One of the challenges that can come up when you develop marketing content for a business is to determine how to talk about the business in print.
So, do you talk about your business like it’s –
- A group? (“We provide X, Y and Z…”)
- A third person, referenced by name? (“Joe Smith has worked in…”)
- Yourself? (“I provide X, Y and Z…”)
Let’s examine how you should approach this decision for your marketing project. Anything larger in scope than a business card or an email signature (and maybe even those marketing assets) will be impacted by this decision.
Why This is Important
The choice of the narrative point of view sends messages to your prospects – your potential customers. These messages and the narrative point of view should work toward making your marketing content attractive, believable and plausible to your target market.
The narrative point of view:
- Sends a message about who will be doing the work for your customers.
- Implies things about your organization’s size and structure.
- May imply a certain level of expertise or experience.
- Can indicate to the prospective customer whether they have access to an organization available for support, or if support for their needs must be aligned with a key person’s availability.
- Communicates, to an extent, how responsibility for a result is distributed . In other words, is just one person in the organization responsible to a customer for a result, or does the customer have to go through a management hierarchy?
Some Guidelines to Consider
- Authenticity – be who you are and don’t posture. The best single rule to follow is to be authentic about your situation – your business’s size, makeup, and your own role in the business. If the business is just all about you and your work, then you should probably adopt that narrative voice.
- Adopt the common practices used by similar businesses in your space. This is useful if your own self examination leads to confusion and you need to see examples that show how others with businesses like yours handled the issue. Look at a lot of web sites of competitors – at least 5 to 10 at minimum. Study how they speak about their own businesses. And whatever style seems to predominate, consider that style as most appropriate. It may not seem creative to imitate. But here, imitation helps you avoid having a message that is completely unsuited for your market.
- Look to the future and plan for probable growth. You may be “me” or “I” now. But if the business model that you are expecting to adopt in the near future – one to two years out – is an organization with employees or regular subcontractors – and especially if similar businesses to yours have staffs, and are not generally one solo professional – then you should consider adopting the “we” mode early.
- Be consistent. Once you adopt a narrative voice, stay with it. Alternating between different voices within the same piece of copy (such as a web site) will be confusing to readers and will raise flags of credibility.
What Breaking the Rules Looks Like
Here’s an excerpt from another freelancer’s web site. I have heavily modified the specific facts. I don’t wish to ridicule the freelancer, but just point out where you should stay with a consistent, believable model.
He Even Likes To Have Fun
When John Doe isn’t increasing the sales of industrial products, he can usually be found practicing nature photography at his home in Woodstock, Vermont (he used to be a staff photographer for Gannett). He also helps new graduates break into the industrial supplies business by expanding their marketing skill sets and find jobs through his vast network of contacts.
What message does this passage send?
The net effect is that he is positioning himself as someone being written about – as though he has an agent, publicist or staff who tends to his public image. And it’s simply not true.
As a personal account, it’s not believable. It violates the “be who you are” rule.
The style is isn’t consistent with the rest of his decent web site which is written in the first person. It clashes. It violates the principle of consistency.
It doesn’t fit the common model of similar businesses. Most freelancers do not have staffs, and most freelancers – especially famous copywriters associated with large brands, for instance – don’t write in the third person.
How Narrative Voice Sounds
Each mode of narrative voice communicates distinct things about the subject.
- “Me”/”I” projects sincerity and honesty. It also sends the message that you alone are the business. This may support certain kinds of expert-based businesses very well, and it may be deadly for other types of businesses. It’s often used when just one person is the expert or the “go-to” provider of services.
- “We” usually indicates strength in numbers. It can also imply that the product or service is a group effort by the staff, and also implies that service is available at any time or on any day. “We” works well for service oriented businesses such as computer support groups, construction businesses. This mode may not work well for high-skill deliverables that the buyer expects to be produced by a particular expert. “We” is not so beneficial when there is some unique professional talent that you want to showcase. Attorney groups that use “we” often straddle the first person expert mode and the collective strength-in-numbers quality.
- Third person by name or pronoun (He/She) is a special case. As I mentioned in the example above, “he” or “she” implies that the subject is on a kind of pedestal and is being written about by someone appointed to communicate or even defend their image. There might be social class messages communicated by “he”/”she” that indicate that the person is on a higher plane than mere mortals. Presumably he’s “higher” in some way – wiser or more educated by a huge margin – than his customers or audience. Third person “he” should generally be avoided. The reason being that it can suffer from sounding inauthentic, and it can come across as pompous and self important. The exceptions to this general rule would be that there is actually a third party writing about the person, or there is a compelling business or marketing reason for using third person.
Examples: How Specific Industries Can Use Narrative Voice in Copy
Construction and remodeling companies – generally written in the plural “we” and third person mode. The “he” or “them” is the owner or partners, and the “we” is all employees, subcontractors, etc.
Independent Professionals – usually written in the first person. But subject to the marketing practices for that specialty. Anyone writing their own copy should stay with “I” – first person – to avoid the risk of, well – looking awkward or a bit dumb. Attorneys and other licensed or high profile professionals may have to adopt the third person “he” mode in order to conform to prevailing practices. “We” is often used by some independent professionals in order to gain an appearance of substance , but can be constructed as misleading (or even silly!) when the visitor realizes that only one person is behind the business.
Computer service businesses – I have witnessed both first person “me” and plural “we” usages. “We” is usually favored for B2B providers, because business customers look for depth of support and around the clock coverage. “Me”/”I” is often used successfully by local IT support freelancers who have developed strong local brands for their services.
An Example of a Successful “I”/”Me” First Person Approach
A local friend of mine is a long time friend of renowned cello, viola and violin maker David Wiebe.
David’s web site is a great application of the principal of using the first person “I”/”Me” mode when it is necessary to communicate that one talent is behind the integrity and the quality of the delivered work.
David Wiebe’s stature as a world famous maker of instruments could justify a third person approach to his copy. But this is evidently not “who he is” so he opts for a personal, authentic style.
Using the Third Person for Yourself: Don’t Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid.
If you have determined that you need to write marketing content about your business in the third person “he” mode – get professional help.
I don’t mean that you need to have your head examined. 😉 I mean that you should seek a copywriter who can write such material for you. Generally, self written third person copy – like the example I picked apart above – looks tortured and does not read well. Get someone else to write it for you.
The choice of the narrative point of view is a key marketing decision. It sends messages to your prospects. These messages should work toward making your marketing content – and more importantly, your business – believable and plausible.