What You Say and How You Say It

by Alexis Ohanian

This chapter is a free excerpt from Make Something People Love: Lessons From a Startup Guy.

I talked a little bit about surprise and delight, and it’s something you can apply to every aspect of your product. Some of my favorite examples of it are in places where you simply wouldn’t expect.

Groupon has an unsubscribe feature, just like every other mailing list, except what they do is a little different: when you click “unsubscribe,” you’re taken to a video of a gentleman named Derrick. There is a button beneath him that says “PUNISH DERRICK,” because after all, he was the one who thought it’d be a good idea to sign you up for the mailing list. When you press that button the video starts to play and another gentleman comes over to Derrick, splashes coffee in his face, and then throws the empty cup at him. It is amusing and satisfying to watch Derrick be punished (for whatever base human reasons), and once it’s over you have an option to re-subscribe.

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I talked a little bit about surprise and delight, and it’s something you can apply to every aspect of your product. Some of my favorite examples of it are in places where you simply wouldn’t expect.

Groupon has an unsubscribe feature, just like every other mailing list, except what they do is a little different: when you click “unsubscribe,” you’re taken to a video of a gentleman named Derrick. There is a button beneath him that says “PUNISH DERRICK,” because after all, he was the one who thought it’d be a good idea to sign you up for the mailing list. When you press that button the video starts to play and another gentleman comes over to Derrick, splashes coffee in his face, and then throws the empty cup at him. It is amusing and satisfying to watch Derrick be punished (for whatever base human reasons), and once it’s over you have an option to re-subscribe.

 

I don’t know what Groupon’s re-subscription rate is, but I suspect it’s significantly higher than everyone else’s. Frankly, unsubscribing is a tedious process that we all hate. It’s irritating to click the little link at the very bottom of the email, and even more irritating to click through all the confirmation buttons on some website. Groupon’s taken this awful, agonizing thing and made it into something simple and funny and surprising that just might get us to sign back up.

Now, they’re not the only ones. We’re currently experiencing something like a 404 page (aka error page) Renaissance. Instead of just putting “Oh, there’s no page here, Dummy. What were you thinking?” some creative people have turned this common, irksome fact of web life into a chance to surprise and delight. In some instances we’ve seen rips of famous internet memes. In reddit’s case, we actually now let our users create the 404 pages:

One more advantage for user-generated websites: user-generated 404s
 

It’s just a silly graphic of the reddit alien looking confused, but a great opportunity to catch someone off-guard (surprise and delight!), when they’re having a less than happy moment. You can either make them laugh or give them something useful. Why not? It shows that you enjoy working on your website and that you care enough to make sure your users enjoy using it.

In addition, don't underestimate the value of copy. Especially if you are in a small organization, where you can get away with things that larger ones can't. Try a search on hipmunk for a flight to Vegas. You'll notice the text up at the top changes to “Vegas Baby” as the destination. This is a little thing yet every week I see tweets about it because someone was booking a flight from San Francisco to Vegas and had an LOL moment when they saw that the destination had been changed to Vegas Baby.

 

This was a quick little copy change that Steve, our CTO, made and pushed live one night. This is the kind of thing that doesn't take a meeting to decide and it's not something that plays well in a lot of bureaucracy. But it's something that's light-hearted, fun, and surprising, taking something that would otherwise be a mundane experience (booking a flight) and making it exciting, because, hey, it's a flight to Vegas, right? It should be exciting! And I routinely see tweets from users excited about those two words.

Dropping little Easter eggs like this are absolutely the way to go, and if you've got a small developer team you've got no excuse not to do it. When you're in the code, you’re just a few characters away from throwing in a silly joke—so why not do it? Copy matters. Please focus on building a community that your users would want to be a part of, and use everything you’ve got--words included.

Imagine it just like someone coming in to a neighborhood for the first timethe brownstones or industrial buildings they see will define their impression of that neighborhood. Likewise, all the little details you put in your website, all the way down to the copy on the error messages, will give someone an impression of what kind of neighborhood and community this is. If you want them to be a part of it, you've got to be someone who is a member of the community, as well the person who sets the example. If your users are going to make your company a success, they need to believe in it as much as you do.

Challenge!

Rethink the 404 page for your website. Every website has one—rethink it. Make it random. Make it something that embraces whatever it is you stand for. Make it funny. Make it sympathetic. Make it whatever. It's got to be whatever you are. In fact, let's go a step further. Rethink all of the most boring pages on your website, right down to the copy when someone signs up. There should be an opportunity everywhere on your site to re-imagine how someone engages with it. Make them feel like they are part of something bigger, that they are part of a community that means as much to them as it does to you.
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