More on saying 'thank you' in emails

The trouble when you pose a question in your blog is that you’re really honour-bound to answer it as well. You may, occasionally, ponder something that has the world beating a path to your Comments box. But, by and large, people seem to kick back and say: ‘Good question… what’s the answer?’

In my last Post I started out by asking: when do you send a ‘thank you’ email? But it didn’t take much pondering around the subject of writing business emails to decide the real question was: do we say ‘thank you’ online as a convenient piece of default niceness?

When we really want to say: ‘The bank has just bounced your debit card payment!’ does it seem friendlier to start off by saying: ‘Thank you for placing an order with Acme Blogs’? Does the person whose card payment has just been bounced appreciate the subtle run-up to the real purpose of the email?

If you go to a real shop and make a purchase and your card payment is then rejected, the shop assistant is unlikely to start the resulting conversation by thanking you for your order. Being honest about what’s happened doesn’t have to involve announcing it to every customer in the place. You can just get to the point – politely and discreetly.

Email is a very personal communication – even when it’s a business email. We could be buying from the most popular shop online, with billions of customers transacting simultaneously, but the fact that we’ve just tried to place an order with a maxed out card is only evidenced to us and the company concerned. Your email inbox takes on the sanctiity of a confessional. When sending emails we need to take account of that.

Plus, business email is so quick. It’s always possible that we paid with the wrong card, or a cloned copy is currently being used by a bunch of fraudsters in Marra Worra Worra. (Can I apologise to everybody in Marra Worra Worra now. I have no idea if card fraud is an issue in Western Australia. It’s just the most exotic place I can spell.) Back to the point. If there’s a problem with my card, I want to know quickly.

Say a default ‘thank you’ at the beginning of my email and I might just assume payment has gone through without a hitch. What does the Subject line say? If that’s also taking an overly polite approach, I might not get to the real issue – particularly if I’m viewing the response in my email client’s preview pane. People read at speed online. Be less than clear and the primary usefulness of your email may be lost.

  1. So, don’t say ‘thank you’ in a business email, when you really should be saying something else that’s more important.
  2. Don’t use the opening paragraph of your email like a communications runway, assuming that’s what it takes to get really useful information – payment problems, delivery dates etc – off the ground.
  3. Before sending emails, make sure their Subject lines get to the point.
  4. You should be conversational even when you’re not saying ‘thank you’ in an email.
  5. Review all automated email sequences against points 1. through 4.

Now all I have to do is take my own advice.

When do you send a 'thank you' email?

Okay, when do you send a ‘thank you’ email?

If a customer purchases online, a ‘thank you’ tends to be part of the email confirmation process. Often, we use the thank you text as the opening paragraph or sentence, that sits above colder but nonetheless essential content – such as describing when and how an item will be delivered.

So maybe the real question is: do we say ‘thank you’ when we should really be saying something else better?

Watch this space.

Paper phrases

Back in the days when communication relied on a cleft stick, paper was the perfect format.  It beat cave paintings and even clay tablets in the portability stakes. It was – depending on the servant holding the stick – reasonably fast. Eventually a whole system was built around moving paper about. The fax machine may have introduced a non-paper stage but it was, to all intents and purposes, PIPO – paper in, paper out.

We built our skill with written language around this wonderful medium. We bound it into books. Men in brown robes and tonsures used exquisite caligraphy to create copies of the bible. We developed machines that could print onto paper. There were both desk top versions (typewriters) and mainframes – giant printing presses turning out books, magazines, academic journals, newspapers and catalogues for swimwear.

We came up with protocols for laying out words; upper and lower case, underlining and indenting. Red ink, black ink and green ink. Purple prose. Colour and position had specfic meanings. Overturning or advancing a protocol took time. Be too forward in the layout of your business letter and people might asume you didn’t know how to lay one out (or you were too unsuccessful to afford a decent secretary).

But computers and the internet have changed all this. The range of fonts and colours at our disposal are infinite. Images can be added with ease. With so much choice, it’s harder to proscribe and restrict. We can place text vertically, or upside down if we’re so moved. And if we come up with some particularly clever idea it can be copied by others in a nanosecond. Nobody’s right. Nobody’s wrong.

But while we’re all having great fun exploring the visual nature of the medium we can still end up turning out the same old paper phrases, first used back in the days when upright typewriters thumped and rattled. In large and small organisations, tensions can develop between operational areas (meaning) and marketing departments (messaging) when it comes to how products or services are described online.

So here’s my SMART benchmarking tool, designed to quick-test your content for paper phrases:

Source What was the source documentation for the web content? Was it brochure, a press release, a product blue print… Where the source material came from will influence the language that finds its way online. The more internal the document the more likely it is to contain paper phrases and inhouse language.

Method How was the source material turned into web content? Simply subbing source material to make it shorter won’t turn it into good web copy. Ideally you want to review the source material, put it away and then write from memory, only returning to the source to check facts. The more complicated the material, the more important it is to atomise and reconstite the content, rather than simply edit. Subbing often leaves in paper phrases.

Approval Who gets to sign off on the content and why? The best approval processes incorporate compliance and legal perspectives early on, rather than as a final stage, when formal langauge may be reintroduced and everybody’s too tired to argue. Some of the worst give the final say to senior management.

Review When the copy has been signed off and published online it should always go through a final discreet review about a week or so after publication. Once the pressure is off and the deadline has been met, it’s suprising how easy it is to refine and improve what you already have. And if you’re more relaxed, so is your language. Small changes should not require a further approval process.

Test You may be convinced you’ve written spot-on, online copy but the only person who can really tell you that is your site users. Check site metrics looking for pages that people are leaving to soon (boring) or spending too long on (complicated). Make changes and check again. Then make changes and check again.

Reply-focussed communication

Good website communication hinges on the information flowing from the right initiation point.

Just set aside transaction communications – ‘Your sofa is now in stock’ – for a moment. Nearly all marketing and business messaging was, traditionally, company initiated. A new product launch or brochure, a seasonal sale, a press release or case study… An organisation has something to say and sends out its message. This is the traditional initiation point for brand communication. It also assumed that the recipient wanted to receive the communication in question.

But website communication turns this on its head. It is customer initiated. People (punters, customers, web users) set out online ‘to do’ something – book a holiday, buy a book, donate to charity, acquire knowledge. We mention the latter 2 as the term customer initiated communication applies just as much to those not looking to buy something.

By its very nature, this type of communication requires a different treatment. It must be reply-focussed. Imagine sitting down to eat with a group of people and asking the person on your left to ‘pass the salt’. You expect them to reply, even if the reply is less than helpful: ‘Sorry, I have short arms and can’t reach it.’ You don’t expect them to say: ‘I have a labrador called Bert’ or ‘My girlfriend is in Dubai’. Communication is only satisfactory when it follows a logical sequence. (Rap lyrics not withstanding.)

‘Aah’, I hear you say, ‘how do I know what the customer has said, so we can make the right reply?’

Well, just by asking that question you’ve passed Reply-focussed communication Elementary grade 1. Simply asking it enables you to view what you’re saying online – and how you say it – from a more helpful perspective. Add to that what you know about your customers through data and journey tracking, and your on your way.

Email can be company initiated, but even with email you can’t just use a traditional offline approach. But that’s another post.

Today is a good day to begin

Let me see… where shall I start? Well the financial services sector is in meltdown. Banks are going to the wall and if Radio 4’s Today programme is right, senior American politicians are on their knees (well, at least one). In the UK everyone is waiting to see how far the fall-out will spread. From sub-prime mortgages to… house prices, supermarket profits, bankruptcy amongst tour operators, the price of vanilla icecream? Throw the rising fuel prices and global political instability into the mix and what have you got? The latest Mad Max movie.

The question is, why write about here? The CDA Content Lab is all about putting online content under the microscope. Why would a recession interest us?

The obvious answer might appear to be money. Sorry to bring up the ‘m’ word but when banks catch cold the whole world sneezes. The good news is that web and email are cost effective channels when you’re marketing spend has just been ripped to shreds by a Finance Director whose got Bradford and Bingley shares in his childrens’ school fees portfolio. Okay, that’s the business side of things dealt with.

But what really rocks our boat is how all this doom and gloom may be influencing the way we communicate and engage with audiences. This is particularly pertinent online where our execution of day to day tasks can be accomplished cheek by jowl with an RSS feed to our desk top announcing the latest crisis. We can dip into Tesco online and find ourselves simultaneously drawn to the BBC for a news fix.

Take a look at the first paragraph of this post and it’s riddled with nuclear, revolutionary and post-apocalyptic analogies. We use analogies to aid comprehension. It allows us to talk about things to people in a way that will allow them to understand, even if they have no direct experience of what’s being discussed. It also straddles the mental space between language and thought. Not only am I giving you terms of reference so you can understand what I’m talking about but you also get a pretty good idea of how I feel about it.

Analogies (along with first cousins metaphor and simile) also allow us to visualise things and that get’s us into really interesting territory where the web is concerned. The web is a very visual medium. Even when we’re reading online and we actually do very little of that. We’re ‘looking’ at web pages as if they were maps rather than documents; designed to take us onto the next leg of our journey, or confirm that we’ve arrived.

When we see something in a new way we tend to store it in a new way. So all this talk of doom and gloom is having a deep semantic influence. Will we notice this in the language we use and the language that’s used to comunicate back to us? Hold that thought?

Of course, we can’t go back and rewrite books and brochures to reflect this. But the internet – that’s a whole different bag. I’ve certainly been reviewing our online communication looking for words that might inadvertently trigger gloom or hesitancy. This blog aside, I’m avoiding all flippant use of the apocalyptic.