study said that the difference between the two bank examples was similar to the difference between a doctor and a nurse: The former is businesslike, while the latter has “more of a bedside manner.” Taking the time to calibrate your brand’s communications to your audience’s emotional state can not only help your message resonate, but also shift consumer perception toward your brand. On social media, email and text, punctuation and emojis can take on outsized significance in approaching tone. Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system, found that “textisms” convey meaning and intent without spoken words, meaning that punctuation quite literally takes the place of facial expressions. The study found that the digital diversions from standard writing are not accidental or arbitrary, but significant. It pays to consider whether “Call us today!” should become “Call us today” when speaking to medical patients versus salon visitors.
  3. Approach comedy with care: Successfully pulling off an edgy persona is tricky, and although it’s a trendy tactic to take up, it doesn’t really fit well for many brands. Before you decide to poke fun around whatever trending topic or level a ‘keeping it real’ revelation at an audience segment, be sure you’ve taken the pulse of consumers. There’s nothing worse than unintentionally crossing a line and having to walk something back, particularly if you take it too far and can’t. It’s a public relations nightmare that can be avoided. And be sure you have a very well-defined persona in place before you even consider such antics. If you’re among the lucky few who can walk that fine comedy line, you’ll want to do so consistently and appropriately, as it’s really easy to get carried away and ruin it.

While social media, texts and email have all enabled us to communicate more efficiently with a bigger swath of people, messages on these platforms can sometimes give off a different impression than we intended. By focusing on tone, brands can take control of something well within their reach and strengthen trust. And the more people trust a brand, the more likely they are to buy from it.

@MaryCLong Mary C. Long is Chief Ghost at Digital Media Ghost. She writes about everything online and is published widely, with a focus on privacy concerns, specifically social sabotage.