Love this content: Songza’s microcopy

A few months ago on Pop Culture Happy Hour, Linda Holmes (or was it Stephen Thompson?) recommended the music streaming service Songza. I figured I’d try it out — Pandora hasn’t been lighting my fire for a while — and playing with the app for a few weeks, I’m a convert.

One thing I especially love: Their taxonomy and related copy. Songza is a collection of curated playlists. When you launch it, the app defaults to showing you the time of day and a selection of moods. It’s Monday morning when I write this, and right now it offers music for “boosting your energy,” “working in an office (SFW),” or “driving,” for example. And also for “saving the world,” which is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Every now and again, you get dealt a wild card in the available moods.

Once you pick a mood, you get a choice of three specific playlists to listen to.

Here’s an example with screen grabs. First screen, from late one Friday night:

Songza: It's Friday Night

Getting high? What are those playlists like?

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Labelize Me: Confrontational information

The other day, I mentioned on Twitter that I ended up voting against requiring labels on genetically modified food because the initiative in question required that they be on the front of the box.

I also called it “fearmongering,” a loaded word, but one that I chose on purpose.

Sarah Schact, one of the people I was replying to, asked great followup questions:

Really? Labels and transparency into fear-mongering? How do you react to grams of cholesterol on nutrition labels? They are required to print it on the nutrition label. Why would front versus back matter in terms of “fear-mongering?”

Although I replied on Twitter, it got me thinking about the distinction between making information available, which I’m all in favor of, and making information confrontational, which I’m generally opposed to.

Let’s start with the specific example of labeling genetically modified foods.

I confess up front: I don’t care about this issue. I would not use a label, wherever it appeared on the package. If adding jellyfish DNA made carrots more appealing for my kids, I say chomp chomp.

Regardless, given how many people want that info, I’m OK (if unenthusiastic, in this instance) with putting that on the box. I don’t keep kosher, but I’m happy manufacturers use the kosher label. (Not legally required, I realize.) I’m not allergic to peanuts, but I’m happy that food manufacturers are required to put “made with peanuts” on the nutritional label.

Requiring information of interest to consumers to be on the box, legible, not camouflaged among the fine print — that’s a good thing. That’s transparency. That’s useful labeling. That is making information available.

Requiring that info to appear on the front of the box, however, moves into making information confrontational . That’s how we treat, for example, warning labels on cigarette packages, or parental advisory stickers on music. The information not just findable. We do everything we can to make sure that you can’t achieve your goal without seeing this information first.

(The front of the package, of course, is also where companies themselves put information they think will help the product sell. These are the chocolate chip Eggos. This syrup has no high fructose corn syrup. I don’t claim the territory as it exists is particularly high-minded — it’s a brander’s playground.)

I would not be in favor of requiring “produced in a facility that also processes nuts” on the front of the box.

Making information confrontational is aggressive, not neutral. People who don’t care about that information are rarely thankful for it.

Are you excited to see the unskippable anti-piracy message before watching a movie? Do you love the popup that asks you to sign up for the newsletter and insists on being dismissed before you go anywhere else on the site?

Aggression can be justified. Those cigarette warnings are blunt, scientifically proven facts that have saved lives. They’re like seat belts — maybe annoying, but there’s an argument for requiring them.

But generally, people think their cause is worth being aggressive, but get annoyed when other causes get in their face. Tipper Gore and her cohorts were genuinely concerned about lyrics, which didn’t make rebellious rock fans any happier. The movie industry really wants you to think twice about pirating those movies, which doesn’t keep me from cursing at the anti-piracy warning.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, people who support mandatory pre-abortion counseling believe that it’s a force for good. Those of us who think it’s an offensive waste of time at best are not mollified by their intent.

For some people, if the cause is just, it’s not enough for the information they deem important to be available. You should have to swat it out of your face if you want to ignore it.

Sticking information on the front of the box is designed to make you care about the issue. Putting information in the existing nutritional info, a spot where interested consumers know to look, is genuine information transparency.

Context matters.

Whether or not you think GMO labeling should be required, I’m unclear why that information should be more prominent and less ignorable than information such as calorie count, the presence of common allergens, or the list of ingredients.

If I were morally outraged by genetically modified food, or even concerned, maybe I’d have voted the other way anyway. (Probably not proudly, but with a “better than nothing” attitude.)

But I’m not. I’m not excited about voting Monsanto’s way, but that was more appealing than supporting, however mildly, an effort to stigmatize some kinds of food.

Nice email subscription copy, Turntable.fm

When you tell Turntable.fm to stop sending notifications that someone started DJing, you end up on this page:

Turntable.fm's email management copy

Note that the first three options are all stated clearly. Also note the fourth checkbox, which is clear as well, and whimsical. It’s a smart, funny bit of geeky personality that fits the target audience perfectly.

Kudos, Turntable.fm.

Nice hint text, LinkedIn

While recommending someone on LinkedIn, I noticed (not for the first time) that they do a nice job with the hint text in the Written Recommendation field on their form.

Write a recommendation hint text from LinkedInWhat’s cool?

1) It’s helpful but not essential. The description of what you’re supposed to put in the box is appropriately left outside the box, so it doesn’t disappear when you start typing.

2) It uses your recommendee’s name.

3) It’s clearly labeled “Example” and grayed out to reduce confusion with real, pre-entered text.

What could be cooler? It’d be sweet if the example changed based on the relationship you select–right now, “Dom is a detail-oriented manager” whether you reported to Dom, he reported to you, or it’s a different relationship altogether.

Sweet, but not essential. Nice microcopy, LinkedIn.

Tibet, the Super Bowl, and Groupon’s voice

The big surprise about the brouhaha over that Groupon Super Bowl ad that pivots from threats to Tibetan culture to great deals on tasty Tibetan curry is that anyone’s surprised at what a Groupon commercial would sound like.

A kind description of the tone would be “flip.” Which you’d expect from director Christopher Guest, of course. But do people expect that from Groupon?

People should. Groupon prides themselves on their editorial perspective. Brandon Copple, the managing editor, quotes the CEO saying editorial is “the soul of Groupon.” He goes on: “We have this incredible voice that’s unique. Based on humor, creative but clear, descriptive but concise. There’s nobody out there putting as much muscle and intellectual power into their editorial.”

And those emails are pretty funny, citing cocktails that “keep conversations flowing through even the tensest first date or POW exchange” or BBQ sauce that comes from a bayou under Houston that leads to the word “hungermire.” Not offensive, but definitely flip.

But shortly after I first heard of Groupon, I heard people asking if the editorial really mattered. People wondered if anyone really read the copy, or if they just saw the deal, clicked, and bought.

And … I admit, I rarely actually read an entire email. And I’m a language guy. Half off at Fantagraphics? I’m in! No muscular, creative, descriptive copy necessary.

Then again, competitors like Tippr, LocalTwist, and LivingSocial fill their daily deal email templates with long copy and witty references. They’re not sure which parts of the Groupon formula are essential, either, so better to ape the whole thing for now. (Though they’re not usually as amusing.)

All of which is to say, the Groupon commercials sound a lot like the Groupon emails which sound a lot like the Groupon site. So why the brouhaha?

A few ideas:

  • People don’t actually read Groupon’s copy, or they don’t read enough of it to give them an idea of Groupon’s voice that works for parsing that commercial.
  • Groupon’s Onionesque take on their deals doesn’t work so well when applied to something more serious than half off a manicure.
  • A commercial is a horrible place to try and articulate something as complex as “We’re parodying self-important celebrities but not the causes they believe in while simultaneously reminding you that Groupon saves you big on walking tours.”
  • The audience for the Super Bowl is one of the last bastions of broad, mass market appeal, and satire has never played well to a broad mass market. To paraphrase George S. Kaufman, satire is what outrages Twitter on Sunday evening.

Is Groupon (or their ad agency) full of horrible, horrible people who think the death of Tibetan culture is funny? No, but it’s maybe full of people who didn’t quite get that you don’t use the edgier side of your personality when you’re first getting to know someone. Without context to set the tone, lots of people assume you’re a jerk, not someone who’s pretending to be a jerk to illustrate how, deep down, he’s a really great guy.

Good microcopy in the wild: Picnik

Flickr gets a lot of (well-earned) kudos for their copy. It’s snappy and fun, clear without being instruction-manual starchy. Flickr is my go-to answer when people ask what sites I think do copy well.

But I often overlook the photo-editing site Picnik, which is a shame. In my head I lump it together with Flickr, because Picnik’s tone is simpatico with Flickr’s. They work together like George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.

One example: When you’re saving an edited photo to your computer, Picnik gives you 10 choices for JPG compression, labeled 1-10. JPG compression? Sounds boring. But Picnik’s copy gives each selection its own personality, which helps even someone who says “jay-pee-gee” instead of “jay-peg” make an informed decision.

The default file size is 8, which Picnik describes like so:

JPG Compression Quality: 8 A sweetspot of really good quality and file size. File size: 608KB

A sweet spot? Sweet! I love this choice already. But what if I bump it up to 10?

JPG Compression Quality: 10. Best quality, huge file size. File size: 1.13MB.

Best quality, huge file size. Hmm. “Huge” is daunting. What if I nudge it down a bit? Say, to 5?

JPG Compression Quality 5. Meh quality, small file size. File size: 296KB.

Meh, you say? That’s not so great. But if 5 is “meh,” what are 1 or 2?

JPG compression quality: 2. Big, ugly blocks of pixels, teeny file size. File size: 162KB.

JPG Compression Quality 1. Barely recognizable as your photo, microscopic file size. File size: 130KB.

The great thing about all of these messages is they use vivid descriptions to make the tradeoffs clear. If I’m not an image pro — and if I’m using Picnik, I’m probably not — “ugly,” “barely recognizable,” and “best” explain image quality and “microscopic,” “teeny tiny,” and “huge” explain file size in a meaningful way. “130 KB” and “1.13 MB” don’t. (Note also that the selection they nudge you towards — 8 — has the most positive description. All nice, no scary.)

The rest of Picnik sounds just as good. They’re a great model for executing a consistent voice from their promo copy to their microcopy.

(Though I wouldn’t have made “sweet spot” into one word.)