Speak too softly and you'll be painted as accusing and secretive, too enunciating and you'll be construed as condescending.
True, these assumptions have a lot to do with the context of the physical situation. But just because there is no bodily presence or audible voice doesn't mean that there is no tone on the Web. If anything, it is doubly more important there.
Not Just Any Word Will Do
On the Web there are no gestures, facial expressions, or other body language. There is no way to communicate intimacy by standing in closer, no way to read blushing or behold the intensity in one's eyes. Words on screens have no volume, presence, or depth. Sarcasm is difficult enough to gauge in person; trying to discern it from text is so subtle sometimes we miss it altogether.
In reading our only clues are the context of the surrounding words and sentences. When we read text off a website we gain the benefit of some visual context; the graphical style and imagery present elsewhere on the site, our reading container, can help impart in what mood the text should be consumed.
But what really comes down to decoding the tone from screentext is brevity. Which words are used, and which aren't? In what order are the words presented, and how are the sentences formed? Are they straightforward and concise? Veiled behind clever poetic devices? Hinting and vague? Exciting or bland?
The right word choice can communicate a light tone, or a dark one. Business-like curtness or quirky fun. A business that presents itself as quirky can be construed as either fun and inviting...or a mangled boor. A restaurant's website can either convey class or smugness. These are fine lines, and admittedly they are also subjective ones too.
The context of the audience at the time of reading your screentext can make all the difference. If they're in a foul mood they could misinterpret your content entirely. But such a situation is completely outside of the writer's control. All they can do is make sure their published content, their words, are written as precisely as possibly to steer the reader into the desired mindset.
That is why tone is so crucial, and its implementation is a very careful and honed art. Just as painters will obsess over the right shade, and musicians dwell on just the right note, so too must writers question the merit of each and every single word they pen.
Tone is the Vanguard
It doesn't matter what the exchange consists of; be it an advertisement (persuasion), information, or emotion; in order to be received the written content must be allowed into a receptive host. Not only that, it must find a hospitable nest waiting for it. Otherwise it will soon be discarded.
Paragraphs and sentences contain the information meant to be imparted; but tone helps the reader's mind prepare to receive and retain that info. The content could be the best, most attractive, most worthwhile topic in all the world and history. But if it is conveyed poorly, it won't germinate in any receptive minds. Because there would be none.
Doing More With Less
The advent of Twitter and ever decreasing amounts of text aesthetically allowed on web pages have made word counts only more intense. So much tone, emotion, and mindset must be conveyed and persuaded through so little amount of verbiage.
It is literary minimalism and in such constraints every, detail, counts. There absolutely can be no room for fluff, and yet the sentences must flow pleasantly enough for normal reading.
Tone is a complex attribute. Just as bodily context comes from so many subtle cues, the communication of just the right tone requires its own fair share of words. Paring it down to the extreme least risks compromising that tone and therefore miscommunicating over the right mindset into the reader.
The mark of a good content writer nowadays isn't merely whether they can write well. Or even if they can write concisely. It comes down to how they can manipulate their written tone; how they can anticipate the needs of their client and adapt to the demands of the client's readers.
A good writer can convey the same information but in two entirely different tones, and the audience will have believed they had read two separate, distinct pieces of content.
What a Difference Can Make
Tone is to content as CSS is to HTML.
Tone is to information as the right tie is to a suit.
Tone is to writing as your first impression is to new people.
Tone is an accent, a container, an impression, a detail. But it is one of the most important ones because it defines to others everything within itself.
What other elements do you think are important to content writing besides tone? Do you think with increasing amounts of video and photos that written tone will become less of a prominent issue?