Autoresponders: Not the Boss of You

ImageAutoresponders. We all get them. Among other things, they allow us to avoid the digital version of this scenario:

You're dating a guy with a still-not-over-him ex. She responds to your courtship by going to the biggest newsstand in town and pulling out as many subscription cards as she can. She fills them all out with your name and address, checking the box that says, "Bill me later." Not only do you get billed for dozens of magazines you never ordered, but you find yourself on the junk-mail lists of the marketing partners of those magazines' publishers.

In the online universe, when you sign up for a blog or e-mail list or otherwise "opt in" to the electronic apparatus of someone disseminating information, you get an immediate response acknowledging receipt of your request to subscribe. That autoresponder will generally instruct you to click on a link in the body of its text to confirm your subscription. This prevents someone from signing you up for e-mail lists without your consent.

A lot of us also SEND autoresponders, most commonly the one cited here by the fine folks at "An autoresponder is a program or script on a mail server that automatically replies to e-mails ... For example, a company might set up an autoresponder for their support e-mail address to let users know they have received their support requests. Individuals may also use autoresponders to let people know when they are away from their computer and won't be able to respond to any e-mails for awhile."

So, yeah, they're a pretty cool little product of the Internet Age, but I can't say I'm crazy about the language or tone characterizing most autoresponders. They frequently sound like they're coming from a robot for whom English is a second language. If you're trying to connect with people and persuade them to take action — buy your band's new Norwegian-black-metal album, make note of your client's Christmas-tree rental service, donate to the Brave New Foundation — you want to sound like a person, someone your e-audience can understand and relate to and trust (someone who uses contractions, someone who says "yes" instead of "affirmative" and "I don't get it" instead of "That does not compute").

What a lot of people doing business in cyberspace don't get is that your autoresponders are not — and should not be — the boss of you. In fact, they are a banner opportunity to reinforce your brand, prime real estate for your tagline or a pithy reiteration of what it is you do, sell or believe.

ImageI was recently reviewing a client's autoresponders to make sure they clearly conveyed to the recipient what was required of her — what we here at Editorial Emergency call "idiot-proofing."

One of them said, "This email address was subscribed for notifications at [client's website] but the subscription remains incomplete. If you wish to complete your subscription please click on the link below. If you do not wish to complete your subscription please ignore this e-mail and your address will be removed from our database." Okay, not the end of the world, but what if it said this instead?

"Someone entered this e-mail address when subscribing to [client's blog], but we can't activate the subscription until you click this link. If, for some crazy reason, you've decided you DON'T want to join [client's mailing list], please ignore this e-mail and we'll pretend we never met."

Now isn't that more appealing? And by saying "for some crazy reason" and "we'll pretend we never met," I was able to transmit the client's sense of humor (just as offered this come-hither example: "Thank you. We have received your message. One of our technicians will attempt to answer your question after he finishes his dart game in the lobby").

Similarly, this baffling set of commands ...

"Your payment has successfully completed [apparently whoever "wrote" this didn't feel the need to include the word "been"] and you can now download [client's e-book]. Right click on the link below and save the book to your computer. To download the book from the website use the following code. Visit the following link to download the book, you will need to enter the code there [note comma splice]" ...

... was transformed into this:

"Thanks for buying [title of client's e-book]. To download the book, go here. When the download page comes up, enter this code in the orange box. Then you can save the book to your computer."


You want to sound like a person your audience can relate to, someone who says "yes" instead of "affirmative."

And a confusing response to a lost-download-code request became this:

"Lost your code, eh? Happens to the best of us. Here's a new one. To go to the download page, click here. When the page comes up, enter your new code in the orange box. Then you can save the book to your computer and we can forget we ever had this conversation."

A few simple changes and your autoresponder provides not only an easily understood course of action but distinctive branding language as well.

Of course it helps if you've got a brilliant website surgeon — we HIGHLY recommend This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it — standing by to muck around in your site's guts and make these kinds of changes. (After I asked him to enact my autoresponder revisions, Thomas said, "Why can't I convince all my clients to let you guys handle this stuff? It would seriously make a HUGE difference"). But even if you're at the mercy of Constant Contact or Emma or Kintera, you CAN customize the vocabulary of your autoresponders.

ImageAnother client hired us to polish and punch up a series of e-blasts. At the very top of the e-blasts, in tiny letters above his logo, it said, "If you're having trouble viewing this email, you may see it online." I urged the client to change "may" to "can" — "may" sounded like he was granting permission to see the content on his website instead of simply enabling the reader to access the content there. Or like he wasn't 100% certain you could see the e-blast on the site but that it was likely enough. To which he replied: "I don't have any control over that; it's part of the e-mail-marketing program template."

I let it go, but what I wanted to say was, "Um, aren't you paying those fools 30 bucks a month to provide a service to you? Aren't you the boss of them? Do you really think they don't have the technology to make this tiny change?"

Not using e-mail marketing? Blissfully free from auto-communication? Well, the next time you find yourself going with the standard "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn," why not take the extra minute to give your request a personal touch? If you send me the boilerplate LinkedIn request and I know who you are, I'll probably accept it. But if you say, "Hi Julia. Since we've worked together like an iron fist in a velvet glove on a few successful campaigns, I thought we should take our creative kinship public," I'll accept your request AND write you an uncommonly enthusiastic recommendation.

Gotten an e-mail from an automaton lately? What did it say? How did that make you feel? What would YOU have said? Let us know. To quote my favorite robot: "My micromechanism thanks you, my computer tapes thank you, and I thank you."

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