Cool To Be Kind


Everyone these days wants their microcopy to bring the funny. To infuse some lighthearted joy into an otherwise tedious chore, spark a smile in the midst of the workaday world. It's what I love most about my job, as a matter of fact, bringing the funny to the software. But how to be funny without coming off flat? What if you strike the wrong tone? Fail to carry the joke off?

You guys, it's actually really pretty simple. What it all boils down to is You've got to be kind.

Most of what we think of as humor these days is just sarcasm and snark and mean-spirited sass. And all of those forms of humor are just basically mean. They're all, in some way, making a joke at somebody else's expense. 

And that's exactly what you don't want to do when bringing the funny to your software or app.

Oh, come on, you may say. Sarcasm builds solidarity with my readers. We're standing side by side against some common foe. My jokes are at the expense of bad bosses, slow service, or those jerks on the road. And that all may be true.

But did you ever hear somebody snarking about a pal and suddenly have the uncomfortable thought: I wonder what they say about me when I'm not around?

That's what happens when you snark in your app copy, too. 

Any brief solidarity built by sarcasm in microcopy is built on a foundation of sand. The implication is there that if you've got your claws out for someone else, you could turn them on me. Your users. Your friends.

If your humor is mean-spirited, you're going to come across to readers as mean. You just are.

I know, some recent studies have suggested that sarcasm is a sign of higher intelligence or some nonsense like that. And maybe it is. But that's notably in situations where you've already established a solid foundation of trust with your readers.

In most microcopy, you just can't take for granted how good your user feels about you at that particular time. Maybe your system just went inexplicably down. Maybe they just read something iffy in the news about your brand. You just don't know. Microcopy sits out there for an awfully long time, through good times and bad. And context is everything when it comes to making comedy work. Context is all.

In any event, I don't think it makes you sound smarter when you're sarcastic in copy, and I don't believe it builds any real solidarity between you and your reader when you snark in their ear, even in what may seem to you to be a lighthearted way. It might, however, establish that you're at least a little bit mean, and perhaps therefore not to be trusted. It's just not worth the risk. Not when you've got other forms of humor so readily at hand.

Imagine instead if you'd used that chance to be kind. To just imply in some way that your reader is clever, or cool, or just rocking your socks in some spectacular way.

One of the most successful pieces of microcopy I ever wrote was just an automated notification email that ended with "That color looks amazing on you, by the way."

Any idea how much feedback we got from users that it brightened their day?

So. Much. Happy. Feedback. Stuff like "that made me laugh at my desk" or "I really needed that today." From people all over the world.

I figure that at any given moment, at least half of the world out there is tired, or bored, or worried, or sad. Just in one way or another, not having a great day. And I think we should try to do something to shine the light a bit brighter on that part of the world.

As app copywriters, we have this amazing opportunity to get into people's heads. To have the words we write be the last thing ringing in their ears before they head into that big meeting, or head home for the day.

I think kindness kind of rules, to be honest. 

Topics: Microcopy

Beth Dunn is the Editor-in-Chief on the HubSpot Product team. Subscribe to get updates by email.

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