Marketing Writing

Dear [Firstname] at [Company] — Drop the Fake Friend Act

Dear [Firstname] at [Company],

Today, you sent me a message that pushed me over the edge after a blogging hiatus that has been far longer than I like to think about.

Subject line: “Was it something we did?”

Body: I have no idea, do you honestly think I opened that? The message was clearly based on some pre-configured logic catching users who signed up for your service eons ago, then stopped using it. I’ve tested a lot of services for work in the past year, most of which I’ve left behind. It was less something you did and more something we didn’t.

But why oh why would you think it’s appropriate, funny, cute, or *shudder* engaging to sound like a needy ex-partner?


Today’s overly attached subject line was not an isolated incident, of course. Just a handful of fairly recent examples from my inbox:

  • A subject line welcoming me to the [service] family, message starting with “Hey, you’re awesome!!”
  • A “thank you for upgrading to a pro account” message signed “Your friends at [company]”
  • A service sign-up response with the subject line “Friend, welcome to [service]”

All sent, of course, by [Firstname] at [Company] — a trick so ubiquitous it no longer stands out in the least in the increasingly crowded Promos section of my Google Inbox.

Most of my personal and even work messages now go through chat, but everyone and their grandmother’s company is bombarding me with email as a lead or customer — “drip campaigns”, auto-responders and quasi-personal messages intended to steer me along the journey to conversion from lead to customer, and from customer to evangelist.

But I must admit, [Firstname] at [Company], it’s increasingly rare that I even open your messages. And you just seem to get chummier and chummier.

I expect your company does a lot of A/B testing, so please do tell me: Does the bromance lingo actually work on a majority of your targets? Because to me, really, very little could be more alienating.

It may have to do with regional culture, it may have to do with being too old to be part of the main target group for Every Marketing Campaign on Earth — millennials — but honestly, even a few millennials have mortgages and PTA duties and the odd gray hair and cellulite at this point, are you really sure they don’t prefer being talked to like grownups?

And for those who would be on board with the “you’re awesome double exclamation mark” thing amongst actual friends, are you sure they don’t see you as something of a wannabe, or like the awkward parent who picked up a little bit of slang 10 years ago and still thinks it’s the bomb?

[Firstname] at [Company], are you sure you're not sounding a little like Vanilla Ice: Oh, I'm just coolin?

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

One of the reasons I’m ranting about this is that since going from tech writer at a massive corporation to information architect at a small company where everyone wears a rich selection of hats, technical marketing for the business-to-business market is a form of communication I’ve suddenly had to care about. I’ve been reading up. And I’ve despaired, discovering that “landing pages” does not actually describe pages for visitors to land on, but pages for businesses to land people’s email addresses.

After reading a few more marketing blog posts than was clearly good for me, a bit too much of it started to make sense. Then, thankfully, I was lucky enough to spend most of last week at the Information Architecture Summit, an amazing conference about IA and user experience, whose theme this year was inclusion and “a broader panorama”. What happens when we put people at the center, when we design inclusive experiences, when we genuinely care about the humanity of every user, visitor, customer? And I came back reassured that what doesn’t happen is shiny happy auto-responders holding hands. (I learned a bunch of other stuff, too. There will be more blogging.)

So no, it’s not that I don’t think that businesses can have interesting information to share with (potential) customers by automated email, or that customers and vendors cannot have a friendly tone when they know each other — on the contrary. But here’s the thing, [Firstname] at [Company], the two are entirely separate things. And because you are not a person, but a set of merging and mailing rules, that is something you will never understand.

And that is why we can’t be friends. So can you please drop the act?

Not exactly yours,


Editing T-shirts Technical Communications

Link Roundup: APIs and Fine Manuals

Still wrestling with my next post on error messages. Meanwhile, I’m sharing some excellent links on technical communications I’ve happened upon lately.

Technical Communications Usability

The Three Most Annoying And Least Helpful Types Of Error Messages

Error messages are a constant source of frustration to users of all skill levels. A recent example is Don Norman’s rant Error Message Are Evil (sic) on LinkedIn, where he insists that error messages must start collaborating with the users, and that software needs to become better at anticipating and accommodating actual user behavior. As someone who is often tasked with the writing and rewriting of error messages, it’s hard not to agree.

Here are the three most common unhelpful types of error messages that I know of, and what makes them unbearably annoying to me.

1. Written for the developers: Object reference not set to an instance of an object

Of all error messages that should not go out to end users, this example is probably my least favorite. Someone really should just change the standard nullpointerexception error with something more readable to a user, once and for all. “Developer malfunction”, perhaps. I kid, but only just. And there are many more messages that follow a similar logic.

All too often, internal error messages trickle out to users from frameworks, APIs, or deep dark places in code that nobody every intended to expose. They are usually hardcoded and hold no information that the user can make sense of, or wrap a tiny piece of readable information in noise. Typically, they also use words like “illegal”, making any normal person think a crime has been committed, rather than the use of a character that couldn’t be parsed.

2. Well, duh: Unexpected error

Ohhhh, so you didn’t see this one coming, application? Well, that’s helpful for me as a user to know. And now what?

The literal “Unexpected error” is quite common, but there are tons of messages out there that are at about the same level of helpfulness once you’ve read them. Telling the user at least something they don’t already know is a very basic criterion for an error message. And they probably don’t care whether or not you were expecting it, but they do care whether it will fix itself or requires intervention.

3. Intended to be funny: Well, this is embarrassing

The example is from Firefox being unable to open a page, but Chrome’s “He’s dead, Jim”, or the Twitter whale, are more of the same, and the trend has been spreading, perhaps due to advice like this post from UXmas: The 4 H’s of Writing Error Messages, where “humorous” is one of the H’s, as the author claims it helps diffuse frustration. I disagree–and actually even the UXmas author himself goes on to warn that humor is not appropriate in most actual error situations.

Cutesy, chummy, intended-to-be-funny error messages may serve that purpose the first time the users see them. But error situations have a way of repeating themselves. The tenth time you get to the same error, the funny, “friendly”, conversational error message style is likely to have grown on you much like a fungus. There’s a reason there are tutorials for Getting Rid Of Firefox’s “Well, This Is Embarrassing” Message.

Being helpful is about being respectful to the user. Error messages should be troubleshooting assistants for users, not their pals. An actual pal might buy the user a drink when the operation fails for the 15th time, the error message will still just say the same thing.

Helpful error messages are hard (to write)

Users are annoyed when something fails. We don’t want to feel like we did something wrong, or like we spent our time, money, or both on a product or service that isn’t up to the job.

Writing helpful error messages is hard, but probably one of the best possible uses of a technical communicator’s time.

Which error messages are most annoying to you? Do you enjoy the use of humor?