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Is Web slang appropriate for social media engagements with customers?

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19th Nov 2014
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Increasingly younger people are using internet slang - or ‘netspeak’ - not only in written communications, but also in spoken communication so that acronyms or abbreviations such as gr8, lol and AFAIK are becoming commonplace. (And if you don’t know what these mean, then GIYF - Google Is Your Friend).

It’s tempting for companies and organisations to want to get in on the act when communicating with their customers, especially on social media. Companies want to remain relevant to their customers and building and sharing a culture by tailoring language to suit their customers’ experiences look like it might be a crucial advantage.

So should you – your organisation or your service provider – respond in kind when asked ‘sup’ (What’s Up)?

Well actually, no – and I’d like to explain why getting as loose with your communication style as your customers isn’t actually going to help your cause as much as you might think.

Formal and structured can actually reassure the user

When it comes to social media, there are already enough pitfalls, it seems, to achieving the success that organisations might want from it. But one that is often overlooked – mainly because it isn’t an area that many think they might fall down – is language – the tone and style of the content.

Why is this so important? Well, because a tone of voice and language style both embody and express a company’s personality and set of values. Getting that wrong can lead to a lot of trouble. It’s risky. Taking liberties with standard language can come across as confusing, disrespectful and with many of the more ‘serious’ organisations that you come into contact with - utilities, financial institutions or healthcare bodies – it’s frankly completely ooc (out of character).

The good news is, that with a little care, these traps can avoid be avoided. But first, let’s look at the context and what is going on when we use language.

There is a wide body of research that indicates that we feel more at ease as human beings when we recognise that we are in a formal, structured set of processes that will bring us to our desired resolution. That is, we will put up with the slightly annoying frictions of dealing with a big corporation if we have sufficient confidence that ‘companies like this’ usually deliver the outcome required.

So why should this convention be broken? Some companies feel the need to be ‘chattier’ with customers in social media more so than they might be in, say, a written communication. But the evidence suggests that even if these companies want to be ‘friendlier,’ the register of language really must be characterised as more ‘smart casual’ than ‘urban’ or hoodies and converse shoes, if you will.

Why? Because the more formal language style just does a better job. Indeed, in regulated industries, precise language used in customer interactions is subject to review, audit - sometimes penalty.

And even when moved to open response style interactions in an Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) or online help function, the brand identity should be considered - and implemented across all channels in a consistent manner, as reflective of the general company ethos.

Don’t mirror for the sake of it

And that includes social media. The tricky aspect here is that social media is an especially thorny one to get right, in that it can be real-time response, and it is published to many, thus amplifying any potential mistakes. On the other hand, in the wider social and cultural context, there is no doubt that we are heading towards a less formal society. But saying, in effect, ‘Cn u pay us soon, m8?’ is just not going to ever work. You can go too far down the ‘mirror’ route here.

Syntax as well as content 

Also pay proper attention to what is said as much as how it is said or style it in a business communication. How sentences are structured, the use of positive and negative formulations elicit different response patterns, is a genuine science that is well worth investigating and getting right.

For example, from our own experience with customers, we find clarifying the purpose of a message and simplifying it to its absolute essence is remarkably effective. Look at a quick example to finish off:

"Hello Paul, this is a message from ABC Bank with regards to an outstanding payment of £XX on your account number XYX.”

This communicates that the message is:

  • Intended for me.
  • That it's from a known entity that I have a relationship with.
  • It's about me needing to pay a sum of money to a particular account.

The message could be complicated in all sorts of semi-polite ways – but ultimately, genuinely customers just want to know that this communication is meaningful to them.

The Job of a customer conversation is defined by the customer

Conversations occur in stages, each stage hopefully moving to an outcome. What is interesting is how the response is formulated by an agent or an employee that reflects the desired outcome of the customer, and how the language is adapted  to ensure this person clearly understand what steps are to be taken in the resolution process.

The outbound message sets the tone for the conversation and it should be aligned with the brand persona (which by the way can vary per market segment) but is the key to subsequent exchanges or dialogue. By being formal from the outset might actually cause the responder to put up a guard rather than go down a co-creation of value process path that leads to a fruitful outcome for all parties.

Clear is good

So, to sum up. There is a strong link between familiarity and trust. Because something familiar requires less effort to process mentally, customers are more likely to feel at ease around it. Thinking along these lines, a company should be consistent in its use of language so that its communication style becomes familiar to the customer and builds trust. Lapsing into netspeak in an effort to try and sound like your customer’s best friend won’t build that confidence and may even lead to confusion about what you are trying to say. And IDGI (I don’t get it) is not something that you ever want to see.

Paul Sweeney is chief product officer at VoiceSage.

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