Copywriting is an organic part of design

Bogdana
8 min readJun 11, 2023
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

When I was doing my marketing degree in London, we had a dorm colleague who was doing a masters in communications. Our dorms had shared bathrooms and kitchens and the kitchens in particular were treated very much like communal areas where people could leave some of their essentials— labelled and organised, ofc. So, there were pots and pans and spice jars that people stored and labelled, and occasionally mishaps happened and people would leave notes on the fridge door or on the cupboards to ask the other kitchen users to replace or return something. And in this kitchen, our colleague doing her MA spent most of her time taking photos of the notes and attempting to figure out who had written each one so she could interview them. Every time a note about the kitchen would go up, she would add a post it saying “If you wrote this note, please get in touch with me as I’d like to interview you for my MA thesis”.

I caught up with her one evening in the shared downstairs area and asked about her thesis focus and she told me she was trying to use the notes to demonstrate fundamental principles of Saussurian signifier theory. She said she had found that, without exception, the notes had different interpretations in the mind of those who wrote them than those reading them.

I was reminded of this story over the weekend when I walked past a local church. Pinned to the door, scribbled in ball pen an A4 “shouted”: “No confessions today!!”. I used “shouted” because that how I read the note when I saw it. The writing was hurried, large, capitalised, the writing line ascending like rising intonation and the two exclamation marks made a single, solid impression on me: the author of the note was angry. Of course, the intention of the author was almost definitely not what his/her note seemed to give out. Most likely the intention was to signal importance; they were not saying “get the hell out of here, there’s no confessions today!!” but rather “please, it is important that you note that there will be no confessions today”.

_____________________________

During one of the classes in my Cyberpsychology course at IATD, we covered CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) and spoke at length about how the medium of digital communication skews preexisting interpretations/ perceptions of meaning in written, and sometimes even verbal communication. We discussed that fact that punctuation in emails is a signifier of gender bias, that emojis can be passive aggressive and create counter-cultural communication patterns and even looked at how digital copywriting created one of the scariest traps of online writing known as click-baiting (which is really just smart ways to write titles to meaningless stories).

And last week I was reminded of all of the above when, again, I was reflecting on how travel and the experience of booking travel has become more and more digitised and, maybe simpler, but in some cases, definitely less meaningful.

I have already spoken about Deterrence CX in a previous post and discussed my “hero” candidate for the unwanted award of Best at Deterrent CX, the Eurostar. Today’s example is a continuation of that idea but focused on how copywriting is an organic part of the customer experience and therefore a key consideration in your design practice.

Consider the below emails:

(1) SNCF Initial automated email
(2) Eurostar initial automated email
(3) SNCF Reply email from customer team
(4) Eurostar Reply email from customer team

Briefly, if it’s not clear from the messages in French, I was on a delayed TGV in France and, having been informed on the train that I was entitled to compensation, I wrote them an email asking for that compensation and received two replies. The Eurostar messages are about a cancelled train which I was trying to seek compensation for. I won’t go into the experience of finding out about the compensation options but I do want to look very closely at the language and structure of these messages to show how much the components, words, tone and punctuation can affect experience and, ultimately, perception.

The initial emails are automated so they are shorter but the SNCF one (1) includes some important, positive features:

  • acknowledgement of the receipt and confirmation of a registration number
  • information about response time (albeit vague)
  • a link where one can track the progress of the claim with the language specifically saying “track progress”
  • signature by a “team”
  • polite, affable tone of voice
  • using words which suggest control of situation, evolution, support

Compare that with the Eurostar initial automated email (2) where there is curt acknowledgment of contact (wrong name), no reference number followed by a lengthy list of things they are NOT able to do, closed with a poorly worded link to track your complaint which actually is not meant to help you track it but rather to amend it. Signed, again very curtly, as Customer Care.

Now, I admit that my perception of the differences may be tainted by a few things: my level of proficiency in English vs French (I am much more advanced in English) and the fact that the Eurostar initially denied my claim having misunderstood the details. But those aside, there is no way to look at those two emails and not sense that behind the SNCF one there is an affable, amiable group of people who are willing to help, whereas behind the Eurostar one there is maybe one very tired Customer Care rep who really just wants you to go away. Incidentally, I went to speak to a Eurostar CC rep in the station in Paris and they could not have been nicer, the tone of the email is definitely a problem as is the unwarranted focus on the things they will NOT do for you.

If you look at the emails (3) and (4) received from SNCF and Eurostar, the differences become starker. The SNCF one (3) contains multiple details to enable you to understand what the email is about, as well as clear language as to what the outcome of the claim is AND apologies and reassurance. This, by the way, is the correct way to react to having caused a problem to a client. The language in the email reflects the correct attitude: apologetic, ready to help, affable, transparent, clear. The email makes it clear that there are rules in place, that these have been followed and that the company recognises the inconvenience caused and is sorry about it. There are further links for the customer to be able to follow up or add to this. Notice also, how they speak mostly about how the customer feels and then about how they acted: “you have contacted us and then we…” “You have told us and then we…” “Having analysed your …”; this is a wonderful way to make the language about the person reading the email not the person/entity sending it.

Compare and contrast with the Eurostar email (4) which, by the way, refers to a much worse “offence” — a cancelled train which caused the customer (me) to need to pay for an overnight hotel. Language and tone are not fit for purpose again: curt acknowledgement of contact, 3 lines to say your claim is not compliant so it’s rejected. No apology, no sorry statement. And the entire email is about the person in customer care: “I have reviewed..” “I have decided”. No links, no recourse.

How much of the terrible interaction with the Eurostar could have been saved by the following email:

“Dear Bogdana,

The Team here at Eurostar thanks you for getting in touch. You have reached out to discuss a train cancellation on your trip number … on date … and we will be happy to assist you with your compensation claim.

To start with we are extremely sorry for the inconvenience created and are working to assist you as best we can.[option to insert warning about delays in assistance due to large number of claims]

Please keep your reference number below somewhere safe as it will be the easiest way to get in touch with us regarding this claim. You can always come back to this email and click on the number to view the progress of your “dossier”. If you would like to revise something about the claim, please use the same link below

Reference number: xxxx (link) / please keep this safe.

We would like to inform you of our compensation policies below. Do take some time to review these as they may provide faster ways to obtain compensation.

  • links to compensation policies

Your claim will be reviewed by our compensation team and you should expect a response in no more than xx days. If we require more information from you, we will get in touch presently.

If you need to contact us via phone or chat, please find links below.

Again, we would like to apologise for the inconvenience caused and we remain at your disposal throughout this process.

Name/ Job role

/more relevant links/”

I’ve bolded out some relevant improvements

  • the obvious stuff: clearly mentioning trip details, reference numbers and reason of claim
  • the nice stuff: apologising, speaking of team, speaking of speed of process, starting with apologies
  • the useful stuff: links to where the claim can be tracked, to other ways to contact, links to policies
  • the brand stuff: I noticed the Eurostar likes to pepper their English with French words so inserted “dossier”, tone of voice, etc
  • the trust stuff: signed by someone with a last name and an actual role name

I cannot stress enough how important it is that we look at copywriting as part and parcel of the design process since in many situations the experience of the service is impacted more than we realise by the ways in which language is applied to form.

In other news, I promise I will stop with the Eurostar now :) but I sure do hope they review their copywriting guidelines. It would do them a world of good.

--

--

Bogdana

CX Strategist and Design Director. Recovering Internet lover. Write about technology, design and what I watch/listen to/read.