How do you speak to your customers? That's a deceptively simple question...

We all understand the importance of tone of voice, particularly when it comes to customer service, but in an age of hyper-localisation it can be increasingly difficult for comms teams to communicate with customers in new markets.

Unless you work for a small business that’s spending almost all of its time marketing to customers in a 20-mile radius, it’s very easy for brands to think of entire countries as a single, gestalt entity, rather than a range of locales.

Even when we do work harder at this, it’s still difficult to get targeting down to the level required to be truly personal. 

It’s fairly straightforward to divide the USA into East coast, Central/Chicago and West Coast as a starting point, and that’s one that most globals would initially go for.

Time zones are easy, but the US Regional Planning Association actually recognises 11 distinct urban megaregions: 

US Megaregions

  • Arizona Sun Corridor (extends into Mexico)
  • Cascadia  (Pacific Northwest; shared with Canada) - includes the geographically separate Boise metropolitan area in Idaho.
  • Florida
  • Front Range - extending south of the Colorado–Wyoming 'Front Range Urban Corridor' to include Santa Fe, Albuquerque and the Wasatch Front of Utah.
  • Great Lakes (shared with Canada)
  • Gulf Coast including Matamoros–Brownsville and Reynosa–McAllen.
  • Northeast 
  • Northern California including the Nevada portion of the Reno–Tahoe area.
  • Piedmont Atlantic
  • Southern California and the the Las Vegas Valley, as well as the Tijuana area in Mexico.
  • The 'Texas Triangle'

Simply using timezones ignores a large number of variables that can really pay off for marketers. It is, for all intents and purposes, another form of outdated demographic targeting.

And geography isn’t the only problem. Recently I read some fascinating research by Jacob Eisenstein at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, looking on the language of Twitter, which shows that existing class and societal boundaries play a huge part in defining the use of language on social platforms.

As the talented chaps over at @arxivblog put it (This is an excellent post by the way, and I urge you to go and read it), we might reasonably expect online communities to have less local slang and neologisms than their offline counterparts, but analysis of more than 100m tweets showed that the opposite was true.  

twitter speech

Did you know that this emoticon: ^-^ (meaning shy/cute, and originally believed to be of Korean origin), is used four times more often in California than the rest of the US? Using it often may, consciously or unconsciously, imply that you are from the west coast to customers. 

There's nothing wrong with that appearance, but doing so positions your brand as having certain cultural mores and places various expectations in you.

  • Can a UK user easily reach a Californian company?
  • Is their content relevant to a user in France? 

As an example, the Econsultancy Facebook page is international, but uses US spelling and nomenclature. It hasn't always done this, but if you look at updates from the past year and a half, you'll notice US spelling is in use. ‘Personalization’ rather than ‘personalisation’. 

On the blog, we use a 'where is the author from?' rule. As long as a post is understandable, the author is free to use their UK or US spelling. Over on Facebook (and our Social in general) though, we've been making a concentrated effort to reach more US users.

The Facebook page is in fact always me, but I've decided that it's a slightly over enthusiastic East-Coaster, that practices non-regional diction but does not personalise (or indeed, personalize) for the UK market. The occasional exception happens when an EMEA or APAC team member posts about local events.

These team members may not actually exist, but using them gives me a creative framework to hang updates on. I also don’t need to worry about the occasional comments we receive on the blog from US readers asking that we learn to spell ‘personalization’ properly. 

Users from New York are five times more likely to use the phonetic spelling 'Suttin' instead of 'something' in their tweets than users in other US cities. 

Suttin goin on

All of this might seem ridiculous, but it's actually very effective in communicating value and relevancy

We've needed to indicate that our research and reports are relevant to regional and global audiences. We make a point of mentioning brands like Lowe's and Wal-mart on the blog, rather than just Tesco.

They generally require more research and knowledge of their home market audience, but ultimately it pays off. We now attract more Twitter followers from the US than anywhere else. A year ago, only 20,000 of our followers were from the US, now that figure is closer to 45,000: 

Econsultancy Twitter user locations

Twitter behaves differently and isn’t as limited by time, but generally speaking, posts appearing after 6pm GMT will feature US spelling. 

No US user is going to want a mobile best practice guide if they assume it is only relevant for UK ecommerce outlets, and UK readers are less likely to find our blog content relevant if we only ever talk about US brands or news. 

While you may not want to use phrases like IKR ("I know, right?" – used six times more often in Detroit area than in the rest of the US), paying attention to these small local tics can pay big dividends when you are thinking about tone of voice, and your strategy should consider points beyond 'authoritative' or 'helpful' when you communicate with your customers.

These points feed backwards into your content strategy, and while most of us would consider ‘polite, businesslike’ to be a decent default, a focus here can really make the difference in engagement. 

Matt Owen

Published 9 December, 2014 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen is a marketing consultant based in London. He was previously Head of Social at Econsultancy and currently runs Atomise Marketing. Opinions expressed are author's own.

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Comments (9)

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Sherwood Botsford, Midship's mite, bosun tight & crew of the captain's gig at Sherwood's Forests Tree Farm

Hmm. Do you really think that either FB or Twitter is really relevant to marketing? My question: Do I buy anything based on the company web page? Answer no. My assumption (borne out through experience) Company Social media pages are either unhelpful ignoring all comment, or they lie.

I do get results from interacting on relevant other groups. Example: I grow trees, for both edible landscaping and for ornamental use. I'm active on the local horticultural society FB group, the Alberta Fruit and Nuts group, the Edmonton Permaculture Group, and several local buy and sell groups.

over 3 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Marketing Consultant at Atomise Marketing

I think you're following some really bad company social media pages then @Sherwood...

over 3 years ago


Nancy Prendergast, Founder at Tannissan Mae

Nice post, Matt... Not so much online, but in real life since moving to South Carolina, I find people are far more polite than, say, in New England where I'm from or England where I spent much of my career. There it would be very condescending to say yes ma'am in a customer service or work setting. But here it is accepted polite usage. I wonder if in all cases, it's best to reflect the culture of audience? Sounding British, or Southern, or Afro Caribbean can be part of the charm and therefore essential to brand. True for social, too?

over 3 years ago


Sherwood Botsford, Midship's mite, bosun tight & crew of the captain's gig at Sherwood's Forests Tree Farm

On FB: Canadian Tire, Home Depot, The Weather Network, I don't remember the rest. Typically if I comment on their products, their service, or ask a question it's ignored.

Most of the time I'm seeking information. FB has a problem in that it's not generally searchable. Some companies have forums linked to their website that work well.

Another reason for quick disconnects on FB pages: Companies that post too much. I'm willing to look at one informative post per week. And if all you do is post your specials, then I'm going to drop you like a hot potato.

I have an email newsletter. I try to send out 8 letters a year. 3/4 of each newsletter is information. Generally short shots - 100-200 words linked to a new article on the web page. There will maybe be one story about new items this year, again, with links to the relavant pages on my site. That's what I'm trying for, anyway.

over 3 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Marketing Consultant at Atomise Marketing

Hi @Sherwood, I do appreciate where you're coming from, and apologies for my rather glib answer earlier.

Frankly I believe that social is absolutely key for every business (the clue is in my job title;) but it has to be run well, and it has to be scalable.

I believe that social should not be a feed of spam and promotion, but a way of allowing customers to communicate with a business how and when they like. If a business can't afford to respond to queries and problems properly, then it needs to look at its investment and consider its purpose for being there.

We should be supportive players in a community, not endless streams of product ads It can be difficult for large companies, particularly FMCG businesses, to create enough deep content to support their social channels, in which case the entire focus should be on customer service. it's a shame that you've had negative experiences, but would suggest that social has been the driving force behind the industry realisation that customer experience is absolutely core to a successful business. Those that are merely paying lip service to it are going to be in big trouble in the next few years.

over 3 years ago


Constance Semler, Consultant at Constance Semler Content + Strategy

Your articles raises excellent points about localization that many companies overlook, forcing customers to wonder, "If this company can't speak like me, how can they relate to me? And is their offering relevant to me?" I'd like to point out the distinctions between diction, tone, and voice. Choice of words being diction, tone being attitude and mood, and voice being distinctive personality that remains constant even as tone may change. Editorial and brand guidelines often mix these up, too, and it can turn "brand guidelines" for comms into a straight jacket, e.g., confuse tone and voice so that the brand voice can only speak in one tone. Ever. For diction, being on brand could mean sounding like a broken record, or worse, like a foreign broken record. Hyper-localizing could mean sounding like a chameleon who's inauthentic and trying too hard to be friends. SM reps need the freedom to choose diction that is familiar to the audience (segment), while still "sounding" like the brand. The only way to address this set of issues is a global content strategy that involves many departments and includes all customer touch points.

over 3 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Marketing Consultant at Atomise Marketing

@Constance - that's an excellent point. For my own part, I've always attempted to add personality to our social channels (not least because it minimises the risk of something going horribly wrong - most of the things I tweet from my own account could happily pop up on the Econsultancy feed with no major outrage). I agree that brand tone should be maintained, but I also think it's helpful for users to realise that there are teams of people behind the scene, and seeing how they work together across channels can also strengthen confidence in the comapny over time.

over 3 years ago


Sherwood Botsford, Midship's mite, bosun tight & crew of the captain's gig at Sherwood's Forests Tree Farm

I agree. I don't think it is possible for a nano-company to do this well. A good social presence page would take hours a day to do well. As you can see from my job title, I do darn near everything. I plant trees, I write the web page, I set up the irrigation, I sell the trees, asnwer the phone.... This is why I choose to participate in other locally relevant pages. I visit when I can, and if I don't then no one is offended by by unresponsiveness, and most of the time, I don't have to create new content, but can respond to others.

The problem with Social media is that they are push oriented. You get a stream of stuff that can be overwhelming in quantity, lacking in quality, and difficult to search.

Forums on the other hand are searchable, and are pull oriented. You go out and grab the content you want.

What social media could do better: Have not only a like button, but a 'dislike' button. Have a 'relevant' 'irrelevant' 'amusing' buttons. Have it actually learn your preferences. Allow you to create separate streams for different content. e.g. I want one stream for all my friends that were my former students. I want one stream for things relevant for my tree farm. I want one stream for things relevant to the news. And one stream for pages that post the occasionally funny picture or good joke.

FB makes it hard to find relevant groups. Their search engine is primitive, does not seek alternate spellings, totally ignores cognates, and searches only the title. E.g. Try to find people on facebook who are interested in apple growing but who aren't members of either a permaculture group or the Alberta Fruit and Nut group. Try to find local fresh food groups.

But FB doesn't do this.

I have absolutely zero use for twitter. There is almost nothing significant that can be said within 140 characters. Possibly "Earthquake: Vancouver" would qualify. Indeed, I'm trying to get Matt at Social Fixer to create a filter so that any story that is less than 100 words and without an image is hidden. And any comment on a story that I previously commented on is hidden if it has less than 300 words.

I don't want 300 or a thousand posts a day. I want 5-20 a day that move me to respond in full.

One outfit that is doing it right for retrievable information is Stack Exchange. A raft of special interest boards. The problem: They aren't local.

Garden Web is another good one. It has true plethora of sub boards many of them very focused either on a particular type of plant, or a particular region.

What could GW do better? Based on what I've written about, they could suggest stories I may be interested in.

over 3 years ago

Josias De La Espada

Josias De La Espada, CEO at Pirsonal

We recently had the opportunity to interview Stephanie Ciccarelli, Chief Marketing Officer of, as a collaborator in the free eBook "Understanding A New Era of Digital Media " ( We talked about how Digital Media has evolved and the impact in the way brands communicate and invest to advertise their product and brand awarness (onmi-channel, localization, innovative marketing, etc.). She explained the importance that marketing places on brand identity and localization in a globalized industry. "Localization is important if organizations want to effectively market their offerings to the global marketplace while still being able to maintain brand consistency."

Localized is a key factor, but also the platforms, screens or formats we use to communicate. Consumer habits have drastically changed and the truth is that we need to know how to take advantage of those changes before others do.

Great article Matt! Thanks!

over 3 years ago

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