Creating the Voice and Tone of Ithaca.edu

By Nellie Wallace, February 9, 2018
While working on the new ithaca.edu and talking to people across campus, we knew we had to find the right voice and tone to reflect IC on the web.

While working on the new ithaca.edu and talking to people across campus, we knew we had to find the right voice and tone to reflect IC on the web. Voice is the steady personality that creates consistency across the website, while tone can shift depending on audience and subject matter.  

Discovering our voice and tone began with some important questions:

What are we trying to say?

Choosing the right stories to tell and information to share is a major factor in finding our voice. One of the clearest takeaways from our research was: we must tell the audience what they want to know rather than tell the audience what we want to tell them. Sometimes, those two things are one in the same—we love when that happens. Other times, what we may think is a compelling story or vital bit of information is, in fact, not something our audiences find important.

How can we know what is important to the audience?

Our work developing user personas and scenarios helps us empathize with our audiences, understand their goals, and tell stories that resonate with them, so we can better connect them to the authentic IC experience through the web. Of course, audience goals, needs, and interests change (sometimes drastically) from one audience to another and from one person to the next.

So how can we speak to everyone all at once?

It’s all about balance. Certain audiences will care about some areas more than others. Prospective students will be the main visitors to admission content, while the human resources content will draw mostly faculty and staff. Stories and information on those pages can be tailored toward their primary audience. On pages that need to speak to many audiences, we keep each in mind so that nobody is excluded.

But—HOW do we speak to them?

Language matters, and on a website many people will visit on their smartphones, length matters too. We need to keep content short and relatively simple. We can’t make assumptions. A visitor may not be familiar with jargon specific to academia or certain industries or fields. Consistency in voice and tone is also important, so the site feels like one place” from one page to another.

How do we create a consistent voice and tone with all these different audiences?

We created a foundation for our voice based on the personality and excellence of the college, the vibe of our campus, and the energy of our community. Our content and language should be:

  • Uniting (inclusive, straightforward, considerate)
  • Authentic (friendly, honest, sincere)
  • Versatile (open, inspiring, compelling)
  • Empowering (confident, thoughtful, informative)

That brings us back to balance—we developed tone guidelines that allow for (and encourage) shifts depending on audience and subject matter. Tone will shift between casual and formal, inspiring and informative, proud and thankful, modern and sentimental.

For example: when prospective students are the primary audience, the tone—both of the language and of the messaging—would generally be:

  • More casual than formal—but not totally losing a professional feel.
  • More inspiring, while still informative as needed.
  • More proud than thankful—but it will still be clear that we appreciate our community.
  • Mostly modern, though we can tug on sentimental heartstrings when it makes sense.

Want to learn more?

Our complete style guide will be shared with the campus community and content creators as we get closer to launch. It includes writing tips, best practices, examples, and general tone guidelines for our major audiences.

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Nellie Wallace is the Senior Creative Copywriter in IC’s Office of College Relations and Communications.