Who are you? An individual? A family? A group of people sitting at desks in an office? An entity with a physical location where I'll be standing in a line to speak with someone behind a counter? A co-op of professionals that will come to me to perform a service? When I hit your website, one of my first efforts is going to involve trying to determine who you are, behind that screen, those images, those words on your pages.

As a copywriter, I have a checklist of questions I work to get answers to from clients before I start writing. One of the big ones is, "what voice do you want to use on your site?". In general, we're dealing with four options:

1) I am a therapist.
2) We are therapists.
3) He/she is a therapist.
4) They are therapists.

For the sake of consistency, every business needs to pick one voice and use it throughout the total copy of their website. Being I in one paragraph and We in another sounds like an identity crisis and fails to make a concrete statement to users as to who they are dealing with. But, how do you choose a first or third person voice? How do you determine which is most appropriate for your specific small business?

I Am, I Said

Take a look at this this website for this very interesting small business. I love the fact that this patent lawyer has such a clear and friendly photo of himself greeting me on the homepage. I immediately know that I'm dealing with a real person, and if I needed a patent lawyer, he's making a good first impression on me as being an accessible person. However, when I begin to scan his copy, I have a sense of suddenly being shut out. The copywriter in this case has chosen to refer to the lawyer in the third person, and I am left with the experience of reading a biography rather than feeling that the patent lawyer has just engaged me in a one-on-one conversation. I see this as a lost opportunity and it would be the first thing I would address if I set about editing the copy of this site. It's clear that this lawyer should be an I as in: I will help you make quick work of the intricacies of filing a patent. With just a little bit of work, this website could become 100% more engaging.

For a shining example of who is getting the powerful first person voice right, take a gander at realtor Cari McGee's website. Not only do we have that amiable photo right up front, but Realtor McGee is making full use of the I will do this for you proposition. I can feel my hand reaching for the phone by the time I get to the bottom of her homepage.

In general, I advocate the use of the first person voice on nearly any small business website that is being run by a single professional. It's a route that comes across as honest, humble and incredibly personable.

We Are Family

Family owned businesses, joint ventures and companies with staff can still get in on the goodness of first person energy. Hardcastle Construction of Tennessee is on the right track with their homepage where they list the positions held by members of this family-owned business. They go on to refer to themselves as we with good consistency throughout their text. A nice photo of the family would complete the picture here and make the kind of personal outreach they are clearly striving to achieve.

Here's a local political website that's getting it right. Not only are they making a big point of what we can do for you, but the photo seals the deal that these are two real guys running for the South Hackensack Township Committee. Whatever you may think of their political platform, you get an approximation of meeting these local politicians by visiting their homepage. In my opinion, that's what the very best websites accomplish.

He Said/She Said

I believe that small businesses frequently suffer from a fear that their entities just aren't 'official' enough, and I have no doubt that this is why so many of them tend to adopt third-person language on their websites. It's an easy mistake to make. Rather than giving you another example like the patent lawyer, above, I'll ask you to go to your own website's homepage and see if it reads like this:

For 30 years, George has been leading walking tours of the Great Lakes. George has loved the outdoor life since childhood, and he strives to share this hobby with others. He will help others get the most out of their visit to the Great Lakes region. He is an extremely talented individual whom everybody loves, and has received numerous awards from the Fish & Game Department.

Text like this makes me ask, "who wrote this? George's wife?". Chances are, though, George is the author of this text, and he has written it in an attempt to sound worthy. It comes off more like a biography of some historical figure or, even, an obituary. That's certainly not the impression you want to make if you're running a website to make important connections with people, but I've seen everyone from dog walkers to law firms fall into the third-person trap in an attempt to sound important. Your website is your chance to reach out and touch someone, as the old TV jingle said, and you can't do this when your copy reads like you paid someone to say nice things about your business. That's what user generated content is for.

The third-person voice is fine for the news, history, biography and similar endeavors, but if you want to win trust, a personal introduction is a good way to open what you're hoping will be a conversation that ends with a customer won.

You've Really Got A Hold On Me

It doesn't matter if you're the town plumber or the president of the largest bank in the city. As the web evolves, we are all discovering that the more adeptly a website approximates an interaction with a live and welcoming company rep., the better chance it has of making money for a business. In the past, the majority of websites were a little more like business cards, sitting there on the web with some graphics and words on them, hoping someone would take notice. Now, internet transactions are so clearly geared towards personal engagement, and this starts with the way you greet your users. Photos and videos are powerful tools, but written language is still the medium via which you are likely to convey some of your most important offerings. If your competitors are still referring to themselves in a distant, passive manner, here is your chance to stand out, grab hold of my attention with your honest, one-on-one style and win me as a customer.

April 16, 2008

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


I agree completely, Miriam. To my mind, one of the great advantages of small businesses is that they ARE small & you can talk to a real, live, often friendly person directly on the other end of the phone. It's one thing to appear big, it's another to appear impersonal...

Great post!

This is one of those things people don't realise they are doing, particularly if they don't proof-read.

This has reminded me how much I used to do this at school - slipping between tenses as well as third/first person!

Might have to go proof-read my sites again to check I don't still do this!

Thanks a bunch! :)

I'm hoping and believing you are correct about letting the customer know who is behind the company logo. My niece and I recently opened our online toy store and we've made it a point to be personal. I just hope people can feel comfortable ordering from a small, start-up company.

Great article, Miriam, thanks. I've made it a point to represent myself as a 'real' person on my website, but people are still surprised to find I answer my own phone, really do live where I say I live and really do what I say I do. Thanks again, Jill.

Excellent post, and your points are well made. Expressing yourself in a clear, consistent and inviting manner on your website is key in creating a welcoming presence for your customers.

Working in the freelance space, I often find it hard to use the "I" and tend to try to use "We" thinking it sounds more professional and justifying it by the fact that on most projects I subcontract some of the work out to a regular set of individuals.

But then I feel like I'm being untruthful.

Based on your expertise, would you recommend for situations like mine, one should try to use "I"

This is a good reminder to all of us. Thank you!

On our company's blog, we do just that! A great reminder for small business blogs! =D

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