Textual paralanguage in marketing communications: tips for getting it right

Everyone knows it’s easier to connote emotion and context in a face-to-face conversation than through text. For example, saying “great idea” to someone with an eye roll and emphasis on the word “great” lets the listener know you’re being sarcastic.

On the other hand, simply writing “great idea” in text leaves much more room for interpretation since you might mean you’re legitimately excited about the idea … or it could be the most awful thing you’ve heard in recently memory.

So how might someone communicating via text correct for this? Well, they could use a tactic called “textual paralanguage,” or TPL. Here’s an example:

“GREAAAAAAAT Idea … :(  LOL.”

See what I did there?  I was able to incorporate a form of non-verbal cues within my textual response so the reader could identify the exact nature and meaning of my words.

In the business world, using textual paralanguage can be a powerful tool for written communications as brand marketers attempt to create a “brand voice.” In this blog, we’ll explore ways to construct a TPL communication string and identify the best opportunities to test for impact.

The Structure of Textual Paralanguage

Andrea Webb Luangratha, Joann Peckb, and Victor A. Bargerc recently published an report in the Journal of Consumer Psychology titled “Textual paralanguage and its implications for marketing communications.” In it, they conceptualize and define TPL as “written manifestations of nonverbal audible, tactile, and visual elements that supplement or replace written language and that can be expressed through words, symbols, images, punctuation, demarcations, or any combination of these elements.”

They go on to build a typology, broken down into the categories of Auditory, Tactile, and Visual Paralanguage, which can be used to construct a communication:

  • Auditory TPL example: Using capitalization to connote emphasis, such as “I LOVE that”
  • Tactile TPL example: Employing an emoji of a high-five or kisses
  • Visual TPL example: Using bold characters or stylized font, or including a picture of a pizza

So how would you actually construct a TPL communication? There are lots of brands and brand spokes characters that are using textual paralanguage in social channels that we can use for reference. Take @MrOwl, for an example. Here is a communication recently published by Mr. Owl: “Tried to eat less Tootsie Pops…#FAIL! 2018 is my year though…I can just feel it! #NewYearsResolution.” Adding the “…” at the end of the sentence is an auditory cue to pause and wait for something more. Capitalizing FAIL is an auditory cue for exclamation.

There are many example of this to be found all over social media and within the emails and text messages we send to one another. As humans, we have been conditioned to communicate with TPL without even realizing it. The trick is to understand the type of TPL you’re using in your brand communication and intentionally include it when appropriate.

Testing and Other TPL Considerations

TPL acceptance and fluency varies by audience. So, you’ll want to take caution to ensure you’re using it in the appropriate setting. In the JCP research article, they found that brand communications contained far fewer instances of textual paralanguage than brand “spokescharacter” communications. This implies a certain informality that’s expected when using textual paralanguage.

So, when deciding if you’re going to add textual paralanguage to your communications, you have to first and foremost consider the intended and unintended audience. Sure, your core audience may accept the communiqué, but if it were to be shared with someone who is less versed or averse to informal dialogue, will you offend people?

Once you’ve decided on the level and degree of textual paralanguage that you’re comfortable using in your communications, the next challenge is to equate its use to level of engagement. If you’re sending a mass communication via SMS, mobile push or email, the first step would be to run A/B/n testing on the communication for TPL impact. You may get a higher engagement, but sentiment may decrease, or vice-versa. In all instances, you want to solicit feedback from your audience to ensure they appreciate the informality and casualness that you’re creating with TPL communication methods.

Mobile and social channels are changing the ways people communicate with each other – and expect businesses to interact with them. Think about how using textual paralanguage in your marketing communications can help you better convey your sentiment, carve out your brand personality and create an improved customer experience.

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