Whenever we use images of word clouds for our blog posts—like the one above, based on the DiSC i-style—the posts do very well with our readers and the images are frequently shared on Pinterest. But beyond providing colorful pops to posts, word clouds can offer some practical benefits to your business. In this post, colleague Kristeen Bullwinkle and I share some of our favorite creative uses.
What is a word cloud?
If you’re not already creating word clouds, you’ve no doubt seen them. Also known as a tag cloud or text cloud, a word cloud is a visual representation of text that’s based on the frequency with which a particular word appears. Paste some text into a word cloud generator (available free online; see our “tips” below) and the more frequently a word appears in the source data, the bigger it appears in your word cloud. Here’s a cloud based on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Though word cloud generators are not robust analytical tools, they do provide some very useful applications when you let yourself be creative. Here are four ways we put them to use.
1. Parse employee or customer feedback.
What was the biggest topic on users’ minds as they completed your survey? What words did employees use most often in their evaluations? What was trending in last month’s online customer comments? If you have access to data sources such as these, it’s an easy task to combine them into a text document, drop the copy into a generator and see what emerges. Review the resulting cloud with your team to discuss what high occurrences of words like “responsiveness” or “price” might indicate. Remember that clouds take words out of context, so a big, bold “SERVICE” in your cloud could indicate either “lousy” or “excellent.”
2. Check the effectiveness of your written communications.
What does your newsletter really say? What does your web content focus on? What words or terms do you rely on too heavily? Dropping a few pages of content into a generator is a great way to check recurring themes or terms and to improve your writing—both in terms of clarity and style.
3. Analyze and identify SEO terms.
Are the keywords you want to rank highly in online searches prominent or too overwhelming? Here’s one of Kristeen’s clouds for a webpage of the Everything DiSC Workplace site. Let’s say she wants the site to rank highly in online searches for the keywords “DiSC,” “workplace” and “communication.”
She’s fairly happy with the results but wonders about making the “Everything” in the Everything DiSC brand stronger. She’s glad to see words like “relationships,” “assessment” and “effective” appear, knowing that these words matter to her audience.
A webpage that gives an overview of DiSC, on the other hand, is rather heavy on the use of the word “DiSC.” It also appears to lack a strong central message.
Since there aren’t any other words that dominate nearly as much, Kristeen will edit the page to reflect more of the terms she wants people to associate with DiSC. Or since this is a long page of copy, she may create another word cloud that focuses only on the first three paragraphs and headings—those most likely to be read by people visiting the page.
4. Help people align around your mission and vision
How do you make your organization’s mission or vision statements come to life for employees and stakeholders? How do you help teams align with the mission or vision and take ownership of it? Try using a word cloud. Here’s an exercise I call “Pin the Tale on the Mission.” It’s useful for getting teams within an organization—staff, board members, volunteers, leadership, advocates—to explore their personal connections to the organization’s mission or vision. (I also use it frequently to help surface personal stories—hence the “tale.”)
First, grab text from sources that capture the mission and vision of your organization. This might be from the “About” page of your website, a brochure, employee manual or annual report—or all of those sources combined. Create a word cloud. Here’s one for Family House, a cancer-support nonprofit in San Francisco, based on their mission and vision statements:
Have your team look at the cloud and ask: “What single word or phrase do you personally connect with? What resonates with you?” Let people associate freely, then share their thoughts, stories and anecdotes with each other. When you disassemble your mission and vision and have people respond just to words or concepts, you allow them to find their personal “points of entry.” Freed from the tendency to “memorize the mission,” teams are often surprised by what personal connections emerge.
Tips for using word cloud generators
I typically use Wordle.net, a Java-based generator, to create my word clouds. Kristeen is leery of security and vulnerability issues with Java, so she prefers the Pro Word Cloud app, used within Microsoft Word (non-Mac, only). Other generators worth exploring include wordclouds.com and Tagul (which offer custom cloud shapes) and jasondavies.com. Try a few until you find one that suits your needs and keep in mind some of our “power-user” tips:
- Find Microsoft’s Pro Word Cloud app by searching for “word cloud” in the Apps for Office
- If you want two- or three-word phrases to remain together and not be sorted individually in your cloud (such as “power user,” or “very good”), hyphenate them using a tilde (“power~user,” “very~good”). In Wordle, the tilde remains invisible.
- Create a cloud that highlights the words you want to pop by generating custom text and repeating your key words many times.
- Be aware that some generators automatically save your word cloud to their gallery. Check privacy policies if that’s an issue for you.
- Word cloud generators vary in their ability to let you save your clouds. If there is no obvious way to export, try saving as a PDF from within the print dialogue box.
- Generators automatically omit small words like “it” and “the,” but most allow you to toggle that option.
Have a favorite use for word clouds? Share them with us!
John Capecci of Capecci Communications (Minneapolis) is a trainer and consultant who offers personal coaching, group workshops, and webinars on communication effectiveness.