Tell Your Story with a Brand Vocabulary

Last week, we saw how interface text can impact your brand, and your business, on the most basic level.

This week, let’s get a bit deeper into that topic by looking at one of the main text-related problems that online businesses—particularly startups—face.

What should we call this?

Developers play a big role in online product and service development. But often, they’re not the best people to think about what elements of the product or service should be called.

Why not? Well, the names you give to aspects of your service should be tied to your brand. Since brand probably isn’t your developers’ main concern, someone else might need to take the initiative on this.

Let’s look at an example: Mailchimp’s features page. Mailchimp’s tagline is “Easy email newsletters”. They’re not targeting advanced users—the service is pitched at the mass market. And the features page provides a pretty clear description of what’s included in the service.

Mailchimp's features page

One of the reasons it’s so clear is the vocabulary Mailchimp have used. Subscribers are subscribers—they’re not customers, readers, or visitors. A signup form is a signup form, not a registration form, a subscription form, or anything else. A list is a list, rather than a mailing list, a subscriber database, or an email list.

This isn’t a happy accident. In creating this service description, Mailchimp have chosen to use easily understood terminology, and use it consistently.

Do you do that on your site?

Well, let’s look at a not-so-stellar example: 99designs’ How it Works page.

The 99designs How It Works page

You might recall that 99designs was a disruptive startup that coined the term “crowdsourcing” back in the day. While the business has competition now, once upon a time design contests were an entirely new concept that no one (outside of the SitePoint Forums) had ever heard of before.

Accordingly, this page aims to explain the concept of “design contests”. But as you’ll see, it introduces a range of language that’s not clarified in the text:

  • design package
  • prize
  • concept
  • art work

Some of these terms have overlapping meanings: “design package” and “prize” are similar, for example. Also, for the layman, it’s hard to tell the difference between “concepts”, “your favorite design”, “the final design”, and “original artwork”.

99designs is in the process of improving this information, so we can expect it to become clearer in future. But the point is obvious: the names you give to aspects of your service, and the consistency with which you use them, is critical to customers’ and prospects’ understanding of what you do.

Getting it right

How can you make sure your site or app doesn’t fall prey to the same mistake?

The first thing to do is look at your brand. 99designs is about design contests. Cool.

The next thing to do is look at the main elements of the service your brand offers or entails. For 99designs, that includes things like contests, designs, designers, prizes, and so on.

Once you have a list of these key terms, jot down all the words that you won’t use in their place. You’re probably already using these synonyms in your interfaces or text on marketing and help pages. For the quick list we just made, the expanded list might look like this:

  • design contests, not competitions, design projects, challenges
  • designs, not concepts, pitches, mockups
  • designers, not creatives, team members
  • prizes, not packages, winnings, cash

This isn’t to say the words that come later on each line here can never be used—when you’re talking about a design mockup, by all means use that word. The point here is that this list—which becomes your brand vocabulary, and central to your company style guide—tells you which words to use where.

Consistency counts

Remember the Mailchimp and 99designs examples, and you’ll remember that consistent terminology really does matter when it comes to getting your message across—especially if your idea is first to market, or a new concept for your target audience to grasp.

Use terms consistently, and through repetition, they’ll be more likely to stick with your audience. Those people will more easily be able to pick up the meanings of those terms, and remember them. A strong brand vocabulary makes for clearer communication, which reduces friction and the learning curve, and encourages swifter uptake of your service by your target users.

Of course these aren’t just a bunch of words—they’re key elements of your service offering. Elements that, as in the case of 99designs, truly are part of your unique selling proposition. So don’t leave brand vocabulary to your developers to create as they go. This is worth your spending a little time on up front so you can ensure that your marketing pages, autoresponders, press releases, social updates, and blog posts all use the same terminology.

Next time, we’ll see how you can build on the communication muscle you’ve built into your brand vocabulary by applying it across your site, then use everything you have to communicate with users on their terms. In the meantime, let me know if you have anything to add—or any questions—in the comments.

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  • Menu Lane

    Thanks a lot Georgina for focusing on this. We will definitely deploy some of the content strategies discussed.

    • Georgina Laidlaw

      Excellent! Let us know how you go :)