Social media strategy is complex. A ton of work goes on behind the scenes before it’s even time to start planning and scheduling content.

One of the most challenging tasks is to define our brand voice and tone. After all, everyone wants to be relatable and engaging on social media.

However, brand voice isn’t just about seeming quirky and cool; it has a massive impact on the success of our social campaigns. To understand the scale of this impact, check out research from Sprout Social into what makes a brand’s social accounts “best in class”:

Image source: Sprout Social

At least four of those factors – audience engagement, memorable content, distinct personality, and compelling storytelling – are partially or wholly related to brand voice and tone.

With that in mind, we discussed how to build a conversational, engaging brand voice on a panel at the Social Media Strategies Summit for Government Agencies, led by Columbus Regional Airport Authority’s Communications & Marketing Manager Sarah McQuaide, and featuring insights from:

  • Jennifer Davies, Digital Content Supervisor for the City of Las Vegas
  • Stephanie Hill, Social Media Lead for the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program

Read on for six of the biggest takeaways.

1. Brand Voice Must Evolve with Your Audience

First off, let’s dispel any notions that brand voice is a one-and-done exercise.

Your brand voice adapts and grows over time, and needs to be adjusted to match changing audience needs and brand expectations.

Jennifer Davies explains that the City of Las Vegas’ brand voice is mainly about building a feeling of community. That’s always been the case, and probably always will be. But the pandemic has forced a change in the city’s tone and content on social.

“A lot of the fun and friendly banter that we had with our residents and with other social media accounts had to slow down [during the pandemic] because it just wasn’t appropriate,” she says.

Now, Jennifer’s focus has switched to helping followers with COVID-related issues and giving accurate information on topics like testing and vaccines, or as she puts it: “Trying to provide calm in the storm.”

Image source: City of Las Vegas

However, Jennifer doesn’t want her pandemic-influenced communication style to become permanent. The City of Las Vegas’ social channels were seeing strong growth pre-COVID-19, so she sees a return to fun, quirky content in the city’s future.

“We want to get back to that. [We’re] trying to take small steps and gain confidence, as we aren’t seeing the backlash that we would have seen even just a few months ago,” she says about their social media content in May of 2021.

Stephanie Hill’s team has had to adjust their messaging as well; not just due to the pandemic, but also because some days, people just don’t want to be entertained with emojis and jokes.

That’s particularly the case for the All of Us Research Program, which works with many underrepresented communities.

“Sometimes, we may need to take a couple of days where we don’t post if there’s a heavy news cycle. We also share messages that say, ‘We hear you, we’re here for you,’” says Stephanie.

It’s vital their team avoids sounding tone-deaf. “It’s really [about] understanding your audience and figuring out what times you may need to adjust your approach a little bit.”

Image source: All of Us Research

2. Brand Voice Gives a Personal Touch

Information overload is a genuine concern in a world where we publish over 9,500 tweets every second.

Simply put, we’ve almost become desensitized to online content, which makes it extremely difficult for social media managers to cut through the noise and build a connection with their audiences. As Stephanie explains: “[As consumers], we may hear a health statistic, or we may talk about some information that’s relevant to a specific community, but it still doesn’t necessarily click with us as an individual.”

That’s why All of Us Research’s social channels aim to personalize content to the communities they serve.

“Our channels try to provide that more personal touch. We focus on health observances, but with a keen interest in making that individual connection.”

5 Things to Know About Building Your Brand Voice as a Government AgencyImage source: All of Us Research

Further, bear in mind that your brand voice doesn’t exist in isolation; it should tie in directly with the principles that underlie your organization. If it doesn’t, then something has gone wrong.

Stephanie explains how this should look in practice. “Our program specifically focuses on what’s called ‘precision medicine’. We recognize that people want to be treated as individuals. What works for one person may not work for another person. So when we’re talking about social media, we take that approach on our channels as well.”

Image source: All of Us Research

3. Tone and Content Can (and Should) Vary

This article is about defining a brand voice, not several different voices; but you need to leave yourself some wiggle room. Your voice will naturally vary on different platforms and in different scenarios. If it doesn’t, you’re likely not seeing the best results.

The goal of your branding project should be to create an overarching voice and tone that can be adapted and tweaked to fit the needs and preferences of different personas and platforms.

Stephanie says All of Us Research boils down their brand voice into three key characteristics:

  • Relatable
  • Factual
  • Informative

But that can look different from one platform to another. “On Facebook and Instagram, we were finding that the audience was people who were interested in health information,” she explains. “Our Twitter audience had a lot of researchers and those who were heavily into the sciences.”

That meant she had to figure out how to “speak to those different audiences with the same information, but making it applicable to their needs so that they will want to continue to follow us.”

Image source: All of Us Research

Jennifer echoes this point. With the City of Las Vegas’ audiences varying between platforms, she created different personas to help create content that truly resonates.

“On Facebook, they’re super into history. I think we have a little bit more room on Facebook to tell visual stories; that seems to resonate more with our audience on there. And then on Instagram, we try to showcase the beautiful side of Las Vegas, from the city to the public lands, and all of the amazing hiking and beautiful scenery there is to see in the desert.”

Image source: City of Las Vegas

Just as your brand voice and tone might vary between platforms, you might need to switch things up for the myriad of different scenarios you encounter on social media.

Sarah points out how this level of adaptability has become increasingly important over time. “Back in the old days, it was one-way communication where we’re putting the information out there [and] we’re not worried if anyone’s going to comment or like it. Now, you want to get that two-way communication going. You want to have a conversation.”

Image source: Daniel Rodriguez / John Glenn Columbus International Airport

But how do you figure out what sort of voice and tone to use in different interactions and contexts?

Experimentation plays a part. We likely wouldn’t be working in social media if we wanted to keep posting the same content day in, day out. But Stephanie also recommends learning from your competition.

“Call them up, contact them, and just talk it through,” she says. “When we were thinking about how to handle responses at HHS, we talked to other people at CDC and NIH to try to figure out how they were doing it. We spoke to other federal agencies as well, just to get an understanding. At the end of the day, we’re all in this sort of social struggle together at times.”

4. Use Data to Inform Your Brand Voice

Defining your brand voice should never be a matter of guesswork. Sure, you’ll almost certainly have a hunch or two about what your audience wants to hear, but you should always rely on data to inform your approach.

For instance, Stephanie discovered that more than 50% of All of Us Research’s Facebook audience is over 65. “It’s older than we had initially anticipated,” she admits.

As a result, she’s shifted the type of content they post on Facebook. “We share a lot of blog stories and longer-form articles that seem to do well. They’re still science-based, but they’re presented differently.”

Unsurprisingly, the organization’s Instagram following skews a lot younger, with the primary audience aged 25 – 30. Stephanie explains that they’re still interested in science, but they’re not necessarily “super into the weeds” about genetics or genomics.

“Leveraging stories and some of the other channel features help us to get our message across better to the demographic on that channel.”

Image source: All of Us Research

5. Remember: You Don’t Have to Be Wendy’s!

We’ve all seen Wendy’s (and Arby’s, and lots of other brands) killing it on social by basically tweeting like they’re your cool, witty college roommate.

But – and it’s a big “but” – you don’t have to be that person to build a conversational, engaging brand voice.

That just might not be you. And if there’s one thing people hate on social media, it’s inauthenticity.

Jennifer admits that this can be a tough point to accept because there’s a degree of pressure to figure out how to be this great, snarky, funny person on social media.

“I just want to give everyone the confidence to know that that might not be right for your brand. And some governments do rock that personality, and that’s great for them. But I think establishing your brand voice doesn’t mean that you need to do that to be successful.”

Image source: City of Las Vegas

Stephanie gives the example of the well-known meme of Bernie Sanders – looking grumpy wearing mittens – that took over our social feeds at the start of the year (you know the one). Many people wanted to engage with it, and she had discussions internally about whether All of Us Research should get involved.

“Ultimately, we decided that although it was something that was taking Instagram and everywhere else by storm, it wasn’t necessarily the right fit for us,” she says.

“You can find other ways to be whimsical and fun when appropriate.” Stephanie and her team ask themselves questions like, “Does this necessarily make sense for me? If that person were to see this, would it cause any issues? Would this have any amplification implications on funding or anything else?”

And those same conversations were going on at Columbus Regional Airport Authority, reveals panel host Sarah McQuaide.

“We thought, ‘How hilarious would it be if Bernie is sitting in the airport with his mittens?’ And we had to think through each of those different personas of our audience. Would they find it funny?”

In other words, building a conversational, engaging brand voice doesn’t necessarily mean jumping on the latest big meme. There are many different ways to do it, and those alternatives might be more relevant to your brand and audience.

Image source: John Glenn Columbus International Airport

6. Use Metrics to Tell You What Works (and What Doesn’t)

The importance of data was a recurring theme throughout the panel, and with good reason. As social media professionals, we have access to vast swathes of data, so there’s simply no excuse for relying on gut feel to inform our strategy.

“On the trial and error thing, I have a lot of people ask me all the time, ‘How do you know when you’re on the right track?’” says Jennifer. “And it’s like, well, if your accounts are growing and you’re getting likes and retweets without a ton of snark, then you’re doing the right thing. Keep doing more of that.”

“I always like to look at the analytics and then try something new, evaluate it and see how it worked, and then make adjustments from there,” she shares.

But don’t allow the numbers to blind you. Sarah insists that you need to dive into the meaning behind the numbers to derive useful, actionable insights. That means going deeper than top-level vanity metrics that reveal little about actual performance.

What’s more, Sarah notes that data alone doesn’t always tell the whole story. “Sometimes, just one meaningful conversation with one person can mean so much. It can take your brand to another level and instill that sense of trust, which is so important for government organizations like ours.”

Image source: John Glenn Columbus International Airport

Looking for More?

Learn more about social media best practices and connect with other government professionals at an upcoming Social Media Strategies Summit.

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