Isla McKenna

In this video, Isla McKetta of Portent walks us through her process for integrating a client’s brand voice into their content creation process.

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Introduction:

So, I am a copywriter, I’ve been with Portent for a year now and I come to copywriting from, I have an MFA in creative writing. I was looking for a way to make…exactly…how do you make a living with an MFA in creative writing. You know. So, you become a copywriter or you do something else. And I speak five languages because of growing up around the world and so I really love language, and linguistics. So what I want to do today is bring that all together in this presentation and talk about a linguistic approach to copywriting. And getting the voice right.

So, SEO copy writing, surprisingly enough, is not about words. It’s especially not about keywords. It’s about communication. So, for a long time we were telling our clients, ‘You got to get keywords on the page! You got to get keywords on the page!’ So, what did they do? They put the keywords all over the page. It was terrible. Google hates it and we can’t do that.

Words and language are the medium that we’re using for communicating. There are other media that we can use – photos obviously, video. Google can’t read them as well, though, so we have to do special treatments. Luckily for me, the MFA trying to make a living, words are in. So, I’m really hoping that Google doesn’t get more sophisticated…

People Scan Text To See If You’re Speaking Their Language Before They Read Your Content:

One of the things that we do as people is we scan and dismiss. We do it all day long. We did it on the Savannah when there’s a lion out there. It’s kind of like this moving shape. You’re like, ‘Okay, I see that, I’m going to run.’ It happens on the web all the time. We do it really fast. We see something, it either fits us or it doesn’t fit us and we click on or we click through. So when you’re doing, you want to make sure your voice is right for your client when you’re writing.

Language is a tool. It’s a tool that most of us aren’t using as well as we could. I know I learn something every day about how to use language better. But it’s an extremely powerful tool and it’s an extremely nimble tool.

Dialect & Brand Voice:

We’re going to talk about dialect and this is kinda where the linguistics comes in. Dialect is just a language that people share. It’s shaped by region, it’s shaped by all kinds of factors we’ll get into later.

Factors Affecting Dialects:

  • Region. Okay, my dad uses the word ‘chifforobe.’ Does anybody use this word…? Okay, I love that word, I think it’s beautiful, but mostly readers know that word. It’s a word from the south.
  • Social class. For example, we hear the terms 99% and 1% a lot right now.  The 99% use the term 1% a lot different than the other way around.
  • Age. I get a lot of, so I’m going to talk later about prom. I get a lot of my inspiration from my hairdresser who is really super young. And she tells me words like ‘totes’ and so then I use them in my copy and I bring them home. My husband loves it. They’re shaped by our profession. My dad’s an economist so I grew up with words like ‘opportunity-cost.’
  • Education. You have to think about your Flesh-Kincaid reading level all the time when you’re writing because you can easily come off too slow for your customers/clients or too snobby. And people know.
  • Gender. This isn’t as much of an issue in the United States but it’s kind of a big deal in places like Japan where there’s actually an entirely separate dialect for women when they speak to other women because they speak softer and they use different language. But it’s still something to consider when you’re writing.
  • Race. We don’t talk about it in the Pacific Northwest but when I was growing up, ebonics and whether ebonics was going to be taught in the schools or not was a big deal. Something to consider. Be very careful with it, but it’s something to consider.
  • Religion. Some of your clients are going to use ‘God’ with a big ‘G’ and some of them aren’t. And whether you ever use God in your copy or not, they are customers. It’s a very different way of speaking so you want to be conscious of it.

Language & Dialects Are A Collection Of Our Experiences:

So, language is a collection of our experiences. These are mine:

  • We’ve got my family over here.
  • My education is here.
  • My love for television is over here.
  • This is what I do.
  • This is what I would do if I had all the money in the world.
  • So, if we were to talk about my mom, she speaks a certain language because she’s a CPA. Because I spoke her language, because I worked for her from a young age, I ended up working in a CPA group for a long time because it was a natural fit. That’ll come into play later.

So, shared language breeds trust. This is how we know that we’re like each other. This is how we know that we can communicate with each other. This is important with your clients and their customers because it’s how you keep them on the page, it’s how you keep them clicking through.

My friend Angela is also a CPA. I, ironically enough, met her in a CPA forum. But the reason Angela and I knew that we could be friends, one of the reasons, is because we both speak the same language. Angela uses all kinds of wonderful, arcane CPA kind of speak like amortization and 706 and W-9 and she knows what they all are and I can get about 40% of it which is better than most people. But it’s how we know that we can connect.

Dialects Can Divide Us:

Then, dialects also divide us. It’s pretty easy to do that and you see this with the older generations and the younger generations all the time.

Sometimes the divide between dialects is tragic. This is an area called Plitvice in Croatia, which was part of the Yugoslav Republic. And you have Slovenian, the way you say ‘good morning’ in Slovenian is ‘dober dan.’ The way you say good morning in Croatian is ‘dober dan.’ So that’s the difference of one vowel. Well, okay, that’s no big deal Serbo-Croatian… Slovenian is actually a different language than Serbo-Croatian but it was all one language.

Well, in 1991 in this beautiful, beautiful forest, the first shot of the Yugoslav War was fired. So then all of a sudden it becomes really important whether you’re like me or not like me. But then sometimes language dividing us is just silly.

Jargon Is A Dialect:

How many people in this room are SEOs? Okay, so, you guys use all kinds of crazy new words that I’ve never heard before and I’m trying to learn them. But, what are some other ones can you think of besides ‘canonicalization.’ SERP? Yeah, everybody still uses SERP and I still have to Google it occasionally. I mean, I know what it is, but I keep looking for it to make sure it’s a real word because it’s like, it’s all, ‘duh.’ Anyway, just kidding.

But, it’s important because it’s not just about how you’re communicating with your client and their customer, it’s about how you’re communicate with your team. So you have to make sure that everybody’s speaking the same language. And sometimes it’s nice to translate things a little.

So, language also connects us to brands. You’ll see this is the same slide I had up earlier except for now I’ve got the brands that the quotes all came from. Mostly you can tell that I like movies a lot. And Portent down here. So, these are the phrases that kind of come through my life. They are things that I repeat in conversation. They are jokes that I tell Rebecca that she doesn’t get because she doesn’t watch these movies…

Anyway, but think about that – think about the way that language connects you to brands.

Prom Dress Case Study & Building A Client Lexicon:

Okay, so case study: prom. So we’ve got this client, they sell prom dresses. We had to, it was kind of one of my first big clients, and we had to figure out the right voice to blog for them in. So, what do we do? First thing we want to do is ask the client for information. They’re going to have a lot of demographics. They’re going to be able to tell you who their customers are and who they want their customers to be. Then they’re going to start telling you things about, and you need to ask for this information, how they want to be seen and how they don’t want to be seen.

Then you start asking them questions about the risks that they’re willing to take. Because some clients are willing to go there and some aren’t and your copy needs to reflect that. So then you take all that information and you build a lexicon. Lexicon is a very fancy word, I love it, but it’s just a list of words. So this is a Google doc, that actually Katy helped me build. What we did is the client said that their customers read ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Teen Vogue’ so we just read through and we find the words that stick out.

I’m in my 30s, it’s pretty easy to find the words that stick out in ‘Teen Vogue.’ There’s a lot of them like, well, ‘funky’ was actually kind of familiar to me but things like ‘wow factor’ and ‘unexpected.’ The way that they were using ‘unexpected’ was rather unexpected. And ‘chic’ and so we just started keeping those words and then saving them. The lexicon also was really handy later because if you work in an agency like I do, you get a lot of different clients.

If you want to sit back and figure out, it’s been a month since you’ve written about prom, you’ve written about platform as a service, you’ve written about cloud computing and you kind of need to get back into the voice again. It’s like reading a good novel. You pick up the lexicon and all of a sudden you’ve got that vocabulary in front of you. You’ll see that we also did parts of speech because sometimes you really need a good adjective.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is the client, when they give you all this information about who their customers are, they’re not always right. They don’t always know what their customers want. Because the client’s way older than the customer, they have a very different life experience and sometimes the writer isn’t right either. Because we’re older, too.

Well, I’m older. Not all the writers are older but I’m older than the customer. In fact, I had an interesting experience putting this together with my husband last night because he’s born in ’74, I’m born in ’78. I wanted ‘Pump Up the Volume’ but he said no, it was his. And then I wanted Bono and he wouldn’t let me have that. I tried to give him Bowie and he’s like, ‘No.’ So that’s four years difference and a marriage and we still don’t know. So it’s important to kind of…so how do you find this information? How do you figure out what the customer down the line is actually speaking about?

You go to their native habitat. Now, as a writer, you’re always, always, always researching. The way that I found out where the prom kids hang out is I’m at the movie theater and I’m waiting in line and there’s two fourteen year-old girls behind me and they’re talking about Tumblr. And one friend’s telling the other one how awesome it is and how it works. And that’s not the first time that’s happened to me. About Tumblr. With teenage girls. So, there are different places to go for different types of clients.

But for prom, Tumblr is where it’s at, I think right now.

Research & Immerse Yourself In The Customer’s World & Language:

Then you want to research what your customers actually search for. In the case of prom dresses it’s kind of easy. But say your client wants to go out and branch into the U.K. market. They don’t really have prom in the same way that we have prom. I was really surprised to see that quinceanera dresses are such a small part of the market. I think that we should bring quince back. Then everybody can have a quince and a sweet 16 and a prom and then our clients will have all the money and then I can spend all that money traveling the world.

Then you want to immerse yourself in the culture. So what I started thinking about with prom was, ‘what were these girls doing when they were tweens?’ What were they interested in. Because I wanted to know, not just what they’re talking about now but I wanted to know what their cultural referents are. So I turned on ‘Hannah Montana’ at work. For a good long time. And watched it. Rebecca said that’s because I liked it. Not true…Okay, well I did watch seven episodes. But I learned a lot from ‘Hannah Montana’ like, yeah, anyway…

Putting It All Together:

So, then what I did is I bring it all back together when I started writing this paragraph about prom. So you’ve got Hannah Montana words in purple. She uses words like, ‘crushing on’ and ‘kick it up.’

And then we’ve got this lexicon over here and those are all the yellow words like ‘all eyes will be on you’ and ‘supercute’ and ‘sophisticated’ and frankly, even if my client is wrong about whether kids actually use these words from ‘Teen Vogue’ and whatnot, they are words that kids are going to have seen and they’re words the client’s comfortable with which means they’re going to be more comfortable with the copy. Which is important.

And then the Tumblr. I brought one thing in from Tumblr. Then the keywords, obviously, are in blue. Thing about Tumblr, though, if you want to get really depressed, look on Tumblr about prom. Because teens will tell you the truth. And it’s not what you can tell your client and it’s not what you can probably write about for their blog. Remember, we talked about risk? But it’s important to know because it gives you the background that you need. So, just remember that if your voice isn’t authentic, you’re going to lose the client and the customer.

I don’t know you if you all remember ‘Frasier.’ All I ever remember about ‘Frasier’ is how they couldn’t pronounce anything. When you find the right voice, you get the return on the investment. It’s important, it’s worth spending the time to do it. So learn the brand voice, and you’re in.