Brands can retain and win more customers with better writing, research finds

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Brands can retain and attract more customers by better writing, research by the UK’s largest language consultancy, The Writer, has found.

Its study showed: 

*      even great brands can lose customers through poor writing

*      honest writing is more persuasive than writing that’s merely clear

*      a few simple linguistic changes mean customers warm to brands more

The Writer surveyed 2,000 people to test their reaction to a series of customer scenarios, based purely on the writing they would encounter. They blind-tested writing samples from six leading UK brands: three airlines and three retailers, as well as an invented sample from The Writer for each scenario.

Neil Taylor, The Writer’s creative director, said: “We hear it all the time when we’re training people. Almost everyone prefers natural writing that has more personality, but they have doubts about how customers will react. So we wanted to measure what happens to the customer experience when you strip away everything but the words.”

Handle refunds better and keep more customers

One scenario tested what happens when an airline cancels a flight. When comparing the refund instructions of three leading UK airlines and a sample from The Writer, the research showed after reading each company’s writing (without knowing which brand had written it):

* over two thirds were put off flying with Virgin again 

* over half were put off flying with British Airways again

* almost half were put off flying with Ryanair again 

* less than half were put off flying after The Writer’s ‘really natural’ version.

Taylor said: “This situation is not just about the facts, it’s also about showing an understanding of what the customer’s feeling. Clearly it’s a bad situation. We wanted to see how to minimise the damage. We were aiming for everyday words when we wrote our refund instructions, so we didn’t quote legislation in off-putting legal language, but explained what it meant. The others used phrases like ‘all monies paid’ and ‘causes within the carrier’s control’, which makes ours feel more helpful. We also made it as personal as we could by writing ‘we’ and ‘you’, rather than hiding behind ‘the passenger’ and ‘the carrier’, which makes ours sound more honest. And we actually said sorry.”

The results suggest if these airlines wrote better, they’d retain an average of 12% more customers every time they had to cancel a flight. 

The research also tested which airline people liked most after reading the refund instructions without knowing the brands behind the writing, and found:

* 42% prefer the ‘really natural’ version               

* 22% opted for Ryanair                                               

* 21% picked Virgin                                                      

* 16% liked British Airways.

Taylor said: “These findings are particularly damning for Virgin because people like their brand so much. Yet when their language doesn’t live up to their reputation, it has the power to switch customers off and lose them for good – especially in a sticky situation.’

Personality is more persuasive

The second scenario tested the impact of language on whether people apply for loyalty cards online. Based on the writing alone: 

* 7% would apply for a loyalty card from House of Fraser

* 16% would apply for a loyalty card from Costa

* 23% would apply for a loyalty card from Tesco

* A quarter would choose The Writer’s ‘really honest’ version. 

Taylor said: “To get people motivated enough to actually do something, we decided to sacrifice a bit of clarity for personality and it paid off. We were deliberately really honest in owning up to the fact there’s something in it for the company if people keep coming back. We even said ‘shop with us (and not them)’. Though people felt Tesco’s writing was clearer (25% to our 20%), we pipped them in the end because people warmed more to the writing with more personality. It was more polarising, but ultimately more effective.”

The research also asked people to pick which loyalty card of the four they would opt for – based on the writing alone – if push came to shove. People were on average 20% more likely to pick the card with writing that was most honest 

* 11% would choose House of Fraser

* 21% would choose Costa

* 28% would choose Tesco

* Well over a third (40%) would choose the imaginary card from The Writer.

Taylor said: “Businesses are missing a trick with their language. They don’t think hard enough about the potential impact of each piece of writing. Because a brand’s writing touches customers in so many ways, it’s one of the most pervasive and cost effective ways to keep customers happy when things go wrong. And one of the best ways to help businesses stand out and win new ones.”