Seven properties of effective messages

The messages you send to customers need to work hard and work fast if they’re to engage with any real purpose. Attention is fleeting, your customers are busy and the swathes of digital detritus we’re hit with each and every minute are effortlessly filtered out.

Not only do messages need to be targeted if they’re to reach the right customer, they also need to be expertly crafted if they are going to produce the desired result.

Regardless of the type of message you’re sending – whether it’s a super-hyped product announcement or a gentle we haven’t seen you in a while mood appraiser – there are some fundamental characteristics every message should have.

We’ve identified seven unshakable tenets of message craft. Get these right from the get-go or everything that follows will be a waste of time.

1. Be personal

We’ve all experienced the let-down; a message from a business we’ve been dealing with forever that opens “Dear Sir/Madam”. Being recognized as an individual with a name, particular needs, wants and desires even, is a rare and wonderful thing. Making the effort to establish a personal tone, without getting all hail-fellow-well-met about it, is the best start to meaningful engagement with your customers. At Intercom we start most of our messages, “Hi first name” which falls back to “Hi there”, if for some reason we don’t have the person’s first name.

From a message style point of view, we mostly use our in-app chat or plain text emails to send messages to our customers for the very good and simple reason that they feel handwritten and direct. We know they’ll get better engagement than something that looks like it was sent to the masses.

But remember dear frendo, not everything should to be all 1:1 either. It’s important to moderate the “Hi Buddy” factor – no one likes false friendliness from folks they’ve never met. These are your customers and users so don’t speak to them like you would your close friends. A safe barometer from our customer support team suggests a good personal tone is akin to leaving a voicemail for an aunt you’ve never met: warm and friendly, but respectful about what you don’t yet know.

2. Personalize the message

So, while you’re keeping it all warm and personal, you also need to ensure the content of your messages is personalised – that means specific and appropriate to the user.

A powerful feature for creating personalised messages is to include custom attributes in each message, specific to each user. For example, you could contact everyone who has nearly reached storage capacity in your photo sharing app, and let them know exactly how much space they have left. Or why not message users who have incorrect integrations? Maybe you could mail your customers about their incomplete orders? Or, you could message your customers about their unfinished projects to encourage them to revisit them.

3. Be polite

This one should really go without saying, but let’s say it: “be nice to people”. It’s amazing how many business emails come across as arrogant or rude, when clearly that was never the intent. Here’s a short checklist to keep you on the right side of nice:

  • Be respectful: Your users have given you permission to email them so don’t abuse their inbox. Remember they don’t need to know how they can make your life easier.
  • DON’T SHOUT: Write to your customers in the same way you would talk to them face to face. Lay off the Caps lock, extreme fonts, red text and bold; if it’s that important, they’ll get it.
  • Be yourself: Avoid all business-y robotic-type language and jargon. You want to sound friendly, natural, and personal – it’s actually easier than speaking more formally.
  • Consider cultural and regional differences: Avoid slang, it can so easily get lost in translation across different geographies. Watch your calendar and be aware of major holidays in other parts of the world. What might be an oversight to you might display a lack of insight to your loyal customers.

4. Get to the point

Brevity can be so much more than the soul of wit. In messaging it can be the difference between onboard and ennui. Of course you’re rightly proud of your work, but go on about it at length in your messages and your customers will switch off in droves. We’re all busy people, so do yourself and your users a favour and get to the point.

5. Get it right

None of us get it right all of the time, but we can at least strive for perfection in our customer communications. For example, there’s nothing more likely to damage your relationship with a customer than getting their name wrong. Address John as Joan, or Joseph as Joe and you’re on rocky ground from the outset. Spelling and punctuation are equally critical; get them wrong and you look sloppy. Similarly, don’t waste your customers’ precious time – never ask customers on a free plan to update their billing information, or in fact any customer to provide information you don’t need.

6. Be relevant

Consider an expiration date for your messages – it makes no sense to tell people about your “exciting new feature” six weeks after it was introduced. Likewise, it’s also worth avoiding relative terms such as “this October” “tomorrow” or “next week”. Keep it simple and give the date – “tomorrow (April 5th)”, “next Tuesday (April 5th)” or “in April” can’t be misunderstood by anyone.

7. Use the right tone and voice

Striking the right tone and voice are crucial in ensuring consistency across all business messages and outbound communications. Companies like MailChimp and Buffer have shared their own style guides on the subject, which are worth reading before you prepare your own. At Intercom we’ve also shared why we think a style guide is so important.

A company’s voice will resonate with their customers and build trust across all communications, supporting the brand and maintaining consistency. A bank’s voice will always be different to the one used by your local coffee shop. Tone is more subtle and depends on the context of the message – casual for invites, but business where it’s needed.

Your message checklist

Crafting the right message is by no means a straight forward task, but introducing these characteristics of good message craft, and checking every outbound message for them, will greatly improve customer engagement and action on the recipient’s part.

This post has been adapted from Intercom on Customer Engagement, our book on sending the right people, the right message, in the right way, at the right time. You can download a free copy.