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Finding Your Social Media Voice & Tone

“Ordinary people are products of their environment and fit in. Artists transcend their environment and stand out.”

It’s a loud place, the Internet. So much shouting back and forth. It’s a wonder we can hear anything at all, let alone our own voices. To be heard — to stand out — is an art form in itself. It isn’t easy finding a way to develop a unique voice that emerges from the chaos and illustrates who you are.

At Colorado State, we’ve narrowed our social media purpose down to a simple, straightforward statement: We give fans a sense of belonging to fuel their fandom and inform them about CSU — all while pushing the envelope. Our mission: We tell the University’s stories. Our philosophy: Listen deeply, share meaningfully, and build community.

A while back, I discovered Shopify’s voice and tone guideline, and I felt that our team should adopt a similar approach. As I came across other examples of voice and tone, none resonated. It wasn’t until I noticed Shopify’s model that I really understood what voice and tone should be. Their model not only uses words to explain what their voice is, it uses words to explain what their voice isn’t. You can say a lot about who you are by saying who you’re not.

Shopify points out that your voice is a reflection of who you are, so your voice should never change. Colorado State University should always sound like Colorado State University — nobody else. Your tone, however, should change. MailChimp’s content style guide thinks of it this way:

You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes. You might use one tone when you’re out to dinner with your closest friends, and a different tone when you’re in a meeting with your boss.

Your tone also changes depending on the emotional state of the person you’re addressing. You wouldn’t want to use the same tone of voice with someone who’s scared or upset as you would with someone who’s laughing.

In our case, our voice ought to remain constant no matter which platform we’re using. But our tone, on the other hand, will shift from platform to platform, from one scenario to the next.

Back to discovering your voice. Reach deep inside your brand, rip its heart out, throw it on the table, and examine it from every angle. What, exactly, pumps life into your brand? That’s your voice.

Voice is a mission statement. Tone is the application of that mission. – Kevan Lee, Buffer Social

Our mission is storytelling. Our stories pump life into our brand. Our voice is how we tell them.

Authentic, not authoritative

  • Be a resource that helps guide students along their academic journeys, but let them discover their own paths.
  • Be willing to admit to being wrong.
  • Speak like a real person.

Savvy, not scholarly

  • Tell stories about academic-related topics, but write in a way that is accessible to a broad audience, not just a specific discipline.
  • Be able to answer questions or connect a user with a department that can.
  • Speak intelligently without using jargon.

Current, not gimmicky

  • Tap into trends and current events, but don’t try too hard to be cool.
  • Speak the language of your follower base without using slang that is too obscure for a majority to understand.
  • Utilize the latest updates and features on social media platforms.

Accessible, not intrusive

  • If a user needs something, be there for them. #Ramily
  • Respond back to private messages and comments, but without being so personal that a person feels like their University is watching them.
  • Be clear about what you want users to do with a piece of content. Don’t assume they will all know.

Whimsical, not overbearing

  • Have fun with language, but go easy on exclamation points and emojis.
  • Use tasteful humor to relate to your audience, but know where the line is so that you never cross it.
  • Convey academic material through creative content (GIFs, emojis, memes).

If Colorado State University Social Media was a person, the adjectives above are how we’d like people to describe us.

When determining tone, always imagine the emotional state of the user. A high school-aged prospective student is likely anxious about choosing their school. Our tone should reflect that and express warmth and acceptance. A homecoming football victory calls for a much more spirited tone, emphasizing pride and unity (#ProudToBeACSURam). Our tone changes dramatically from Facebook to Snapchat, as our Facebook demographic tends to receive engagement from alumni and parents compared to the current and prospective students on Snapchat.

As an example, consider the emotional states of these user scenarios:

  • Overwhelmed: “I couldn’t find anywhere to park, and I was late for my Biology exam.” Be supportive. Let them know you’re sorry they had a rough day, and ask how their exam went.
  • Confused: “I can’t find this information on your website. Can I get an online degree in Agricultural Sciences?” Be helpful. Provide them with an answer and a URL. Make it easy for them.
  • Overjoyed: “I just got accepted to CSU! I can’t wait to go there! #ColoStateBound.” Be happy with them. Tell them you can’t wait to see them on campus. Welcome them to their new family.
  • Angry: “Why would you build a stadium on campus when we have a perfectly fine one already?!” Evaluate on a case-by-case basis. Avoid responding when it feels like someone is trying to get you to misstep.
  • Nostalgic: “I miss this campus so much. This was one of my favorite study spots.” Welcome them back. Let them know you’re glad they were here and hope they come back.

Buffer Social suggests these prompts: What kind of personality would your brand have if it was a person? And what is its relationship to the consumer (coach, friend, teacher, parent, etc.)?

When creating your own voice and tone guideline, you may wish to follow a template. Rocket Media provides a structure for helping you think about how you should and should not be writing to align with your brand’s voice.

  • Content type: What are you writing?
  • Reader: Who are you talking to in this scenario?
  • Reader feelings: What’s the reader feeling when they are in this tone scenario?
  • Your tone should be: Use adjectives that describe how you should sound in this scenario.
  • Write like this: Give a brief example of how the writing should sound.
  • Tips: Explain best practices of writing for this scenario.

As social media continues to change, so will our tone. Our voice will remain the same, and we’ll continue to tell the University’s stories in a way that fuels their fandom and informs them about CSU.

Chase Baker

About Chase Baker

Visual storyteller & word nerd.

A few of my favorite things: Photoshop, iced coffee, shooting hoops, typography, and the Eastern Plains.

“We harvest only what we plant.” – Galatians 6:7