Informal or Formal – Which Writing Style Fits Your Web Site? (Brad Shorr)

Casual_and_formal_shoes Drew’s Note:  As I try to do every Friday, I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from yet another interesting thought leader who shares his insights via the blogosphere. So without further ado…Brad Shorr.  Enjoy!

The business world has become dramatically less formal, hasn’t it?  Not so long ago, casual days were a novelty; today, they’re the norm. The interactive Web is taking informality to unprecedented levels in terms of communication. Blogs, along with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, are conversations rather than dissertations, a haphazard exchange of ideas rather than a systematic presentation of facts.

Companies wonder whether their formal Web content has become stale, out of step with the times. Answers will vary according to circumstances, but here are a few things to consider as you evaluate what style of writing to employ on your Web site.

Consider customer expectations.
All other things being equal, an informal style has the broadest appeal among business readers. However, things are not always equal. If you operate a funeral home, manage investments, or administer safety audits, customers won’t take you seriously if your Web site is loose, chatty, or irreverent. Be judicious – don’t jump on the conversational bandwagon unless your target audience is already on board.   

Consider the information. Sometimes the best copywriting solution is a mixture. For Customer Care pages, a conversational style works wonders because it personalizes your organization. But product description pages often lend themselves to a straightforward, "just the facts" treatment. What you probably don’t want to do is mix styles within a given section of Web content, and you certainly don’t want to mix styles within a single page.

Consider your core values.  Don’t try to be something you’re not. If your business style is all about maintaining formal, professional relationships – more power to you. But if that’s the case, stay formal. Your Web site should reflect your values, not contradict them. On the flip side, if you believe humor makes the world go ’round, injecting a little of it into your message may be the best thing you can do for your brand, regardless of your field.

Be honest – you can’t wrong

Because transparency – being honest and genuine – is so important, weigh core values heavily when deciding how your Web content should be written. Sometimes people equate transparency with informality, but that’s not the case. Look at the difference in style in the About Us pages of two highly successful steel companies, Nucor and U.S. Steel.

"It’s not hard to understand why safety always receives so much attention with us. For one thing, it’s smart business. Groups with great safety records also tend to perform equally well when it comes to quality, costs, timeliness, and productivity. But more importantly, when your company’s success is built on treating workers well, that all starts with creating the right focus on safety." (Nucor)

"Every day, more than 49,000 U. S. Steel employees around the world dedicate themselves to putting our five core values into action. Safety is first – it’s our company’s top priority. Our other core values are diversity and inclusion; environmental stewardship; focus on cost, quality and customer; and results and accountability. Focusing on these values guides our highly skilled workforce toward realizing our Vision: Making Steel. World Competitive. Building Value." (U.S. Steel)

Which company appeals to you? The messages are similar, but Nucor’s approach makes me feel as though I’m sitting in a bar talking to one of their executives, whereas U.S. Steel’s makes me feel like I’m attending a sales presentation. Though people may respond to the messages differently, both are effective because each reflects the values of the company.

So … where do you stand – formal or informal? How well does your Web site reflect your way of doing business?

Brad Shorr lives in the Chicago area and is president of Word Sell, Inc. He helps organizations strengthen their online presence, engage in social media marketing, create and manage business blogs, and write compelling Web content. He does not enjoy writing about himself in the third person because it is too formal.  

Every Friday is "grab the mic" day.  Want to grab the mic and be a guest blogger on Drew’s Marketing Minute?  Shoot me an e-mail.

6 comments on “Informal or Formal – Which Writing Style Fits Your Web Site? (Brad Shorr)

  1. Karen Swim says:

    Brad, this was a great post. In writing for clients I choose the style based on their target audience. People often confuse formal with “clinical” but I have found that formal copy can also be injected with warmth. Conversational copy also carries the risk of being sloppy. The key with either style as you noted is to know your audience and then speak to them in a style that will engage them.

  2. Brad Shorr says:

    Karen, very true. That’s one reason it’s a good idea for marketing professionals in larger organizations to spend time in the field talking to customers and prospects. I’ve had a few clients who asked me to do surveys of their customers before starting a redo of Web content – always helpful in finding the right style.

  3. Brad,

    Very true! Because each company is different, it’s important to use the writing style that conveys each one’s unique “personality” and speaks to its specific clientele. At the same time, using your chosen style well — without resorting to extremes in either direction — can help personalize your message while still keeping it balanced and business-like.

    Great guest post!

  4. Eamon says:

    Interesting and useful post.

    I would like to add an extra pair of shoes: bright green with red flames and orange sparks running down the sides (the maverick / creative / provocative / entrepreneurial type).

  5. Brad Shorr says:

    Jeanne, Do you think entrepreneurs and small businesses have an easier time identifying that ideal style because they are so close to their customers?

    Eamon, Wild shoes most definitely have a place! High risk/reward, but plenty of fun. That’s how I got interested in writing business cartoons.

  6. Brad,

    I think a company’s ideal writing style has a lot to do with the image it hopes to project. Yet, you may be right that, because they’re closer and more accessible to their clientele, small businesses and entrepreneurs have an advantage here. A company’s image should, after all, be appropriate to the clientele it serves.


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