Send the perfect message with the five Ws

Main illustration: Marleigh Culver

Sending high-impact, well-timed and targeted messages requires insight and laser-sharp focus on your recipients.

No amount of clicks and opens can match the returns that authentic and meaningful human-to-human communication delivers. We’ve assembled this handy overview of the Five Ws of Who, What, When, Where, and Why so you can send messages that truly engage your customers.

1. Why are you sending this message?

This is always the first question to ask. Every message needs a clearly defined goal – whether it’s getting people to login for the first time, or upgrade to a new plan. Knowing precisely what you want to achieve and the action you expect from your users is essential if you’re to realize and measure the true impact of a message.

With Intercom, you can use Message Goals to set and track specific message actions you want your users to take. So, if the goal of the message was to turn free users into paid users, you can measure that. Or if the goal was to encourage users who don’t have an avatar to upload one, you can track that too. It’s all measurable – whether it’s a one-off message or a campaign of messages.

You simply can’t communicate without a stated goal. Focus your objective, or you’ll struggle to hit the target.

2. What are you saying?

At Intercom, we understand the value of keeping all your customer communications authentic and personal; in fact, we live and breathe by it. Regardless of the message goal(s), there are five key characteristics that should apply to what you’re sending. Get these right from the get-go or everything that follows will be a waste of time.

  • Stay personal: We start most of our messages with “Hi Joe” (unless of course your name isn’t Joe). If for some reason we don’t have the person’s first name, the message falls back to “Hi there.” We also choose in-app chat or plain text emails to message our customers for the simple reason that they feel more personal and direct. They’ll get better engagement than something that looks like it was sent to the masses.
  • Staying relevant and timely: Make sure any message you send is targeted, specific, and appropriate to the right customers, or the note will quickly find itself in the trash.
  • Be polite and sensitive: This is key to healthy engagement. SHOUTING and overused synergistic business jargon scream of insincerity.
  • Use the appropriate voice and tone: As your company grows, a style guide is an essential tool for keeping all parties on the same page.
  • Get to the point quickly and correctly: Remember that your customers have got other things to do. Respect their time, and help them get the most out your message.

3. Who are you targeting?

Any message that doesn’t define the right recipient will fail. The key to effective communication with your customers is identifying and managing meaningful segments that everyone can understand.

This begins with thinking of the user, not the user base. It never makes sense to talk to all of your customers at one time. It’s better to segment your customers based on their activity. For example, target engaged users with new features you think they should try out, rather than pitching them features they’ve already used.

It is possible to get even more granular and tailor your messages to behavior.

Customers will stop using your product for many different reasons. These inactive or disengaged users can be segmented depending on their prior activity, and targeted with relevant messages about all the new things your product can do for them now. (You have made product improvements, right?)

Other key segments we’ve used include free and premium. We also segment power users, trusted testers, recently cancelled users, recently contacted, sensitive users, VIPs and friends, and users of each key feature.

If you want to deliver messages that are truly personal, it is possible to get even more granular and tailor your messages to behavior. Using Intercom’s Events feature, an automated message can be sent as soon as Events happen, such as right after someone uses a feature and you’re looking for feedback, or when someone has frequently used the conversation tool, but hasn’t tried the mentions feature yet. It’s a great way to send timely and contextual messages, at the exact moment your customers are likely to take action.

4. When will you send it?

There are a number of distinct aspects of time you need to consider, but once you’ve considered the impact of all of them you’ll be well positioned to start writing your messages.

  • Time of day: We’ve found that the peak open rate for all types of messages across Intercom is 10-11am (in the local user’s timezone). This matches what we’d consider “normal” patterns of behavior. Most people do a quick triage of email and notifications first thing in the morning, archiving (or ignoring) those that are irrelevant, seeing if there’s anything urgent, and leaving everything else unopened until they get to work.
  • Frequency: If you are sending too often, your subscribers are likely to tune out what you have to say. Even worse, if you start showing up in their inbox unannounced, or worse still uninvited, they will start to tag you as spam. A recent study of attitudes towards email marketing found 44% of respondents wanted to receive less email from companies and brands, with 46% saying they flagged email as spam if they received too many messages from the same company. At Intercom we ensure all messages to customers have a filter of “last contacted > 2 days” which is the minimum you should consider to avoid annoyance.
  • Local time: The time of day when someone receives a message can have a huge bearing on its effectiveness. This is why it’s incredibly useful to be able to segment your users according to their geography – when it’s lunchtime in San Francisco, it’s late evening in Berlin. In Intercom, you can use “delivery windows”, so your message will only send to users during a time specified by you. For users outside that window we’ll hold the message and deliver it when the window opens again.

5. Where will they receive it?

The context in which a customer receives your message – where people will be when they see it, or the device they’re viewing from – has a major influence on its effectiveness. Consider these scenarios carefully.

Intercom lets you target where your message will be seen first.

Assuming your message gets a look in between real-world distractions such as kids, news, exercise and social media, you may just be a blip on the early morning email scan. These messages should be kept to announcements. Don’t expect users to meaningfully act on anything first thing in the morning.

In-app messages are far better performers and are always in context. These are best received during an evening on the couch or a lunchtime browse, and are equally effective via desktop or a mobile device.

Meanwhile, push notifications are best sent when mobile usage is highest. Andrew Chen has pulled together some excellent data which shows that while brands are sending a ton of pushes leading up to the evening (and dropping off quickly after), open rates are actually higher after 6pm. The data is clear – send push notifications between 6 and -8pm when engagement is at its highest.

Intercom lets you target where your message will be seen first. In-app messages can be set to deliver to an Android app, iOS app, web app, or the next place a user is seen.

Getting your messages seen, read and engaged with by customers is no simple task, but filtering your goals and prose through the 5 Ws can guide the process. Give each message the time and thought it deserves, and you’re more likely to receive real and measurable returns.

customer engagement