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Expedia's tone of voice guidelines
Tone of voice guidelines with a warm welcome (and US spellings).

Our first meeting with Expedia was like a scene from Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’. They wanted to know if we could do tone of voice better than Watson, IBM’s AI software. Watson uses data to work out all kinds of things, including, it seems, how to write. Well, we won this Kasparov-style agency versus Big Blue battle for Expedia’s words this time around.

Over the years, travel companies have got stuck in a bit of a ‘buy-it-now!’ rut. When one hotel’s ‘exceptional’, another’s in ‘high demand’ and a third has only ‘one room left’, which do you go for? Travel (and e-commerce) websites use these wordy nudges because they work. Or they used to. But now every hotel listing says the same thing – almost like a computer is churning them out – and their effect has started to wear off.

So what started as a typical tone of voice job – ‘how can we make a trip confirmation email feel as special as opening a new iPhone?’ – soon became as much about the ‘User Experience’ (UX) as the words themselves. Changing a word here, tweaking how we say it there: tinkering with the words can be the difference between someone booking a hotel or deciding to go camping instead.

Expedia know this because they test everything. Their success (they’re huge and they own a bunch of other travel sites) has been built on what they call ‘test and learn’: tweaking something, testing it and doing it again. All the time. So they tested our words. And we tweaked them. We worked closely with the UX designers, thinking about how the words and clicks could work better together.

But data’s only one part of the whole. If you rely on numbers, efficiency and testing alone, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and things like customer service. To do the job well, we had to think about the overall tone as well as the smaller details, and make sure they worked together.

So we helped Expedia step back and look at their tone afresh. We looked at their many emails to customers, for example, as well as what to say and when to say it across what the biz likes to call the ‘customer journey’, from planning a trip and booking it to the trip itself, and answering people’s many questions and quibbles along the way.

We covered the big stuff and the smaller, but important, ‘go on, you might as well upgrade’ nudges, testing and tweaking everything as we went along. And, for now, we showed AI who’s boss. Elementary, my dear Watson.

A confirmation email – now. Much of the work we’ve been doing with Expedia and their digital agency has been about what to say and send when, in what order and how to group things together. To get a better idea of the difference, have a look at what their confirmation emails used to be like (below).
Confirmation email - before.
Their confimration emails – before.

WHAT WE DID.

+ Expedia’s tone of voice.
+ Wrote their guidelines.
+ Rewrote their customer service scripts.
+ Worked on test-and-learn UX writing projects.

WHAT WE DIDN’T.

+ UX design: Made by Many did that.