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Personal pronouns: It’s okay to own your web copy

by Angie King on March 11th, 2010

Using personal pronouns may sound like a simple, common-sense web writing best practice. Speaking directly to users with the word “you” is something most companies get on board with easily enough. But those same clients often ask us to avoid self-referential pronouns like “we,” “our,” and “us” in their web copy. 

Granted, sometimes there are legitimate legal considerations that keep companies from getting personal with their web copy. (I’ll get into these legalities later.) Other times, it’s simply a matter of being overly cautious or old-fashioned.
 
Why use personal pronouns in web copy?
In my experience, many larger corporations have trouble breaking free from the formal business communications style they’ve been using for years. But guidelines that limit the use of personal pronouns should be reconsidered now that we’re in the digital age. These days, content needs to speak to users clearly and directly. It needs to compete for their attention.
 
A simple way to grab your users’ attention is by using personal pronouns in your web copy. Why? Personal pronouns reflect the way real people write and speak.
 
For example, most of us don’t refer to ourselves in the third person. We use first-person (me, we, our, us) and second-person (you, your) pronouns in our email exchanges, Facebook statuses, and Twitter feeds—channels that compete for your users’ attention every day.
 
Using these first- and second-person pronouns on your corporate website will:
 
  • Help users connect with the content
  • Help users understand the content
  • Identify who owns the content
  • Make writing the content easier
What happens if you DON’T use personal pronouns in web copy?
Not using personal pronouns forces you to repeat your company’s name throughout your website. This approach creates awkward sentences that are tedious to read and to write. The repetition can also set off keyword stuffing alarms. At the very least, your website ends up sounding unnecessarily formal and stuffy.
 
Worse yet, the bland third-person pronoun “it” may creep into your web copy and force you into using awkward sentence constructions. For example, something simple like “Content strategy is all we do. And we do it well” becomes “Brain Traffic believes its focus on content strategy is an advantage.” Blech.
 
Coupled with company name repetition, “it” creates confusion around who is speaking. It’s hard to tell who owns the content when it’s written so generically. (Right?) And if you want your users to feel connected to your brand, it’s important they know you stand behind your content.   
 
When legal reasons prevent personal pronouns
Of course, sometimes there are legitimate legal grounds for not using personal pronouns. For example, we work with a few clients who sell cobranded products. Their legal departments strictly forbid the use of personal pronouns in order to avoid making sweeping statements about the collective “we.”
 
To illustrate what I mean, let’s say White Castle partnered with Holiday station stores on a special line of slider-scented gasoline. (Ok. That’s gross. But it’s the first thing I came up with from a quick glance out the office window.)
 
Anyway, if White Castle/Holiday created a website dedicated to this cobranded product, legal teams may advise against using “we/our/us” in the content. Value statements and “about us” sections get a bit more complex when cobranding. Maybe Holiday wouldn’t like being lumped together with White Castle on general statements about what “we” as a company believe in. Or, vice versa.
 
Large corporations with many divisions may also have legal concerns about using personal pronouns. Insurance companies are a good example. While Division A offers products similar to those of Division B, the products may have completely different rules and regulations restricting their features and use.
 
Let’s say Acme Insurance Company uses personal pronouns on their website when describing their products. If a Division B customer purchases a plan based on benefits they saw on a Division A product page, the customer may have grounds for a legal complaint. But by avoiding personal pronouns and only using the specific division name in product descriptions, Acme reduces their chances of getting sued.
 
So, to be safe, it’s better not to make broad “we/our/us” statements when there’s this type of product overlap.
 
How to prevent legal issues with personal pronouns
To avoid finding out the hard way, ask your client for any legal restrictions surrounding the use of personal pronouns at the start of the project. Because I can tell you from experience, going back and rewriting copy decks to eliminate all “we/our/us” statements is not fun.
 
When to use personal pronouns on your website
Unless legal guidelines prevent you from using personal pronouns, go ahead and get personal with your web copy. Using this type of plain language will make your web writing process easier. Even better, your users will more quickly connect and engage with your web content.
 
Personally, I think it’s a great style choice.

 

  • http://www.polon.co.uk/ Matt

    Great advice, Angie. “We” is the way to go. Sometimes you just have to make it really clear who you mean, as we discovered when writing for Nokia’s environmental campaign. Its name? “we:

  • http://smyword.com/ Gabriel Smy

    They say that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness but talking about yourself in the third person must be getting close.

    One of the biggest problems I find with web copy is inconsistency in the voice – people switching between third and first person or between singular and plural. I just wrote about this at SmyWord.

    Thanks for flagging up the legal issues. I haven't come across the cobranded issue before but we do have clients whose copy is legally monitored (e.g. in finance) so there must be no ambiguity around who the 'we' is.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    Thanks for writing this Angie. The “old fashioned” is what I run into the most with potential clients. Even smaller businesses tell me, “We need to sound formal!”

    …Why? You're not legally required.

    Some do it because they want to sound as professional as possible. Not realizing that on the Web, their “professional” comes across as “snooty” a lot of the time.

    Something else they miss is that by doing this, they're talking AT their audience. Not ABOUT them. Which is what the audience wants to read.

    When I remind them that the copy draws more people in if it's personal – and then mention the SEO hit if they're too formal – they sometimes change gears. It's (slowly) changing out there!

  • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

    I had a difficult time convincing my co-workers of this, but our copy and documentation is so much better when we use personal pronouns. And the legal caveats, I'd never thought of. Thanks!

  • http://icosidodecahedron.com Michael Kozakewich

    I decided to challenge myself and use only second-person pronouns (because it's all about you?) in my main body copy. I think it worked reasonably well. I don't think I referred to the company once in the entire thing — not even to say 'we' or 'us'.

  • Dey Alexander

    I agree with all you've said, except the legal restriction. I'd be challenging that too, especially if the product is co-branded.

    It may be necessary (and important for users) to say once that Company X and Company Y have created the product/are sponsoring the event/have funded the program or whatever it may be. From then on 'we' should be just fine.

  • http://digikev.co.uk/ Kevin Rapley

    I am really pleased that you have written this Angie. This is a great article. I use personal pronouns in my web copy which I am happy with. However, sometimes I catch myself starting too many sentences with 'We'. This feels somewhat awkward so with a second draft I try to restructure the sentences to avoid too much of this. Am I worrying over nothing? I still keep to personal pronouns when I restructure and I think the copy reads better after. Do you have any tips for avoiding this pitfall—if it is one?

  • http://www.theuniuni.com/ Payton_vege

    Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

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