Finding A Company's Unique Voice Starts With Listening, Says The Pinterest Whisperer

As Pinterest's content strategist, Tiffani Jones Brown articulates the company’s voice to more effectively communicate with users (about subjects as, er, touchy as posting nude photos). First things first: a listening campaign.

What to do about those “buttocks”?

That's what Tiffani Jones Brown, content strategist at Pinterest, was forced to wonder recently. Brown and her team are responsible for the voice and tone of any writing you might encounter from Pinterest in your interactions with the site—everything from little error messages to more extensive “pinner education.”

Her team has to craft language, too, for communications sent out in response to a violation of the site’s terms of service—hence those pesky “buttocks.” The terms of service of the site are almost legalistically specific about the sorts of things that can and can’t be presented on the website—certain forms of nudity among them. But while the word “buttocks” might be appropriate for a site’s terms of service, using that word would obviously be stilted and strange when reaching out to a user who might have posted an offending picture on the site. (If you can't stand the suspense, scroll to the end of this article to learn just how Pinterest admonishes rogue bottom-pinners.)

“The words we use are really, really important,” says Brown. Matters are further complicated by the fact that a rear end might be appropriate on the site if it’s presented in something that “might be in a museum or classroom,” she says, like a work of art. “But how do you let people know what that means? You can get really explicit and say words like ‘genitalia’ and ‘buttock.’ But imagine getting that email, especially if you pinned a work of art that we mistook for pornographic? It’d be jarring—so we have to find other ways of saying things like that, not for euphemistic purposes but just for general social skills.”

The corporation of yore focused on notions of “customer service”; the startup of tomorrow, with its rhetoric of friends and communities and social networks, focuses on “social skills.” And at places like Pinterest, it’s people like Brown who are working out what those social skills look like—and sound like. They’re helping these companies, as the old saying goes, “find their voice.” In the process, they're bringing a degree of humanity and intimacy to their interactions with users, creating brand loyalty that can only stand to help their bottom line.

When Brown first took this job at Pinterest, fresh off a similar one at Facebook, she began by taking an almost ethnographic approach. (Previously a student in the philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago, she had conducted ethnography at various megachurches.) Rather than impose a marketing sheen of her own devising, Brown wanted to “pull out from the company what already existed here.” So she hung around the site’s cofounders, listening to the ways they spoke to each other, the ways they thought about their product and their users. She listened to Pinterest’s other employees, its researchers (like Pinterest’s house-call-making Gabriel Trionfi) and designers. She began to hear Pinterest speaking. “I collected information slowly over the first few months, then tried to turn that into a rough sketch of our voice,” she says. It was a voice that she says is “open, honest, and warm.”

Her mission was to make all Pinterest-related copy then square with what she heard. That included any copy on the product interface, everything from headlines to error message to buttons. The more nondescript an element of the interface is, the more elaborately it was worried over. It’s an irony of good writing that sounding natural and personable sometimes requires hours of work on the part of multiple employees. “We always ask, ‘Does that feel authentic? Does that feel right? Does that feel honest? Or does it feel like it was overstrategized?’”

One big challenge is to find a way to communicate in plain language about a product that Pinterest staff has come to discuss in technical jargon. In moments like that, Brown often finds inspiration in the voice of Pinterest’s own users. After an internal debate over what to name Pinterest boards that only the user can see, Brown ultimately deferred to the words pinners had always used themselves when requesting the service: “secret boards.”

And what of those “buttocks,” I finally ask? Does Pinterest adopt the tone of a “cool mom” and bust out the a-word in those admonishing emails? Brown chuckles. “If you were writing to a teenager in Brooklyn, you might be able to say ‘Don’t pin asses.’ But when communicating with a wide group of people, you have to find a way of saying it that’s like when you’re sitting next to someone at a dinner party that you’ve never met.” In such a case, Pinterest would avoid going into specifics about the pin in question at all, simply mentioning that it looks like the user pinned something against Pinterest policy.

Sometimes, inevitably, words fail.

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