Default text is destructive

Let your users write for themselves

Remember back in early October, when New York Comic Con attendees unwittingly tweeted a bunch of enthusiastic praise for the convention upon entering the venue? Ticket-holders discovered that natural-seeming automatic tweets had been sneakily worked into the terms of the RFID badge ticketing system for the event, without this ‘feature’ being made clear. The event organizers eventually apologized and put an end to the auto-tweets.

Few were surprised by the Comic Con backlash. After all, we geeks in particular can be pretty darn picky about our own writing. As much as we may hate to admit it, the advent of social media means that to some extent we each have a personal brand that we’re promoting on some level, as lame as that may sound. That brand’s overall message gets diluted when an automated post shoves a bunch of cryptic hashtags, out-of-context headlines, unnatural text, or awkward URL shorteners in there.

I’d wager that while Comic Con attendees may have felt their privacy was violated and their safety compromised with those auto-tweets, those concerns weren’t the core of their outrage. The true ire lay in the fact that they wouldn’t have tweeted like that themselves, and they didn’t appreciate Comic Con putting words in their mouths and timelines. The reaction was against this eerie new form of reverse plagiarism—How dare you attribute that lame quote to me I would NEVER use that hashtag!

I’m consistently surprised by how poorly most social media default text is implemented. Striving for an authentic, realistic voice seems like the obvious way to entice customers into using templates to auto-tweet an opinion about a business, or a link to an article. Even though the organizers of New York Comic Con are largely viewed as having been in the wrong, I respect that they at least understood the value of trying to mimic natural human communication patterns. Yet that level of detail in social marketing automation is still atypical. Even the slickest, most forward-thinking tech companies can fall flat when it comes to default text implementation.

When Google Reader shut down, many of us RSS addicts migrated to Feedly. Feedly is beautifully designed and incredibly slick to use. But despite the gorgeous interface and robust functionality, the social aspect still kinda sucks. When you tweet a link from a Feedly subscription in their web client, the tweet syntax is
{headline} {URL} {via @feedly}
Fair enough. This is bland, sure, but it’s also the most common syntax across all publishers and reader services. However, Feedly’s iPhone app syntax is much worse. A tweet appears as
{“feed name”} good read
with a link auto-included at the end. That’s right. No closing punctuation. No capitalization. Not even the article title. Just
good read

Heck, even Apple is guilty of lame default text syndrome. If you tweet a link to an app from the iOS App Store, er, app, the tweet syntax is
{app name} {(supported device types separated by ampersand)} {by {developer name}}
This is Apple we’re talking about; alleged king of the tech tastemakers. Apple thinks you want to tweet the developer name and the supported device types. You know, because those are the kind of riveting details that will help further your personal brand. (The Mac App Store tweet syntax foregoes the device types and developer name, but it appends #MacAppStore. Let’s call it a wash.)

I’m gonna propose something radical here—everyone scrap the entire syntax, immediately. Tear it all down. Just tweet out the bare URL. Or better yet, force your customers to actually include a word or two of their own.

I’m an online dating coach. It’s a weird job; a huge part of what I help people do is remember to behave like humans. Here’s an example of how people stop behaving like humans in my industry: straight guys, frustrated by low response rates from women, start to broaden their outreach by messaging a larger number of potentially less compatible women. This gets tedious, so they begin to automate the messages they send to gals.

Following a formula (skim her profile, find one identifying detail, mention it as a common interest, maybe find another detail if you’re feeling studious, quickly formulate a broad question about it to invite conversation, hit send) is the most efficient plan: it’s easy compared to agonizing over a charming cold opener, or actually reading every field of all those profiles, and then taking the time to write creatively to each person. To treat each individual outreach effort with care and attention to detail would be wildly inefficient. Formulaic online dating communication became increasingly popular; online dating sites hopped on board to make automatic outreach even easier.

eHarmony released a feature they touted as “Guided Communication” several years ago, which automated messaging a potential date even further. Now, instead of coming up with all those specific details and questions about a person’s actual written content, users could choose to initiate communication via a series of multiple choice Q&A options. Would you rather… read a book, or go out to the movies? Eat a cupcake, or eat a slice of pie? Own a dog, or own a cat?

OkCupid implemented a series of ‘Match Questions,’ foisted upon users in a broad, data-driven push. In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear fallout be kind of exciting? That’s a popular one. Here’s another: Do you like the taste of beer? Developer and co-founder Christian Rudder has regularly trumpeted the correlation between a woman’s affirmative response to this question, and the statistical likelihood of that woman sleeping with you on the first date. That’s a loaded multiple choice question.

This trend of putting words into peoples’ mouths on the web has only grown; it’s now an integral part of the once intimate communication path with a potential mate. As stressful, frustrating, inefficient, and awkward as it may be to compose original messages to every profile you’re interested in, I can’t believe the multiple choice cop-out is a better alternative. It certainly didn’t appeal to me; I ultimately fled from sites like eHarmony and OkCupid in favor of the character-limit-free wilds of Craigslist. I found my husband there, after receiving more than a few smarmy messages. But at least my path to love didn’t involve multiple choice.

After finding my spouse on the Internet and helping a couple pals do the same, I eventually started this crazy business helping people find love online. I’m nervous about entrepreneurship; I’ve learned that my strengths do not lie in things like graphic design, bookkeeping, or tracking conversions. I’m in it for the more human aspects, like the supportive emails during dry spells, the cheerleading morning-after-first-date texts, and the triumphant flush of the newly engaged sending me a pic of where it all went. But in order to get to all that, I attend a bunch of Meetups to figure out what the hell I’m doing as a business owner.

Good to see you. Good to see you too! Meetup’s automated greeting interface feels the most disingenuous to me; it’s such a low barrier to entry. You seriously just click this button next to another attendee’s name on the event page.

BEFORE: Was it good to see Bethany? Tell her so with a mere click!
AFTER: Thank goodness that to-do item has been checked off my list. How cumbersome it was.

When you click, the system sends the member an email with the syntax {first name} said it was good to see you! as the subject line, and presents you with this handy response interface in the body:

If there’s a difference in those red color values, blame Meetup. I copied their assets exactly. :)

I can’t support this. I just can’t. If it was actually good to see someone, tell them so at the Meetup. Send them an email. Text them. i-friggin-Message them. Send them a DM or an @-mention on Twitter. Comment on their Facebook wall, if you must. But please, don’t just click the red button saying it was good to see them too. It can’t have been all that good if you weren’t even moved to use a keyboard.

I swear I’m not a complete Luddite about this stuff. I’ve seen some playful and interesting marketing techniques with default text. Eat24 has done such a good job of creating amusing faux-user-generated content that even tweet-picky customers like me are inspired to leave the default text and hit send. Take a look at their Twitter timeline; you’ll see retweets from more than a few real customers who took advantage of this feature. However, the Eat24 folks are the exception, perhaps because their smooth implementation of witty default text is such a stark contrast from most awkward social marketing attempts.

I’d love to see a world in which brands quit trying to put words in our mouths, and just let us tweet the way archaic SMS character limit restrictions intended. But in our increasingly automated world, I suspect that OkCupid’s infamous nuclear fallout scenario would have to happen first. Hashtag fail.