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Episode #207 Steph Hay - Building Trust with Your Users through Messaging and Copy

April 17, 2013  ·  24 minutes

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Ever wonder how many “World’s Best Coffee” signs exist in the world? The world is a big place, so that claim may or may not be entirely accurate. These days, with social media being so prevalent, it’s important that your messaging is truthful and that your product or service delivers on those promises. Otherwise you run the risk of losing the trust of your customer base, and scaring away potential users.

Show Notes

Steph Hay, co-founder of FastCustomer, is an expert at crafting copy. Through her consulting, she helps companies make sure that their messaging is appropriate and direct. In her virtual seminar, Building Trust with Your Users through Messaging and Copy, she offers techniques around how to gather, analyze, and use data to make content and UX decisions that are real and truthful to your users.

Steph didn’t have time to answer all of the questions from our audience during the live seminar. She joins Adam Churchill to tackle additional questions in this podcast.

  • How is marketing different between a start-up and enterprise organizations?
  • What if stakeholders ignore data or analytics evidence?
  • How do you avoid overloading the user with too much information up front?
  • Once a user is in a flow, how do you ask for more sensitive information?
  • How can you balance search optimized language with plain language?

Full Transcript

Adam Churchill: Welcome, everyone, to another edition of the SpoolCast. Recently, Stephanie Hay presented a virtual seminar called "Building Trust with Your Users through Messaging and Copy." Many products and services promise to be the easiest, smartest and best things ever. The problem is, they're just not. This disconnect between marketing and reality is building a web of skeptics.

Fortunately, anyone can build trust with users by setting realistic expectations and then meeting them. In this recent virtual seminar, Stephanie Hay shows how to get started by taking cues from online and offline interactions, even before you start writing your candid content. She shows how to craft helpful user experiences and how to maintain users' confidence, even in cases where you fail. Hey, Steph, welcome back.
Stephanie Hay: Thank you, Adam. How are you?
Adam: I'm doing great. What's going on?
Stephanie: Not much. Listen, I forgot if I had ever told you about that time that Jared was in town at "An Event Apart" last August.
Adam: No.
Stephanie: Did I tell you this? Sorry, this is a little bit related to the talk today, but I just wanted to tell you because I keep forgetting to tell you. Feel free to, obviously, edit this out. I was having dinner last August, when Jared was in town for "An Event Apart." We were having dinner at Vermillion in Alexandria, just chatting about web things, food things, whatever awesome things.

I started eating some bruschetta or something. This is so embarrassing. This is little cherry tomato got lodged into my throat, and I'm suddenly finding myself...
Adam: Oh no.
Stephanie: I know. I was totally choking, dude. I was like, "Am I really choking here?" Only yes, I was. I start making the universal sign for choking. That just happens. Jared immediately flies out of his chair, yanks me out of mine, and starts doing the Heimlich.
Adam: You're kidding me?
Stephanie: No, dude, I'm not kidding. I felt like it was maybe 30 minutes later, but it was probably five seconds. Tomato gets dislodged. Blammo, out it comes. It was sort of a fancy restaurant, too. I actually caught it, because I have reflexes like a cheetah, even while being saved by Jared Spool's Heimlich abilities.
Adam: He never mentioned that. Oh my gosh!
Stephanie: [laughs] Seriously, I know. I'm just kidding. That never happened. April Fool! I totally got you! [laughs]
Adam: Oh, man. [laughs]
Stephanie: I totally got you.
Adam: For folks listening in, yes, we are recording on April first, April Fool's Day.
Stephanie: [laughs] That was so terrible, but Jared Spool would completely do something like that anyway. He probably has saved my life.
Adam: He is a super hero.
Stephanie: I'm sorry to bum everybody out who imagined Jared Spool in a Superman shirt. He probably does wear them. Anyway, that was dumb. I'm sorry. Thank you for humoring me. Now I've got to get into what I'm actually going to be talking about.

Why I said this actually relates a little bit to my talk is because this is the sort of ridiculous story that illustrates what's rampant in marketing, which is that people can sort of say whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. It's why recently, as an example, I just terminated my contract with Verizon. I was told by a real person, on the phone, that I'd have coverage in the UK. Which I didn't.

I landed in London. My buddy, Sebly, was going to be picking me up. He's driving up from Brighton, an hour and a half away. The snow had just fallen. I was stuck in Heathrow. I had no way of contacting him.

Here I had thought, because Verizon told me that I was going to have coverage, that I would have coverage. When I called to inquire why I didn't when I landed, they said, "No, it wouldn't have worked. Sorry." I was like, "What?" This is after the fact, but ahead of time they were all too happy to get my extra money.

Actually, is another example. It sounds awesome. It's this service that I found out from Des Traynor on Twitter one day. He suggested it was a great way to unsubscribe from emails all at once, so I gave it a try, but it totally destroyed my inbox. Let alone that it didn't actually give me one-click unsubscribe. It was, rather, just another interface to unsubscribe from emails one at a time.

In both of these cases, the untruths in the content, ones that go after the immediate sale rather than just telling me the truth about their product, up front, about what its capabilities are and being realistic about that, translated to, at least me, one person, not willing to pay them or use their product anymore, and talk about it on podcasts, too.

I have to imagine there is a coefficient about what happens because of this. Something viral on the disincentive side; that is, where I tell people about these experiences on podcasts like these or just in person. There is some percentage less likely to try the product now, people who hear about it. I'm assuming people have done some research on this.
Adam: Can you help me understand this? You're saying that content marketing isn't just about the one-to-one relationship that companies are trying to create with their customers? Is that what I'm hearing?
Stephanie: Exactly. Content marketing is the one-to-one-to-many relationship that companies build with their customer and that customer's network. Organizations fail when they prioritize getting the sale right now. Think classic, stereotypical bait and switch techniques we'd expect from, say, a super crappy mattress sales person. These sorts of techniques work against a company's ability to gain credibility if they can't deliver 100 percent.

That's what I mean when I'm talking about the Verizon or the examples. They couldn't deliver what they told me they were going to deliver, 100 percent. Even a version of that is still, to some degree, an untruth that you could totally prevent.

Then two people tweeted back to him, one saying something like, "United is the worst," another one saying, "I'm dreading getting on this United flight because of Jared's tweets." He's influencing how people feel about United just by talking about what's actually happening in his experience with their service.

That's why I worked so hard, in that recent virtual seminar that you opened with, to describe different ways you can build trust with people by (a) being honest about where you're at, what you can actually do, and then (b) delivering on those expectations.
Adam: Let's talk about the seminar. It was fantastic, by the way.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Adam: In it, you gave our audience eight techniques, four content related and four user experience techniques that organizations can use to make marketing and business decisions. One of the attendees later asked how enterprise companies can build trust with customers using landing pages or email campaigns.
Stephanie: The techniques I discuss in my seminar, namely, how to gather, analyze, and use data to make content and UX decisions that are real and truthful to customers. These techniques that I described in the seminar can be applied to any tool or channel and should.

I specifically cite microcopy in forms or email transactions in the seminar, but for general marketing, the takeaway is the same. Effective landing pages or email campaigns speak to people in the language they need to be spoken to in order to understand, because you have to understand something in order to be able to choose it confidently and to not get bitter when it's not right. Somebody says, "You didn't understand correctly." It's like, "Screw you! You didn't describe it correctly." That's the way life works.

It comes back to content being findable. Technically, for example, from search engines or navigation labels. It's got to be findable and then understandable so that a user can make that choice -- yes, no -- confidently.
Adam: You've worked with a lot of startups, including your own. How is startup marketing similar to or different from this example of enterprise organizations?
Stephanie: That's a great question. More than I think it's the industry -- is it an enterprise or is it a startup -- I think it depends on culture. Companies big or small that are committed internally and consistently to "data driven decision making," which is looking at their analytics on a regular basis, conducting concerted experiments, and then choosing how to grow and change their business based on that data, are inherently strategic.

These are organizations that are inherently strategic. They're not just throwing shit against the wall and going, "Did that work or not work?" Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. But organizations that really look at their data have a content strategy, even if they don't know they do. Their internal and external communications are responsive to and driven by this real commitment to analysis, this concerted analysis.

On the other hand, though, I've worked with startups and content-heavy organizations alike that invent their marketing in conference rooms filled with people that have strong opinions and arguments. That's what I mean about throwing it against the wall. Great ideas can come from anywhere.

Genius design is a thing. It's not just analyzing trends and data, though I tend to prefer this approach, personally. What I believe, politics and personalities exist in startups or big companies. The content strategy, in these kinds of environments, relies on who wins the room of decision makers.

That's a long way of saying that startups and enterprise organizations don't differ much in their goals. They want to grow or sustain their growth. They see marketing as a process for achieving that. Where they differ entirely is how they get there. Do they pay attention to the data and strategically decide how to move based on those interpretations, or do they take into account trends and throw ideas against the wall in hopes they stick?

Obviously, the world isn't so black and white, but in the content strategy work I've done for the past 10 years, most experiences do fall into one of these two buckets. In fact, honestly, the majority are driven by politics and personalities rather than data. I just happen to think that the user rarely wins in those situations.
Adam: Can you say a bit more about that? Why is that?
Stephanie: Because often this is where the product, service or language becomes overly complicated. This is where the confusion happens. When you're trying to win arguments in a boardroom that end up trying to translate to a user as the end result, it's like trying to balance someone's opinion of how things should be rather than being exactly what the user wants.

In an example, it's Microsoft Word versus Google Doc. I use this all the time. Microsoft Word has everything every user or decision maker has asked for, or so it seems. I don't use 90 percent of the features in Microsoft Word. The ones I do somehow create my formatting bugs. It just drives me bananas.

For example, I recently connected a UX audit. Fantastic product, been around for about a year, is changing the way conference calls are happening. You can do it by a link. You don't have a PIN. It's very cool. Anyway, they've just launched an iPhone app. It didn't really tie into their web-based app. Their web-based app was their original product. They were working on creating this DropBox integration and updating their UI so people could do a bunch of new things.

When I started working with them last year, I kept hammering them to give me data on a variety of their features. Which of these features are people actually using? Are people using the DropBox integration? That sort of thing. It turned out that the majority of the work or the things that even they were planning to do, it wasn't merited. People weren't using those features already.

66 percent of people were doing only the thing that they were doing since the company launched. They were having these conference calls. They were really psyched about it and doing a great job. 33 percent of the people were trying to use one of the features that came shortly after launch but hadn't really gotten much love.

It really wasn't working that well. Effectively, a third of the people were having a poor user experience. Two-thirds of the people were ignoring all the work that the company had done over the course of six months or something. Just the people that sit down and say, "Let's pay attention to this." It was really an enlightening experience for everybody who was involved. It completely re-prioritized the way that they needed to make design, business, and marketing decisions.

That's where the Google Docs side of things comes into play. It also manages to give me what I need. It's not perfect, but it seems to have found a place in being exactly what I need it to be, and millions of other users. That's also because Google has self-proclaimed -- the people I know who work there also validate it -- that it's a big data company. They pay attention to the data.
Adam: That also speaks to a question that came in during the virtual seminar. Vanessa asked, "What if CEOs or stake holders ignore that data evidence?" Say, from Google Analytics.
Stephanie: It's always going to happen because it's not so black and white. You can interpret the data however you see fit. That goes for you, the person analyzing it, just as much as the stakeholder listening. If I lose these arguments, if I say, "This is the data. You cannot ignore the data," and they ignore the data, I have to imagine it's probably because of the way I presented the data.

Maybe it was flawed. Maybe the way I gathered the data is flawed. Maybe I just failed to make a good argument as to why this thing I wanted to do is actually being supported by the evidence. This has all happened to me and continues to happen to me in life. What astounds me is how often the growth in subscriptions or payments or purchases just isn't there.

Somebody says to me, "We want more 'engagement.'" Then I say, "What's engagement mean to you?" They can't give me an answer. I can't go find any data to support this, because this is just some ambiguous term that they're using to make somebody else who's working with them happy.

If you can boil it down to, what is the actual metric? Is it subscriptions, payments, purchases or whatever? Then you can actually go find that data and track it back to that. Typically, those are the metrics that are really going to make stakeholders pay attention.

I would also say, on the other side of this, why people ignore it is because they think they need to think of what hasn't been done yet. "What haven't we done yet? What are we missing here?" [laughs] I don't know how many conversations I've been in. Too many. They're sort of fun, in a way. It's like, "Cool, we're all going to sit around and brainstorm something cool and innovative."

Honestly, this comes back down to content, too. I am such a big believer in simplification. It's not so much, "What haven't we thought of?" But, "What have we done now that we over-complicated? What are we telling people that just isn't true, that isn't meeting their expectations?" If your numbers are showing that you don't have growth somewhere, it may very well be a symptom of what you're confusing, not what you're missing.

This is such a core element of why so many awesome startups fail, too. This worked for Armslist as much as it's worked for Google Docs. Actually, Jared just wrote a post on this recently about an e-commerce company that spent millions of dollars redoing its purchasing process. You should link to that in the description here. After they spent millions to redo their purchase process, their transactions dropped by 40 percent or something, which translates to millions of dollars for some of these big companies.

I'm sorry, but CEOs and stakeholders cannot ignore that unless they want to lose their jobs. So I'd say UXers and content strategists, people who are core to planning these experiences, need to think about that end result. What is the bottom line to the CEO or the stakeholder, really?

This is not going for everybody, but they don't feel that empathy that we as practitioners might feel about the users in the same way. They're thinking about, "What is that metric?" It's our job, our responsibility to think like a business person when we're analyzing and presenting the data. Users' feelings are often inherently part of that data if we're just willing to own up to it. It's our responsibility to pay attention to that.
Adam: Cool. Couple more questions. You have time for us?
Stephanie: Sure.
Adam: Rebecca wanted to know if you could speak a bit more to determining how to balance the amount of detail you provide up front. In other words, how do we avoid overloading the user right up front with too much information?
Stephanie: This is great. This is another reason to pay attention to the data. In a really concerted content strategy, where you're working arm-in-arm with user testing, you can and should test what at this level are the core questions that a user has that we need to answer.

What are the keywords that the user needs to see in order to feel like he or she can keep scrolling, can click here, can keep reading, or whatever the next step is? The goal here is to know your business so well that you can set up a conversation with users in the same way that you might have a conversation in real life.

I was working with a client recently where we did this workshop. I said, "I want you to do some role reversal. The person sitting across from you is you. You are your user. Start asking questions about your product as if you were the user." They elicited all these questions that they had had as users, that they didn't know how to answer because they weren't thinking about the conversation. They were only thinking about what they could say.

You know your business so well, but if you can get out of your own mind a little bit, get into the user's shoes, and think about what the conversation is like on the other side, you can filter very quickly what's the core content you need to have up front, and what is the way that that conversation continues to flow, where the person continues to give more detail as those core questions continue to be answered.

To be able to have an offline conversation with somebody that's realistic...What are the sorts of questions that somebody asks in the first 10, 20, 30 seconds of a conversation about your product or service?

Structure your content. Content hierarchy, the navigation, the interactions, everything follows that conversation. Then what you've done is created a flow that gives the user exactly the kind of information he or she needs up front, without anything else, because it's just mimicking a natural conversation. It leads into the detail as it would naturally if you were having that conversation in real life.

That's the core of it. To find that balance, you have to have conversations offline. I think you have to have conversations offline that are realistic. The best way that I tend to help people do this is to have them reverse roles. Suddenly, you as a subject matter expert? Nope. You're not the subject matter expert anymore. You're the user. Start asking the person sitting across the table from you. That helps people to think about what that conversation might actually be.
Adam: Can you talk a bit about building trust once you've got a user in a flow already? Then it's time to get them to give you some sensitive information, say, a social security number?
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. If you're going to have these or PayPal experiences where you have to have the person give you some sensitive data, this requires transparency and trust more than just a marketing website where you're clicking around and there isn't this sort of ask.

We were doing this with Fast Customer. We had to get people's phone numbers in order to work. In order for our application to actually work, we had to get a phone number. So we would say, over and over again, to the point where we felt like it was redundant, "We're not going to use your phone number for anything. We would never, ever sell your data." Still, we would get emails from people on a regular basis asking us, "Why are you asking for my phone number? What are you going to do with my data?"

I is a concern. The best way to continually build trust with people...The Netflix signup process, for example, is that when you're asking for something sensitive from someone, tell them why you're asking for it exactly, and then reassure them that you'll never do anything with it except use it in order to do whatever you need it for in the first place. To be able to be transparent about that and up front about it is the best way to reassure the person who's giving you that information that it's OK to do it.

Beyond that, it's all just delivering on that process. The first time that something gets hacked or the first time that you get an email that you didn't agree to and it's got some sensitive data is probably going to be the last. People are not cool with that, nor should they be. Being transparent about it and then protecting it fiercely is the best way to account for building trust over time.
Adam: Do you have any recommendations for how design teams can balance search engine optimized language versus natural language, plain language?
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. I love this. So often, natural language is already what is the keyword in the search engine. People don't use words like "convert, increase, decrease." These are sales and marketing words that we think we have to have on our home pages. We don't. They certainly don't need to exist in title tags and meta-description content on the page, as well.

I would say to find the natural language just takes going to Google AdWords keyword tool. Just go to the Google keywords tool. Start looking for what are the words that people are using in your space.

Let's say you're trying to sell a board game. You go to Google AdWords keyword tool. You're looking for board games. You start searching for some titles of specific board games, chess or something like that. You're just in there exploring what kinds of searches and how many monthly searches, globally even, that people are using as part of their regular language. Which of those things can you translate to your home page?

Maybe you've got some meta-copy that's already got that information in it, keyword-rich copy. But a lot of it is just getting comfortable as a culture to use the kind of language that people use in real life, moving away from the marketing words that we've come to expect from a lot of these sites that are not SEO optimized and are not person-optimized either. They're doing nobody good except the person who writes it and feels pretty good about him or herself.
Adam: Steph, thanks so much for joining us again and talking a bit more about some of the questions that folks had. To our audience, thanks for listening in, for your support of the UIE virtual seminar program.