The Friend Zone: Why Brand Voice Matters on Social

By Daniel Lara

A few days ago, as I was scrolling through my Facebook News Feed, I mistakenly took a company’s post for what I thought was a friend’s status. While some might see this as an easy oversight, or the effects of early morning Facebooking, I saw this quick blunder as a sign of something bigger. 

In this case, the brand had actually assimilated seamlessly into my mix of family and friends by forgoing typical company talk and adopting the digital language of my peers. In other words, they sounded just like my friends. This particular brand used emojis, and surely they aren't the only ones to use them. Curiosity led me on a hunt across social, where I found dozens of other businesses speaking just as casually; some were avid users of GIFs, while others generously used texting acronyms like NBD and SMH. 

So why are so many companies today sounding less like a salesperson and more like our BFFs? To understand this seismic shift in not only social marketing, but also brand marketing, let’s look back at the landscape from a few years ago.

In 2009, during social media marketing’s infancy, businesses were transferring their knowledge and data from years of traditional marketing into this new system; however, this emerging platform broke the status quo. It was a completely different ballgame with a new set of rules and a new audience—an audience that had the power to talk back instantly. For efficiency, businesses attempted to consolidate branding strategies for social media, but it quickly turned into a square peg in a circle hole situation. Efficient? Kind of. Effective? Not at all. What seemed to work for TV, print, and even email did not work for social media. It took fresh data and trial and error for some businesses to finally find a glimpse of the right audiences, and most importantly, their brand’s voice. (We’ll get more into this later.)

Then, over time, we received statistics that reinforced social media’s initial purpose—a place to socialize and share content with people—namely our friends.  In 2014, it was surveyed that “93% of shoppers’ buying decisions are influenced by social media because 90% trust peer recommendations (Socialnomics 2014).” Data like this shifted the social marketing mindset toward consumer relationships.

Marketers today are still hard at work trying to figure out a way to harness the power of friendships on social. The reason is clear and legitimate: if the trust between two people can influence a conversion, what does it mean for a business when a person establishes that same type of trust with a brand? There are countless possibilities tied to longevity—and in marketing, time is invaluable. 

So how do we get there? How do businesses build a rapport and gain trust with consumers? How do we, marketers, transport brands into the “friend zone” with the right people—be it customers or prospects? 

This brings us to a solution: brand voice. On social, brand voice is such a vital piece of connecting with people, at large and individually, that the first step at actually forging friendships with them is for a brand to act and sound like a friend. 

Sounds simple, right? It is. In the real world, friendships shouldn’t take too much work, so let’s not make this any different. To get a jump start, here are 3 ways your brand can sound like a trusted friend. 

Be Personable

Save the business jargon for newsletters, and the scripted, robotic responses for call centers, because on social media, it will not win friends. What will is personifying your brand so that it engages people in an authentic and amiable way. The key here is to humanize your brand so that customers and prospects can enjoy and admire your presence in their social environment. Many businesses try to adhere to a sophisticated, business-savvy tone consistent with other marketing channels. But on social media, a place where millions flock to for an outlet of casual, fast expression, that type of communication comes off as sterile. The result? Low engagement and conversions on posts, and diminished brand interest.  We saw this in the early days of social media, when brands spewed out emotionless, hard facts as content.

Take a look at Mashable. In 2012, their link post was dry and straight to the point.

Fast-forwarded to June 2015, and the delivery is informal and comical—all the more endearing.

Mashable probably found that their audience not only reacts positively to this type of language, but that their followers also write similarly. What we find here is that the more you know about your consumers’ language, and the more skilled you are at adapting to it, the more “human” your brand will appear to them. That’s the great thing about social media; because social media is relatively new and experimental, it gives companies the freedom to develop greater personality and style—all the good stuff that makes a brand unique.  

Be Clever

On social, your company is not only fighting for consumer attention with other brands, but it's competing with the consumer's friends and families as well. We all know that organic reach is diminishing, so whenever your brand makes it on someone’s News Feed, make it count. Avoid the sales pitch and rely on clever content. And for clarity, clever isn’t always considered funny and casual. To me, in this context, clever is delivering your content in a smart way that is consistent with your brand, but also considerate of your audience’s interest.

But yes, funny and casual are very effective strategies for creating content that people enjoy, especially when you’re trying to match their everyday language.  According to a Strata survey, digital video viewers were most likely to view video ads instead of skipping them if they were funny (51.8%) or entertaining (45.1%). While some brands will have more opportunity for comedy and entertainment, the main takeaway here is that your brand’s voice—it’s content—should create a positive experience for your audience. In turn, you have the ability to strengthen brand sentiment.

Seamless (a Likeable client) finds trending topics that they can discuss.. The result is creative content that their community eats up!

Seamless (a Likeable client) finds trending topics that they can discuss.. The result is creative content that their community eats up!

Think about the friends that you enjoy emailing and texting. They are probably the ones who share the funniest GIFs or the best inspirational quotes—content that you find valuable and that enriches your life. And that’s exactly what your brand should strive for. If your brand is to ever build a friendship with a consumer, then you need to deliver creative content that he or she will value. Dig through your analytics and examine conversations across social channels to learn the passions and emotional triggers of your audience. Once you acknowledge this data, adjust the voice and content, then assess it. If it works, build on that. If it doesn’t, continue refining. And don’t think that a transition from a professional tone to something more light-hearted and casual will demean and discredit your brand. The reality is, you can still have professional or even highly technical content that incorporates a casual, fun tone. 

Be Attentive

If you have ever had the above scenario happen to you (I have…and the struggle is real), you can understand the frustration. The expectations we set for our friends in the real world vary from person to person, but I think we can all agree that a healthy friendship entails a lot of care, respect, and trust. It’s all about balanced attention and reciprocation, and in social media, the same holds in the relationship between brands and consumers. Let’s face it, we care deeply about conversions. We want our fans and followers to buy our products and services. That’s part of the customer relationship, right? But we need to think about the big picture here and understand that consumers have needs as well. If we want to deepen these relationships and secure a place in the “friend zone,” then we must adjust our voice so that it conveys compassion and worth—everything that we would expect from our own friends.

How do we do this? The first step is to have your brand place more emphasis on audience attention. Make sure that anyone talking to or about your company is heard. Bluewolf stated that “90% of enterprises say they use social media to respond to customer service inquiries—yet 58% of consumers who have tweeted about a bad experience never received a response from the offending company.”  A Twitter response, a post like, or a simple direct message goes a long way. Around the clock community management is critical these days to ensure that brands are always open for a conversation. To me, accessibility and dependability are the true signs of a strong brand—and consumers will take notice. 

It’s astonishing to see the progress brands have made over the years on social media. The voices of companies across the platform have conceded to social media's culture—a culture that is instant and transparent—a culture that is FUN. Connecting to a community of real people is imperative for your brand's survival on social. I think that social media to brands is like happy hour to marketers. With that in mind, let your brand loosen up! Let its voice rise to the level of its audience. Let it welcome new relationships and strengthen existing ones. And most importantly, let it take on a life that is likeable—that is friendly.