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Some thoughts on conversational tone and campaign messaging

Posted: October 31st, 2012 | Filed under: design, language, politics, social media | No Comments »

I was sorting through email on a flight the other day and started thinking about all the subject lines I was seeing. Quickly jotted this down before we landed in LA.

Over time, the difference between paid and organic content, between mission/brand-oriented and unaffiliated-human-created content, has become more and more blurred. (By paid content I mean not only traditional “paid media” – i.e. advertisements – but also content placed by paid employees – social marketing and content created by employees for their employers’ online presences.)

Advertisements use social language. Presidential campaigns send email blasts with the subject line “Hey.” Nonprofit organizations create photo petitions and video contests so they can hear and feature the voices of their supporters. Organizations, businesses and individuals who are spending money or paid time on social content are trying more and more to approximate our authentic social language.

With that, our ability to discern between paid and organic content has also evolved. I can tell spam from a mile away. And as much as President Obama’s campaign team tries to become the embodiment of a “friend,” I’m never fooled by their “friendly” language. We are evolving with new media, marketing and campaign strategies. Our personal boundaries, while they seem to be disintegrating with the increasing transparency of the social web, are in fact staying as solid as ever.

So what is the takeaway for the creators of paid content? I don’t believe that steering toward conversational tone is misleading or misguided. Neither do I believe that this content is 100% inauthentic. I’m sure our President does say “hey” from time to time, and I know several of the individuals who manage the social media properties of national NGOs, and I can assure you the tone of those properties reflects their individual personalities.

No – we shouldn’t steer away from this trend. It reflects increasing transparency in institutions, and, by extension, reflects increased opportunity for impact and engagement on behalf of the consumer/supporter/subscriber. But with this shift toward transparency, we mustn’t lose true authenticity. I don’t buy the “Hey” messages not because I don’t support Obama (I do), but because I know it’s actually not Obama saying “hey.” But when I see a tweet from NWF saying “hey” I know exactly which staff person that’s probably coming from.

If you are going to project authenticity, be authentic. Or else your efforts will come across as thinly as a 1950’s advertisement for a pack of cigarettes (“Great for your health!”).

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