Don’t Be a Smarmbot

Sunday, August 24, 2014
By dreeves

Robot with strangely human-looking eyes

In which the CEO of Beeminder quibbles with Patrick McKenzie, aka patio11, about what we call smarmbot emails, while noting how much we adore Patrick McKenzie (else we wouldn’t bother quibbling with him).

Humans of the internet! This post isn’t really for you, but if you’re curious what we’re talking about, lifecycle emails are what companies are doing when they automatically send you a series of emails like “thanks for signing up for our thing!”, and “you don’t seem to have actually used our thing yet; can we help with that?”, or “now that you’ve done X, you should maybe do Y!”, and so on. There’s a particular way those can be, well, smarmy, and we want to convince our fellow startups not to do that thing.


 

Fellow startups! I think you should follow all of Patrick McKenzie’s brilliant recommendations for lifecycle email copywriting, except for this one:

“Hi $NAME, I saw that you signed up for mycompany.com a few days ago.”

Why not? Because it has the intent to deceive the recipient — should they happen to be sufficiently naive — that there’s a human taking a personal interest in them.

Our compromise has been to add “PS: this is obviously automated but you can reply and we’ll see it”. (You do want to emphasize that the user can reply like normal even though it’s an automated email.) Or just saying “we” instead of “I” can go a long way towards de-smarming. Then it’s like “we, our whole company, including the programs that send these emails”. It is a subtle difference, but feels much more genuine to me, and is less likely to trigger my disgust reaction. An email from Patrick about how he noticed something about you is, well, false.

I can imagine a counterargument along the lines of the email retroactively becoming true for the subset of customers who actually reply to it. But that only ensures you won’t get caught making a false statement.


 

When I broached this with patio11 on the Twitters, he proposed a compromise involving semi-automation which I’m semi-OK with, depending on how it’s done. And Lincoln Quirk, a known Beeminder sympathizer, even chimed in on patio11’s side, saying email from the CEO makes him happy and he doesn’t care if it’s automated.

Screenshot of the Twitter dialog between @bmndr and @patio11 and @lincolnq and @patrickc

So despite there being some evidence against the humans of the internet actually caring about this kind of thing, I think there’s a deeper issue at stake. These smarmbot emails may be ruining it for the hardworking non-robots of the internet. Consider this email from Stripe’s Patrick Collison (@patrickc), which I assumed was an automated email, and even went so far as to hold up more than once as an example of staying (barely) on the good side of the smarmbot line since it never makes a claim like “I (personally) noticed…”:

Hey,

 

I’m one of the cofounders of Stripe. Since you’ve been using us for payments for a while, I figured I should briefly check in to see how things are going and to see if there are things we could be doing better. Is there anything we should improve, or are there things we should build that’d make things easier for you? (No need to respond if nothing jumps to mind or if you’re too busy.)

 

Feel free to ping me with questions, too, either now or in the future.

 

Cheers,
Patrick

 

P.S. Also, we’d love to send you a Stripe t-shirt if you’d like one! (Or several.) Just let me know.

After I pointed patio11 to this shining example of sufficiently non-misleading automated emails, patrickc chimed in to tell us all that it was in fact sent personally by him.

Anyway, bots are to be expected. Moo.com did an adorable thing: they made up a persona — an explicit bot — to address the user in their order confirmation messages. They’re admitting it’s a bot, and giving it a moo-ish touch. People notice these things.


 

Illustration: Kelly Savage

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  • http://www.gmgauthier.com/ Greg Gauthier

    How freaky. Internet Synchronicity. I was just ranting to my wife about this exact problem, last week.

    I canceled an old Cloak account I had, and a few minutes later I got a supposedly personal email from Dave Peck the CEO, who — if we are to believe it – apparently PERSONALLY noticed that I canceled my account. He even asked me questions like “What can I do to make Cloak better for you in the future?” as if, had I replied with an answer, he was going to personally attend to my request.

    Of course he wouldn’t. It was a lifecycle email from supportfu

    Though, I have to admit to being really impressed with the construction of this email. Somehow, they’d even figured out a way to incorporate details from my exit feedback form, to make it look as though he’d read it.

    You sneaky bastards! :D

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    I’d give them some benefit of the doubt though. Try replying and unless they’re being blatantly smarmbot-y a human will probably in fact reply. See my paragraph above starting “I can imagine a counterargument…”.

  • http://davepeck.org/ Dave Peck

    Hi Greg… it’s Dave Peck here. I’m one of the three founders of Cloak and, yes, I really did reply to you personally! :-)

    I try to reply as fast as I can to all customer cancellation surveys: they matter. There’s no magic in my reply to you: I mentioned my recent European vacation because I really _did_ just get back from Europe. (Barcelona is beautiful; public Wi-Fi hotspots there, less so.)

    I suppose this is just another sign of how bad it can be to work with companies: by default, we assume that nobody’s at the other end and nobody cares. And a lot of times, sadly, that’s true. Right now, I’m trying to get IKEA to fix my new bed; they won’t give me the time of day.

    But that’s not what we do at Cloak, because (1) we’re a small company, so we _can_ do this, and (2) we actually give a damn. If someone is unhappy, or something’s broken, we do our best to fix it. (We can’t always fix it; we can’t always make everyone happy. But we sure as heck try.)

    One last thing worth mentioning: I do like to save time when replying. Some percentage of my replies read the same, or nearly so. I have text snippets at the ready so that I can get the skeleton of each reply taken care of. Over time, I noticed that in one common case (customer has never interacted with us before + reply says they’re happy + no further information is offered) I was writing the same reply over and over again. In these cases, my reply is automated. Even in that case, if you reply back — and I hope you will — you will indeed reach me personally!

    Cheers,
    Dave Peck
    Founder, GetCloak.com

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Thanks so much for chiming in! I don’t doubt it for a second that you personally get the replies and personally reply back. My only exhortation is to be super clear about what’s automated and what’s not. Note the compromise I describe above of adding a PS to emphasize that the person can reply despite it being automated. Or at the very least make it “we” (as in the whole company, including the program that sends the emails) instead of “I”.

    As Greg’s reaction proves, this might be worth doing even if you *did* want to deceive users. (Not that you do!)

    I also don’t doubt that http://getcloak.com is awesome enough that it wouldn’t be hard to personally reply to all of the rare cancellations.

  • http://davepeck.org/ Dave Peck

    Running a startup — particularly a bootstrapped startup like Cloak — is not without its contradictions. On the one hand, you must be ruthlessly efficient with your time and capital. On the other, you must do things that don’t scale.

    Replying to customer cancellation surveys doesn’t scale. Nevertheless, Peter, Nick, and I feel it is absolutely essential that we do so. In my opinion, text snippets are fair game for bringing at least a _little_ ruthlessness to bear on an otherwise fundamentally inefficient task. :-)

  • http://davepeck.org/ Dave Peck

    Running a startup — particularly a bootstrapped startup like Cloak — is not without its contradictions. On the one hand, you must be ruthlessly efficient with your time and capital. On the other, you must do things that don’t scale.

    Replying to customer cancellation surveys doesn’t scale. Nevertheless, Peter, Nick, and I feel it is absolutely essential that we do so. In my opinion, text snippets in one common case are fair game for bringing at least a _little_ ruthlessness to bear on an otherwise fundamentally inefficient task. :-)

  • http://www.gmgauthier.com/ Greg Gauthier

    Hi Dave.

    Sorry about this. My cynic got the best of me that day, I guess. Thanks for the exchange over email. I really appreciated it.

    It’s actually refreshing to know I was wrong!

  • http://maybethismatters.org/ David Ernst

    The WORST is when Megacorp Inc. sends automated messages from a no-reply address. “So you can message me, unsolicited, but you refuse to let me respond?” Always leaves such a terrible impression.

    So along those lines, I can’t think of many times I’ve been bothered by incoming automated messages. (As long as there is a working option to turn-off / unsubscribe, of course.) But I’m *always* interested to know who’s on the other end– who will receive my message if I respond?

    & I love what you call the Moo.com approach: to give the emailing r’bot its own personality. I’d be delighted to see y’all follow up on that if it strikes your fancy.

  • CoraJudd

    I prefer knowing it’s a bot that has contacted me. Then I don’t feel compelled to respond with a proper bread-and-butter note. #oldschool