“Words are not much valued on the Internet, perhaps because it features so many of them.” So says the New York Times in a quote I took somewhat out of context. The Gray Lady, of course, has spent nearly a decade trying to navigate the relationship of words and the Web (not to mention how you actually manage to make money off them). While newspapers and other publications haven’t fared so well on this front, there are a number of companies who have figured out how to make words pay. It turns out, when you have a distinct, recognizable brand voice and you match it with copy people actually want to read, it’s suddenly a lot easier to sell them a garage door opener or half-priced yoga sessions.
Exhibit A: Groupon. The NYT recently did a lengthy feature on the firm, and for once it wasn’t about Groupon’s ethics or rumors of an upcoming IPO. This time the NYT took a look at what makes Groupon, Groupon: its brand voice. While there are plenty of deal-a-day sites out there, Groupon has impressed its URL upon the American psyche due in part to its distinctive way with words. And that’s no accident. In fact, it’s part of their strategy. The firm gives potential hires a multiple choice quiz so they can weed out the applicants with impeccable grammar but limited potential for picking up the firm’s Voice (with a capital V). With more than 400 writers and editors, Groupon’s Voice isn’t so much a natural outcome of the personalities of its writers as it is a manifestation of a well-defined, well-executed playbook. It’s not something they use to tell you about their brand. It is their brand.
Some would argue that Groupon’s Voice is actually a suburbanized knock-off of deal-a-day bargain site Woot.com. Founded years before Groupon hit the interwebs, Woot is famous among nerd types for their irreverent, often story-like product descriptions and their special brand of brutal honesty, captured in their legendary “World’s Crappiest Projector” write up.
Woot’s brand voice not only perfectly captures its brand personality, but it permeates everything they do. When Amazon purchased the company in 2010, Founder and CEO, Matt Rutledge, delivered this epistle which was quickly dubbed the Best. Company. Memo. Ever. by the Internet.
Think about it. When was the last time a company memo made its way around the blogosphere not for saying something stupid or embarrassing, but for being awesome? It may not seem like a big deal, but when your product line varies from the must-have (flat screen TVs) to the ho-hum (a two-pack of pliers), there has to be some thread that can tie it all together. People may not know what deal Woot or Goupon are offering on any given day, but because of their distinct brand voices, people know exactly what to expect when they visit these sites. In fact, it might be one of the reasons that draws them there in the first place.
This all goes to show that words DO matter on the Web--no matter how hard it is to find a grammatically correct sentence or spelling that at least hints at a high school education. When copy is written well and reflects or, better yet, defines a firm’s brand personality, people actually notice. Better yet, they actually read.
Now, if only we could get people to pay for journalism, then we'd really be on to something.