Personal pronouns: It's okay to own your web copy
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.