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Building a Brand with Your Online Voice

by Susan Esparza March 16, 2010

Your Web site has a personality problem. It doesn't know who it is, who it wants to be, who it should be talking to. Your site doesn't have a voice. It's a barren wasteland of bland, boring and unimaginative copy. You might have a stellar SEO campaign. You might be bringing in traffic by the hundreds of thousands but though they arrive alive and kicking, it only takes a couple of seconds for your Web site to kill them in action.

The problem isn't page speed or even site design, necessarily. It's that your site doesn't have any hooks. You try to welcome everyone but succeed only in satisfying no one.

By adding a brand and a voice to your site, you'll be establishing yourself as more than just another bland stop on the Internet.

Decide What You Stand For

Before you can figure out who your customers should be, you have to know who you are. Your brand should mean something and from the very first moment that someone arrives on your site, they should know what that is. Your site design will tell them a great deal - don't let them down with the text.

Your brand isn't what you're selling. It isn't the services you provide or the number of press releases you put out each month. Your brand isn't what other people have told you it should be or the sum total of your mistakes.

Write down the first ten words that come to mind when you think about your company. Are those words about the brand or about the product?

Look at your site. What is the message that your visitors are getting? Are they reading generic corporate speak? Would they notice if you swapped the text on your home page with that of your biggest competitor's?

Nike Homepage
Nike's home page pushes brand, not product

Nike is one of the strongest brands in the world. Nike's brand isn't about athletic shoes, though Nike does sell shoes. Nike's brand is excellence, sports, determination and success. When Nike advertises, they don't push their shoes, they push their brand. Visiting their Web site, there's hardly a shoe to be seen. They're advertising bike racing, physical fitness, superstar athletes and personal achievement.

Brands are what make people passionate. There is no difference between a book bought from a local independent bookstore or a megastore, but each store has their fans who would never consider one or the other. The product is the same but the brand experience matters.

Knowing what you stand for will shape how you talk to your customers. If your company is about honesty, family and helping others succeed, your copy will read entirely differently than if your company is about performance, individualism and achievement. Sometimes that might be tied to your product (it would be difficult, though not impossible, to have a motorcycle customization shop that emphasized family values, childhood and whimsy or a collectible dolls site that billed itself as extreme) but most of the time, it's about who you want to be.

Get to Know Your Audience

The answer to the question "who is your customer" is not everyone. It's not even all men ages 15-34. The answer is specific. It's targeted. It takes a stand and identifies people rather than categories.

To begin to identify who your audience is you should begin by looking at your assumptions. Describe your customer to yourself and write down any adjectives that come to mind to describe your typical customer. What comes to mind? Just like doing your keyword research, this is a time for brainstorming, not criticizing, so write down everything you think of. Spend some time on this and come back to it often. A word of caution: don't get too attached to your view of the customer. You might find out that what you think and what you've got are totally different.

Once you've done your brainstorming, move on to asking the other key players in your company what they think your customer is like. Sales will have a very different view of the customer than customer support will but they're both talking about the audience that you already attract.

You can also ask the visitors directly. Integrating customer surveys into your checkout process or account creation process gives you a good idea of who is willing to brave the bland wasteland of your site in order to get your products.

Once you know who is actually sticking it through on your site, you should start looking for the people who haven't made it there but should. Run keyword searches on social networks. Dive into industry research to find out more about the demographical make up of your audience.

For example, perhaps you sell giant, round, fuzzy stuffed animals. Assuming your site is, who buys your product? You might come up with the words: fun, whimsical, playful, absurd. Your customers have a sense of humor (after all, they're spending $40 on a stuffed animal that resembles a beach ball.)

Next you ask the company. Sales says that your customers tend to be young, technology-savvy and repeat customers. Customer service says they're enthusiastic, loyal and passionate. Searching on Twitter, you find that your customers talk about your stuffed animals with their friends and excitedly post about getting a new toy in the mail. They also, you notice, like online comics and quirky sites.

Feel like you know the average Squishable customer? Good. Doing it for your customer will be easier.

Be Prepared to Give Up Something

Greatness isn't built on pleasing everyone. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is still choosing to leave people out. Though you cast a wide net, you'll still be missing out on something. Even Wal-Mart doesn't appeal to everyone. Your company's identity should be built on who you are speaking to, who your audience is. What works for one company will not work for another, even in the same industry.

Recognize that when you start to build your brand, not everyone will like you. Some people might even hate your message.

Dreamhost is a Web hosting company that prefers to keep its tone light and fun. This angered many of their customers when a database problem called widespread outages. The company was accused of not taking the problem seriously enough, and of making light when livelihoods were at stake. Others appreciated the attempted humor as trying to make a bad situation a little bit brighter.

The point is not that Dreamhost did the right thing or the wrong thing. They did their thing, and continue to do so. It gained them followers and it lost them business but they were true to the personality that they had built and the relationships that they'd established with that brand. On their Web site, they start building their brand on their About Us page, clearly explaining that they do things differently. They commit to this identity that all the way through their site and their communications. Even their newsletters are a little bit different, giving the news in a playful way.

Use Your Voice

Once you've found your voice, you have to commit to using it. There's no prize for being the most boring company on the planet or for displaying the most personalities from page to page. You'll turn people off either way. Maintain the integrity of your voice throughout the communication cycle. Though your tone will vary on the situation - your home page will not have the same tone as your customer service e-mails - you need to be consistent on your values.

When you decide what you stand for, know your audience, and use your voice, you'll be building an online brand. It's this brand that will set you apart, and it's what will resonate with the right customers to create loyalty and relationships that last.

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