#CONFAB2021: How to speak Netflix?

I got the equity scholarship for Confab this year and had the chance to learn from the best industry experts. In this #CONFAB2021 series I will share the main takeaways and my thoughts of the most inspiring talks. This post is inspired by the keynote of Jen Schaefer, (Head of Content Design, Netflix) who shared her view on Evolving your tone and voice.

The importance of voice and tone is well-known among marketers and content strategists: it shapes the user experience and how your brand is remembered.

Jen Schaefer has shared the story of Netflix – how the over-the-top media service has found its own voice that gets a lot of media attention today.

The difference between tone and voice

Jen defined the difference between voice and tone by a Crown example.

  • Voice: What makes the Queen of England sound like the Queen of England. Steady personality.
  • Tone: How the queen’s voice modulates according to whom she’s talking to.
Queen Elizabeth GIF by NETFLIX

The journey of Netflix: start the conversation

When Jen joined Netflix as a content designer in 2019, she was asking for a tone and voice guideline.
Plot twist: there wasn’t any.

To start the process she organized a 1-day workshop for 6 different writing teams:

  • XD content design: responsible for product UI and content strategy
  • Product writing: responsible for writing synopses, working closely with metadata and evidence
  • Customer support: responsible for FAQ articles, and information for call center agents
  • Globalization: responsible for the management of content localization/translation across languages and cultures
  • Editorial and publishing: responsible for social media content
  • Communications: responsible for PR and corporate communication

There were several exercises such as: Write a dating ad if Netflix was a person or Brand exploration exercise when each team had to choose the best describing attributes from a list.

As you can see on the screenshot above, the overall winning word connected to Netflix was human.
But it was just the beginning.

Bringing in an external perspective

A year later Netlflix created a new role called VP or Brand, who set up two design-focused workstreams:

  • Brand design system – focusing on the usage of logo or the color palette, etc
  • Voice & Tone Guidelines

The new VP of Brand hired an external agency who audited communications across many different touchpoints (billboards, product copy, etc) with fresh eyes.

The agency came up with 5 core voice traits:

  • helpful
  • warm
  • relevant
  • playful
  • provocative

Internal allignment

Once they had the five attributes they got the 6 writing teams back together to discuss what these words actually mean to them. The liveliest discussion was around provocative and relevant.

The latter means something completely different on social media or for product. Also the voice attributes modulate from team to team (see the illustration below).

Turning attributes into guidelines

They created a core voice and tone deck that defines each attribute in a very general way that works on a company level. Then they have adapted the deck for product with loads of examples (showing good and bad examples are key!)

I won’t share each and every definition they came up with but to exemplify the methodology I chose the word playful.

Playful (general deck)

  • Be a fan: We love movies and TV, just like our members. Let is shine through.
  • Be clever: There are many kinds of funny. Our sense of humor is cultural and creative, but not high-brow or inaccessible.
  • Be mishievous: So long as we don’t insult members, competitors or talents.

How to be playful for product?

  • Use playfulness sparingly: A little goes a long way. Convey the essential info, then add just a pinch of playfulness to make things memorable.
  • Lean on visuals: Illustrations or graphics can pair well with copy to pump up the playfulness.
“We hate paperwork too” is a good example of showing that Netflix understands users’s pain points and tries to make registration procedure easier in a playful way.
Good example of using illustration
Good example: using the illustration of one the shows (Nailed it) makes it more playful and more on-brand.

They made the same guideline and examples for each attribute and also created a one-pager cheat sheet each employee can print out, have on their desks /desktop while writing.

The work has not ended here.

Netflix is operating in more than 40 countries and markets so they are currently working on tone maps for different countries and testing tones.

Main learnings

  1. Core alignment is essential: find like-minded co-workers at the beginning!
  2. Fresh eyes can be really helpful – sometimes it’s better hiring an external consultant or an agency
  3. Give teams rooms to interpret, it’s the framework that counts.
  4. Evangelize. This is something people like to learn about.

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