What Happens When You Swear At Your Users

February 6th, 2012

Last semester, Chase and I took a business communication class in which we dissected the PR crisis that resulted from someone trashing an Airbnb user’s home. At the time, it seemed very abstract and unlikely — crises never happen to those who prepare! Well, one just happened to us.

Okay, so meth-heads didn’t throw a rager in one of our users’ homes. But as some of you may have experienced on January 23, we had a bit of a communication crisis of our own. That evening, we set out to announce our pricing plans, new features and our public launch — not exactly the type of thing you want to screw up. It was also the first time we were using our new email server “live,” so we were already nervous. After working out a few technical kinks and several botched emails, thanks to missing line breaks, we sent out a final test email to ourselves.  Unfortunately, it went out to every user, and looked like this:




Credit to @jimmerson for posting the picture on Twitter.

Needless to say, we were using far worse language as we began running around our office screaming and panicking like chickens with our heads cut off (this sums up our initial reaction). I think we hit 100 inbound emails within the first 5 minutes. Crisis mode set in and Chase traded off between manning Olark (live-chatting users on our website) and dealing with delete account/unsubscribe requests while I feverishly responded to incoming messages.

But we noticed something weird in the responses. Out of 500+ emails, tweets, Olark chats, Facebook comments, etc., 95% of them weren’t negative. Sure, we had some people that were offended (to whom we apologized profusely, just as we did to everyone else), but these were pretty typical (and allowed us to use their name):

Lee Middleton: Stop apologising please. You made me smile.

Lori Paul: I found the email extremely comical and a well needed laugh for the day.  No apology needed. :)  

Ed Farrell: I liked it. You are building a brand that stands for something. ; ) Keep your customers in their place.

DGW: I actually find it amusing when something like that gets out. Shows that there really are people behind all those domain names.

Some people even poked fun at us back:

Todd Merritt No problem, bitches.

Vinko Pehar - who u calling a bitch, biatch!

But our favorite theme to emerge was that this was actually driving people who had forgotten about us (as is often the case with software products) to return and give us another shot:

webuser23.89996@im.olark.com:  Hey, if it wasn’t for the “bitches” email I would have forgotten about your product. Now I’m reconsidering using it

Rich Hohne - another good thing…i actually forgot about fetchnotes and now I am going to give it a whirl! sometimes weird stuff works.  Good luck, Alex.

And the data is supporting this. Here’s a graph of “engagement” (we track notes added, deleted, edited and Olark chats on our website) in the month of January.


It’s a definitive trend upward starting after the email was sent, and this doesn’t even include notes added via texting, calling or emailing! A ton of people who had previously signed up and forgot about us began to use the product again, and a week later that trend is still strong — and increasing. We’re not even sure what “normal” usage is anymore because a new plateau hasn’t been fully established yet.

Now, none of this excuses the fact that we used profanity in an email that went out to all of our users or means that we don’t feel a need to apologize. In addition to sending out an apology entitled “We Really Screwed Up,” we (the co-founders, not just any old support people), responded to every. single. person. I even skipped my morning class the next day to stay up until everyone got a personal response. We made it an absolute priority to ensure that between Chase and I every single Olark chat, email, tweet or Facebook post was accounted for and responded to in the manner it needed to be.

But the ordeal does point to some interesting lessons, beyond the obvious one that we’ll be more careful about the content of our test messages. People appreciate knowing the personalities behind the companies and products they use. We won’t be throwing around profanity in our emails, but we’re definitely going to try to take a more “real” tone rather than the false formality that pervades most company communications.

Lastly, we have an absolutely amazing group of users. Not only did you forgive us for our screw-up, but you encouraged us to not beat ourselves up about it and out of all those interactions there were only a few people who were actually upset with us (despite having every right to be). On top of that, we’ve gotten several job applications and offers from people to help us with everything from development to copy-writing for our landing page. Seriously, you guys rock!

-Alex Schiff, Fetchnotes Co-founder and CEO

EDIT: We’re seeing some crazy buzz from this article. If you’re reading this article and want to get in to try the product, you can get in here.