Successful communication

Paul Boag

We put a lot of time and attention into the content on our sites, but what about our other communications?

We send out newsletters, post blogs, participate in forums. All of these reflect on our brand and the way we are perceived. How can we improve the way we communicate?

Good communication is dependent on two factors:

  • When you communicate
  • How you communicate

Get this wrong and you risk seriously damaging the relationship with your users.

When to communicate

The schedule of your communications are always important, whether posting to a blog or sending out a newsletter. Send too many communications and it becomes irritating, too few and they forget about you.

There is no frequency that is always right. To a large extent it depends on the nature of your site. If your site sends out stock market tips then users may expect updates every few minutes. However, if you sell a service that is purchased once every couple of years then sending out communications every few weeks will be enough to keep you in their minds.

The key is not so much frequency as regularity. Users should come to expect your communications. Communicating on an ad-hoc basis becomes frustrating, especially with blog posts, newsletters or podcasts.

However, communication does not have to be completely dictated by a schedule. You can also have trigger based communications. These are normally emails sent to a specific individual rather than the whole community. They are sent in response to a specific event rather than a schedule.

A common trigger based communication is an email sent to somebody who has just purchased from an ecommerce site. These typically include an email confirming the transaction but also one when the goods are dispatched. These emails are extremely important and yet are often overlooked in the development process.

Trigger based communication are also useful in encouraging repeat traffic. Most website communities have a large number of ‘sleepers’. These are individuals who have signed up for your site but have stopped using it. It is possible to monitor user activity and if they stop using the service an email can be automatically sent tempting them back with incentives or new content.

However, never forget the golden rule of user communication; do not contact users without their permission. Nothing will damage your sites reputation faster and destroy your community than spam.

Take a few moments to consider your communication strategy. When might it be appropriate to send out trigger emails? Are you collecting user’s contact details and is it legitimate to contact them? What methods you are going to use to communicate and on what schedule?

Your communications with users needs the same attention you gave your sites copy. This includes not only when to communicate, but how.

How to communicate

There are lots of communication tools out there including blogs, podcasts, email and RSS. However, these are just technologies and don’t get to the heart of how to communicate. Communication is about what you say and how you say it.

Always remember when communicating with users to make it personal. Whether it is in a forum or posting to your blog, people like to talk to people not faceless corporations. Whenever possible write as ‘Jim from Marketing’ rather than as ‘Acme inc.’ People are less critical and more receptive when dealing with a individual rather than an organisation.

Although your aim is to demonstrate that your organisation is made up of ‘real people’, that does not mean you do not need no unifying voice.

Know your voice

The danger individual employees engaging with your users is that your organisation sends out mixed messages about its identity. All copy should have a consistent tone, from the content on your website to the emails you send existing customers.

At first reading this may seem contradictory. On one hand I demand a consistent identity and on the other I want users to see the people behind your organisation. However, this is actually an approach newspapers have been employing for years.

Most newspapers have regular columnists who readers come to recognise. However, each newspaper has an overall identity. For example in the U.K. tabloid newspaper "the Sun" has a very different persona to that of "the Times".

Deciding on your persona will underpin all communications with users. Ask the question – if your site was a person, what type of person would it be? Would it be a young hip teenager or a boring middle aged business man? These characteristics help define how you communicate and the tone you set for your site.

However, whatever persona you create it should always be as open and transparent.

Be open and honest

Many organisations feel they need to maintain a flawless facade with users. This serves to create a barrier, reinforcing the feeling that the user is dealing with a faceless corporation.

A better approach is to be honest and fallible. Nothing is more effective in getting users trust than admitting when you get it wrong. Take for example photo sharing site Their site suffered a series of outages in which users were unable to access their photos. Unsurprisingly the mood in the flickr community was pretty negative. However, flickr was able to turn that negativity around with a simple blog post entitled "Sometimes we suck". They acknowledged the problem, apologised and promised to do better. They did exactly that and before long flickr was seen as a shinning example of how an organisation should run a community.

In fact it is possible to turn a critical user into an evangelist for your site simply by responding in a timely and open manner. In a world where users can instantly broadcast their frustrations via blogs, social networks and other methods of online communication you cannot afford to ignore them. However, if you respond in a positive and open fashion those same users will be broadcasting their pleasure at your response.

This post is an edited extract from Paul’s book – The Website Owners Manual.