Online writers are faced with a vexing challenge when asked to communicate in an offline, corporate voice on the Web.
Larger organizations tend to have very strict guidelines regarding how they speak and the character of the language they use. This style, developed in the offline world, works very well in print.
Anyone who has been writing online for long knows cutting and pasting text from print publications makes for horrible online reading. First, the text formatting simply doesn't work. Paragraphs are too long and there are too few subheads or other natural breaks to make for easy reading, screen by screen, on a computer monitor.
Next, the writing style just doesn't fit in the online environment. The Web is a place of communication for companies and individuals. It is owned and populated by both sides. Hundreds of millions have created an environment in which the norm, the most accepted style of written communication, is conversational and interactive. The Web is abuzz with people conversing with one another.
As a result, the starchy, one-way character of offline text, hastily imported, strikes a note of discord. It just doesn't sound right.
Most online writers know this and adjust their writing style accordingly.
What do you do when you run up against an unmoving corporate policy that makes little allowance for changes in online writing style? What do you do when the VP in charge insists the offline style guides be followed on every page, in every email, and in every newsletter?
In some cases, nothing can really be done, particularly if nobody on the Web side of the organization has equal stature and authority.
However, there are one or two things you can try, and see if they slip through the cracks.
One of the simplest ways of inserting a little personality and humanity into a block of corporate publishing is to replace the name of the organization with the word "we."
Here's an example of a piece of typical, unyielding, impersonal corporate text online:XYZ Corp is proud to announce version 5.0 of its XYZ CRM service. All our valued customers are now invited to upgrade for a nominal fee.
And here is how the words "we" and "our" can help make it more personal:We are proud to announce version 5.0 of our XYZ CRM service. All our valued customers are now invited to upgrade for a nominal fee.
At this point, those in Copywriting 101 will leap up and tell me the use of the word "we" is inappropriate and makes the text seem too organization-centric and not reader-centric. They will tell me I should, instead, insert the word "you" wherever possible.
Fair enough. Here's what happens when we use the word "you" wherever applicable:We are proud to announce version 5.0 of our XYZ CRM service. You are now invited to upgrade for a nominal fee.
This combined use of "we" and "you" goes some way toward making this text feel a lot more appropriate for the Web.
I still defend the use of the word "we." Perhaps not offline. Online, though, it gives a clear sense of living, breathing people within the organization. It tells the visitor she is dealing with individuals, not some faceless corporation.
Will you get these kinds of simple changes past the style guide watchdog? I don't know. But it's surely worth a try.
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Nick Usborne speaks, writes, and consults on strategic copy issues for business online. For Web sites, e-mails and newsletters, he crafts messages that drive results. He is the author of the critically acclaimed bookNet Words - Creating High-Impact Online Copy.
March 19, 2014