The right tone for your web copy: as easy as ABC

A diverse group of people sitting in a coffee shop having a conversation, smiling, and shaking hands. Image via Adobe Stock.

When you’re working through a piece of writing, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the forest because there are so many trees right in front of you.

Depending on the type of writing you’re doing, you might be intensely focused on clarity, conciseness, or usefulness. You might be writing to strict project requirements or trying to squeeze a seven-word call to action into one word that fits on a button.

Perfect the basics, then adjust the tone

Of course, no matter what you’re writing, you’ll want to make sure the copy suits the tone necessary to speak well to your intended audience.

Nailing the tone can sometimes be the hardest part of writing. Here’s something you can try to help you get the right tone for your final copy.

Create three versions

Sometimes called a “Goldilocks approach,” you’ll create three variations of your copy to learn which one is just right. The information in the copy doesn’t vary, but the particulars of the words you use will determine how far you’ll need to push the tone, and in which direction.

You’ll revise your existing copy with three approaches to tone: one that’s an extreme, one that’s the opposite extreme, and one that’s right in the middle.

For example, you might list your three variations as:

  • Technical, written for developers, early adopters, or technophiles
  • Medium-technical, written for majority adopters
  • Not technical at all, written for late adopters or technophobes

Or you could try something more abstract, like:

  • Black coffee
  • Flat white
  • Frappuccino

One of my favorites is a spectrum of news reporting, as in:

  • New York Times
  • BuzzFeed News
  • TMZ

Take the copy you’ve written that already checks your most important boxes (clarity, accuracy, technical info, value props) and adjust it to fit each one of your tones.

For example, a feature launch headline for something called Headline Writer Tool, written across the news reporting spectrum, might look something like:

  • This tech startup has an answer to declining click rates
  • Astonishing new software tool increases click rates by 87%
  • Headline Writer Tool will demolish your competitors’ click rates!

Do some user testing if you can

This tactic works best if you’re lucky enough to do some user testing before presenting your copy for stakeholder reviews. Instead of an A/B test, do an A/B/C test and present your readers with the three options.

If you’re presenting three variations in user testing, a highlighter test is a good way to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Let your testing participants highlight in one color the terms and phrases that they like and highlight in a different color the ones they don’t like.

Give them plenty of time to read through all three variations before they highlight their choices.

Randomize the options

Also, be sure to switch up the order in which you present the options to participants. For example, give one participant:

  • Black coffee
  • Flat white
  • Frappuccino

Then give the next participant:

  • Flat white
  • Frappuccino
  • Black coffee

Continue mixing up the order for the rest of the research participants. This technique is called randomization, and it helps to produce more accurate data.

Not just for user testing

This three-toned approach can also work well as a way to present your stakeholders with a spectrum of options. You might be surprised to discover that one person’s request for a “straightforward” tone is more in line with what you’ve presented as “Frappuccino.”

Showing variations is also a good way to get a better understanding of how your stakeholders view the audience you’re writing for.

Whenever possible, be sure to loop in your researchers and data analysts, to help make sure everyone understands the audience, desired outcomes, and language that will best resonate with your customers—to produce copy that meets all of your collective goals.

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