I’ve written about the importance if micro copy before on Contentini and the other day I happened on an example that demonstrates exactly how disruptive poor micro content can be. The application in question is Apple’s iTunes. The problems I encountered resulted in part from a lack of consideration of the content in their pop up messages and also a whole sale break down in the subsequent support messages I received from them via email. And yes, in my humble opinion, pre-scripted support emails should also fall under the watchful eye of content strategists. In an ideal world, all business communications would be real conversations, but when pre-scripted content is used, care should be taken to ensure that the content is on point, useful and importantly, that it doesn’t alienate the customer on the receiving end.
Poorly devised, unhelpful content is wasteful. It potentially wastes the time of users and can also have financial implications for the company responsible for it, in this case Apple. Because they were not more thoughtful about their micro copy, they’ve had to correspond with me multiple times, costing them and me money and time. They’ve also left me feeling frustrated and, if at all possible, I will probably look to spend my money elsewhere. Lucky for them, they are one of the only providers of digital MP3 and video content online in my region of the world. Unless you’re Apple, can you afford to alienate customers because of careless copy?
Pop Up Text Should Not Create More Questions Than it Answers
My story begins with a recently discovered passion for the television series Mad Men. We were in Bangkok recently where it was about 40 degrees Celsius every day and I was spending some time watching Season 2 on my laptop in a heavily air conditioned room. I could have downloaded the episodes illegally or easily purchased the entire season for less than a fiver from any number of dodgy DVD vendors down the road, but I genuinely believe that if possible, it’s good to compensate artists for their work.
I bought and watched Season 2 episodes seven, eight and nine. When I went to purchase episode ten it took me through the regular purchase process, asked for my password, confirmed that I wanted to make the purchase, scrolled as though it had begun downloading and then:
As a user this message was jarring because it didn’t give me any helpful information or options. The primary purpose of a pop up should be to assist users by telling them plainly what is wrong and also ideally by giving them a next step to correct the problem. This pop up told me nothing: was the problem with my connection? was the problem with my credit card? was the problem with the episode or the entire series? when would it be resolved? where could I go to find out more? when should I try again?
Expert tip: if your pop up message creates more questions than it answers, you have a problem.
I waited 24 hours and tried again. Same message. 24 hours later I tried again (yes, I realize that there is more to life than Mad Men, kind of). Same message. After 72 hours I decided to email iTunes support to find out why they’d broken up with me. Everything looked normal on the Mad Men Season 2 iTunes page, so what was the problem?
Email Support Should Not Be Scripted, Because it Makes Your Company Look Daft
Apart from some very basic emails such as notifications that you’ve signed up for an account or password reset links, I generally believe that it’s best to avoid pre-scripted written communications if at all possible. Scripts always read and sound like scripts. They don’t feel like interaction and at their worst they can actually further alienate a customer because they often miss the mark.
Apple’s support emails sounded a bit like they were drafted by a robot that had been imprinted with the customer service philosophy that if you repeat the customer’s name over and over again, everything will be alright. Ready for a laugh?
I understand that when you try to purchase “Mad Men Season 2, Episode 10,” you receive a message indicating that it is being temporarily unavailable. I know it could be upsetting when things won’t work the way it should. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.
Amylee, from time to time, the iTunes Store updates the items in the catalog to ensure the highest possible quality for our customers. It’s possible that “Mad Men Season 2, Episode 10” is being updated and is therefore temporarily unavailable. Please try again in 72 hours. If you still are unable to purchase it, please let me know.
I hope you continue to enjoy the iTunes Store, and thank you for being an iTunes Store customer. Please do write back for any additional concerns and we would be glad to assist a valued customer like you.
Have a great day!
The email managed to reiterate my problem without providing much information at all, except to tell me that the problem wasn’t with me, but with the item that was being updated. Stupid email, didn’t make me feel great, but fair enough.
I waited a few days and tried to download the episode again only to receive the same pop up. I should mention that at this point, most customers would give up and the company would forfeit the £2 sale, but not me. I’m tenacious.
I emailed Apple again to let them know that the item still wasn’t available. As a content strategist who focuses on micro copy, I thought I would be helpful by saying: “I understand that from time to time the catalogue needs to be updated and that items may be occasionally unavailable, but the thinking behind this message is just impossibly bad. First of all, the message does not give adequate information – is the item unavailable because of my account? Is the item broken? Is there something wrong with my connection? These are all concerns a user has that should be addressed in the message.” Here’s the response:
Thank you for contacting iTunes Store customer support. I understand that you want to download “Mad Men Season 2, Episode 10,” but the item is still unavailable. I apologize for any frustration this issue has caused you.
The item is not available not just on your account but on the iTunes store. The item is not broken as well, it’s just that iTunes Store is currently working toward a resolution of the issue and hopes to have it resolved shortly.
Generally, the television networks provide Apple with the latest episode of each show. Occasionally, there can be a delay.
You can rest assured that Apple is working to make this episode available on the iTunes Store as soon as possible. I am deeply sorry for this Amylee.
Thank you for your patience. Apple appreciates your business and loyalty.
This emails tells me … nothing. It doesn’t let me know when the item will be available, it certainly doesn’t address the usability issue and it basically leaves the responsibility on me as a consumer to check back (with no real time line) over and over again over an infinite time frame to see when the episode will be available.
This is [redacted] again, getting back to you. Thank you for writing back and the opportunity to help you today.
As I further investigate. I apologize, but the TV show “Mad Men Season 2, Episode 10,” TV show is not available in the United Kingdom iTunes Store at this time.
Although I cannot comment on future expansion plans of the iTunes Store, you can rest assured that Apple is committed to bringing these types of items to people around the world. I am again sorry about this, Amylee.
Thank you for understanding. Apple is always making sure where giving the best service for our valued customers. Have a great day!
I could post more emails, all equally useless, but we’ve all got important things to do (like watch Mad Men). To sum it up, when I pointed out to her that I’d recently purchased three other episodes on my UK account, she tried to tell me that the three episodes were not episodes but “videos” (what does that even mean?). When I sent her the order number, she responded by telling me that my three Mad Men episodes were actually episodes of 90210. Whaaa? And now Mad Men doesn’t seem to exist on the iTunes store. That pretty much brings us up to speed.
How A Few Simple Content Changes Could Have Made Everything Better
Although a good whinge feels cathartic, I would like this post to offer up some simple solutions. If the iTunes store took their micro copy a little bit more seriously they could have avoided wasting my time, wasting their time and potentially alienating a customer who really likes to buy stuff online.
Suggestion #1: A Customer Should Not Have to Click ‘Buy’ To Find Out an Item is Unavailable to Them
If I am already logged on, presumably iTunes knows my location and should be able to tailor their shop to display information that is relevant to me. In fact, they already do this in a number of ways. Movies and music are often released at different times in North America and the UK and I am always given the option to pre-purchase items using UK release dates. Items that aren’t available to me should either not turn up in my search results or should have a clear label on them that says ‘Not available to UK customers.’
If an item is being virtually restocked or is temporarily unavailable, this should be evident and ideally, there should be a mechanism in place to allow consumers to add it to a watch list so that they can be informed when it becomes available again. Here’s a rough mock up:
Detail of unavailable item:
This solution accomplishes a number of practical goals:
- It frees up a consumer’s time so they can focus on buying things that are available as opposed to wasting time trying to buy what isn’t.
- It sets up a system so the customer will receive a notification once the item is available again for purchase, prompting them to make their purchase and bringing them back to the app.
- It potentially saves time and money because it provides enough information that the customer hopefully won’t need to contact customer support to try and understand the issue.
Suggestion #2: Ensure that the Micro Copy on Pop Up Boxes is Helpful
As mentioned in suggestions #1, consumers should not have to go through the buying process to discover an item is unavailable. In circumstances where it is impossible to give the user this information without making them click the ‘Buy’ button, it is crucial that the text on pop up buttons be helpful. This seems obvious, but the iTunes message would suggest otherwise.
Let’s take a minute to remember what it says:
This doesn’t really tell the consumer anything apart from the obvious: they cannot currently buy the product. It’s almost like saying, “We don’t care about your business.”
There are a million ways that iTunes could improve this. Here is one possibility:
The text in this pop up is still brief, but it accomplishes a number of things:
- It clearly tells me why I am not able to download my episode.
- It apologizes, making me feel like iTunes cares about me as a customer.
- It gives me the opportunity to sign up so that I will find out when the item is available again, prompting me to make a purchase while simultaneously not wasting my time by asking me to check back at some undisclosed time in the future.
Suggestion #3: Email Communication Should Not Involve a Form Letter
With all the money that Apple would save in customer support by simply providing better information to customers from within the app, they might be able to afford to pay real people who have knowledge in customer care to respond to support requests.
Although a real human was obviously behind the emails I received, it was painfully obvious that she was working off of a basic formula email response template, and only adding in small bits of information where it was applicable to my case. This really doesn’t work and only makes an alienated customer sink into an even deeper sense that the company in question doesn’t really care about them or hear their concern.
Generally speaking, email shouldn’t be treated as content but as active communication: fluid, dynamic and personal. If a company doesn’t have the resources to provide real human to human support to its customers, it should feel doubly or even triply compelled to ensure that the micro copy on its website is useful, thoughtful and strategic.
Most of Us Aren’t Apple
Apple exists in an echelon of success that is special. They are one of the most profitable companies in the world and they have a loyal following of fans who automatically adore almost everything that they do. Apple’s specialness ensures that most people are not going to stop using their products because of poor content or user experience. In other words, when it comes to the micro copy on their apps, they believe they can afford to not care, and they are probably right to a certain point. As someone who obsessively uses their products, I am unlikely to stop because of a single crappy experience, but it does impact my perception of their brand and it makes me second guess that famous attention to detail they claim to care so much about.
My point? My company isn’t Apple and chances are, yours isn’t either. We can’t afford to take micro copy for granted because losing a paying customer can have a major impact on our earnings. Details are important and often the small things are easily overlooked in place of the sexier elements of applications and websites.
Your pop up text and the manner in which you communicate the details of your business to consumers is important. The design of the elements of your website or app are important, but what about the words you use within those boxes and buttons? What are you communicating or not communicating and how might those words benefit your brand and your business?
Micro copy matters.