Purpose, Audience and Form

In the last post I explored the idea of writing with freedom. I argued that you can respect traditional guidelines on SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar - and if you’re curious as to why I’m avoiding using the word ‘rules’, go back and read this and this, first) without being confined by them. Successful companies flout traditional grammatical practices all the time, entirely on purpose.

6. O2.jpg

Of course, whether or not this is a good strategy depends on 3 key things: your intended purpose, your intended audience and the form your content will take.

Purpose - The adverts above want to make us laugh so that we associate humor and playfulness with their brands. That’s the first level of meaning. But beyond that, really they want us to associate them with a certain lifestyle.

‘Be more dog’ plays on the idea of dogs being fun and playful, that life should also be fun and playful, and that we should aspire to approach life as a dog does. Have fun, play, don’t take it too seriously. O2 is a British cell network. There is literally no reference to data plans, call allowances or cell phone deals in this advert. According to traditional SPAG, it’s sloppy (no full stops) and makes little sense  (incomplete sentences).

And yet O2 is one of the biggest networks in the UK. The ‘mistakes’ are perfectly suited to the intended effect. “Don’t be so stuffy, relax a little, have fun. Obviously, you'll need to join O2...”

The lesson here is that the immediate purpose (e.g. to make your audience laugh) is important, but the overall purpose of your brand (e.g. to promote a lifestyle, and to convince us that buying into a given brand will help us to attain that lifestyle) is equally-so, and the two need to mesh effectively across all of your content.

Audience - Who are you trying to appeal to? It’s pretty clear Diesel are looking to appeal to a young demographic who, again, see themselves as playful and fun-loving. They embrace multi-ethnic society, they’re on-trend and they don’t see themselves as being complicated. Or at least, Diesel is trying to convince them that they don’t have to.

“Life is simple: wear our jeans, look great and have fun!”

When you’re thinking about your audience and how to appeal to them, standard demographics (age, gender etc.) are important, but you should also think carefully about the way people want to see themselves. What kind of people do your customers want to be, how do they want to live, and how can you convince them that your company can contribute to that? As you can see, purpose and audience are closely intertwined.

Form - in other words, the type of text you are creating and where it will appear. We expect certain things from certain texts, so a blog post or article is usually informational, a marketing email is usually persuasive and a story is usually entertaining.

Of course, in reality each text type will span a range of purposes and savvy content writers will use these expectations skillfully to guide us towards their preferred goals, for example by surprising us with a text type that follows unusual conventions. In other words, by subverting our expectations.

Subverting expectations can be really effective - looking at the O2 advert above again, they have clearly subverted the expectation that adverts should provide the consumer with some information about their product or service.

We get marketing emails all the time that subvert the expectation of formality by striking a familiar tone (using our first names) and claiming that they have found a product, or range of products, that are perfect for us.

You have to be careful - personally, being told that a product range has been ‘handpicked’ for me only to be led to a generic product page that doesn’t match my needs is a sure-fire way to have me - and no doubt many others - unsubscribe from your mailing-list. But when done effectively, surprising your consumer can elicit a pleasurable response and make your brand more memorable than your competitors.
Here’s an great example from Australia encouraging kids to stay in school. Warning - this video is not for the faint-hearted and does contain some graphic scenes.

You're The Expert

When you can explain clearly and simply what your purpose, audience and form are, as well as the associations you want your customers to make with your product, then you should move forward with confidence and experiment with your language within the boundaries of what is right for your content and audience, not what is dictated by a set of prescriptive SPAG rules.

You’re subject to advertising all the time, and you have just as much authority, as a user of language, as anyone else to decide what is effective and what isn’t. So next time your creative juices are flowing, don’t be a slave to correctness. Think about your purpose, audience and form, and write what feels right.