The area that seems to generate the most questions when creating a content strategy for clients is undoubtably the subject of “voice.” This is probably due to confusion between similar terms, such as brand voice, tone, right to voice, content pillars and content clusters, to name a few. Let’s unpack them a bit to help make sense of the role each one plays within a content strategy.
First, let’s look at brand voice and tone. Simply put, brand voice is the way the brand “speaks” and works best when it’s consistent across all messaging (not just content marketing), both internally and externally. If you think of voice in terms of a person, it’s the vocabulary, flow of words, emphasis, style, and formality (or informality) they deploy to construct sentences. As Sprout Social put it in a recent blog post: The voice would "immediately [make] you think about that person." It's the same for a brand  Twitter is a platform on which brands really have to nail their own voice. There’s some great advice about writing on Twitter that you can find here. Check out Chipotle and Casper, two brands that have found a way to define their brand through voice on Twitter.
Tone, on the other hand, refers to the general character or attitude with which a brand communicates. It describes the ways in which stories are told and information is imparted. Some basic examples might be the way you address the reader as “you” to convey a more inclusive tone. An example might be “…if you are in your 50s,” when categorizing content according to the age of the intended audience. Another example would be how you reference your own brand, ideally in a neutral way, avoiding phrases like “Here at XYZ Brand” or “We feel…”
Now, let’s consider right to voice, content pillars and content clusters. Starting with right to voice (RTV), this term defines the set of topics the brand can and should address. To arrive at a topic set, the brand’s content team should vet the universe of topics for which the brand — when viewed through the eyes of the customer — has genuine subject matter expertise. From there, the team should look to cull down the universe to include:
You should also consider RTV in the negative sense — as in, the topics that are not appropriate because they are outside of the brand’s expertise. In a recent audit we did for a client, we discovered that the brand had an extensive body of work covering a wide range of subjects. In many cases, too wide. For example, there was an article about choosing a diamond engagement ring based on the three C’s (clarity, cut and carat, in case you are in the market for a new ring). All good advice, but when I tell you this article was for a bank, you might ask, would I turn to my bank for advice about buying a diamond? Probably not. That’s a bit like asking your butcher for travel advice. However, if the angle of the article was how to pay for it, that would make more sense. Having a well-defined RTV helps marketers stay focused on creating the right content and practice good budgetary control.
Next, content pillars: Think of them as an organizational structure helping you to create content that aligns with your RTV. For example, let’s say you are a financial services company that specializes in managing retirement funds — 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs — for employers. Clearly, the company has the authority to advise its customers about retirement planning, but what would be the bigger themes around which content might be organized? I think you’d look to topics connected to financial literacy, saving and spending, and possibly workplace benefits. From there, you might create a taxonomy for your website with content pillars such as financial planning, health and medical, work and career, and home and real estate.
Finally, content clusters: These sit directly underneath your content pillars. As Semrush describes it, they are “a group of content that revolves around a central topic and use a [content] pillar page to link to and from.” Clusters are also extremely useful for SEO purposes, as they enable your site to rank higher for authority on a specific topic.
To use our own content strategy as an example, we want our website to rank highly for “content strategy,” so we created a main long-form article to set up the subject and then a series of shorter articles to dive deeper into specific topics, such as this one about brand voice. You can read more about creating clusters here on HubSpot..
If you’d like more help understanding these subjects or generally navigating the complexities of creating and implementing an effective content strategy, we’d love to help. Don’t hesitate to email me directly.
Robin Riddle is the lead content marketing strategist at Foundry 360. He works across B2B as well as B2C and specializes in financial services, insurance and health care. Prior to his time here, he led content marketing businesses at both The Economist and The Wall Street Journal.
A passionate advocate for the value of content marketing, Robin is also heavily involved in industry issues and speaks at many events on the topics of content marketing and native advertising.