January 25, 2016
by Kyle Cassidy

The Story Behind Our Most Popular Email

email-story

It all started after we email-blasted our customers with a double shot of federally mandated messaging. The required content was made up of the stuff we hate to send: complex legalese boring enough to put even the most passionate finance junky to sleep. So we decided to make the email a little more helpful (and fun) by offering a translation that normal people could understand.

Soon after the email went out, our Twitter feed ignited with customers sharing their positive reactions. Nearly 200 people replied to the email itself, saying how much they enjoyed it. Our contact volume increased by 70% the day of the send, with customers calling in to thank Simple for the translation and using the opportunity to ask how they could better utilize product features like Goals.

We’ve since received a few requests to elaborate on the strategy behind the email. Our answer: We were just trying to do the right thing.

“We have to notify customers about Regulation E and any privacy policy updates around the same time every year,” says Sarah Esterman, our email marketing specialist. “Typically, we combine the two to minimize the number of boring emails we send.”

Regulation E messaging is intended to help customers understand their rights and responsibilities in the case of fraud. It’s a necessary piece of communication that’s just the worst kind of boring. And this year, we made two updates to our privacy policy. Combined, the heap of legal jargon totaled some 360 words (for reference, a single-spaced page of text is around 500 words)—not exactly the sort of gift most people want to open during the noisy-inbox holiday season.

Simple adheres to a rare philosophy in the world of email messaging: Send customers as few emails as possible—and only when there’s a good reason. In a bid to make the policy update email more useful for customers, Esterman called a meeting with Legal, Compliance, and Creative. She kicked things off with a question that invoked a name not often thrown around in conversations about email optimization:

“Remember in high school when you were reading Shakespeare and there was a regular English translation to the right? What if we did that with this email?”

In the Dodd-Frank Act signed into law in 2010, Congress gave the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) permission to do a trial disclosures program, so the agency can work with banks to make legalese more reader-friendly. But this email wasn’t technically part of the program, and out on a limb isn’t a place most legal and compliance teams want to be.

“If you’re the institution that takes the chance, you worry the regulators won’t like it,” says Eric Wasik, our corporate counsel. “But reading the tea leaves, I felt this was something both consumers and regulators would want to see.”

So the project moved into creative, where copywriter Nicholas Carter and designer Talia Eisenberg had the respective jobs of “translating” the legalese and creating an image that would make the content approachable.

“The idea to translate it was so attractive to me,” says Carter. “I like making fun of silly, Byzantine rules. I did the best I could to try to decipher what it was and also try to make fun of it. My goal wasn’t to completely just bag on legal language—maybe just 20% was that; the real purpose of the post was to be helpful.”

The first thing Carter did was Google “what is Regulation E.” Not surprising in the world of legalese, he had a hard time finding any plain-spoken resources that would help him explain it, so he turned to our Compliance team. Once his research was done, he set to work creating what we believe is the first-ever fun translation of Regulation E.

It was one of those projects where everyone who touched it left their mark. Charged with the seemingly impossible task of illustrating an image for the email, Eisenberg applied the same irreverence to her design.

“I tried really hard to think of an image that might represent the crazy junk we were saying…and failed,” says Eisenberg. “So then I decided to let the copy shine and have the image look like one of those silly party invitations, because we were inviting them to a celebration of the ridiculous.”

Our Compliance and Legal teams enthusiastically approved their work.

“Legalese is confusing,” says Wasik. “And while it’s scary to do something different, Simple is founded on the concept of ‘no confusion.’ Our Legal and Compliance departments take pride in transparency. We have a public GitHub repository where you can see a history of how we’ve changed our policies. We wanted to do anything we could to support content that would make the language as clear as possible for our customers.”

We’re far from the first company to have fun with legalese. Startups on crowdfunding sites do it all the time. But regulators hold the financial industry to a strict standard, so demystifying language in a silly way isn’t something you often see.

“Banking is built on and governed by language that’s impossible to understand,” says Carter. “And this was an opportunity to add clarity and help people trust us.”

Simple’s mission is to help customers feel more confident with their money. One way we do that is by communicating in a way that people can understand. It’s evident everywhere from our Terms of Service page to the rejection notes that pop up when you’re setting your PIN. And we’ve found that when people feel more engaged, they tend to engage more.

The email’s subject line, which read, “Rabble, rabble, rabble. (Translation: required legalese enclosed.),” led to a 55% open rate. That’s not revolutionary, but it’s not bad for a policy update email. And people didn’t just open the email, they actually read it.

This “translated” copy appears about three quarters of the way through the email:

Translation: There might actually be rare cases when you have to write us a letter to officially document fraudulent activity on your account. A real letter, like, on paper! If this happens, it will probably be the first real letter we’ve ever received at Simple. Exciting! To commemorate the occasion, we promise to write those first 50 letter-writers back, by hand, using our fluffiest feather quill.

Stationary, a quill, and a card with a picture of a cat

Carter figured people wouldn’t make it far enough to read this bit, but they did. Soon after the send, we began receiving handwritten cards at the office. Some of the card senders kept their messages short and sweet. Others waxed poetic. One included an illustration of a ferret.

The card sent by a group of employees at airplane manufacturing giant Boeing featured a passenger jet gliding gracefully in a calm sky. It read, “Dear The Team at Simple (“TTAS”), Happy celebration of privacy policy updates and disclosure of regulation guidelines for electronic funds transfers! May your legal be ease and your acronyms be three-lettered. Love, Your Neighbors Up North.”

They were all love letters of a sort, sent by admirers of creativity and appreciators of unsolicited help. And since people took the time to send us handwritten cards, we found ourselves faced with a unique but very real obligation set forth in Carter’s translation: to reply to the first 50 by way of our own handwritten letters composed using our fluffiest feather quill. (We are now the proud owners of a fluffy feather quill, wax, and a custom walnut-handled sealing stamp with a brass head featuring the company logo.)

Stamping a card

“The feedback [to the email] wasn’t, ‘this is hilarious,’” says Esterman, who included a photo of her puppy at the end of the email as a reward for anyone who actually read the entirety. “People just thought it was helpful. I think the best emails are part of the user experience and not just noise.”

“The lesson I’m taking from [the email’s popularity] is there’s no part of our business that we shouldn’t try to be better at,” says Wasik. “The idea of Simple is to surprise and delight, and a legal and compliance department should try to do that, too. It’s harder. But that’s part of who we are as a company—we send personalized cards and have Easter eggs and fun design elements around every corner.”

Carter blushingly admits that he enjoyed the flood of positive feedback from customers (a rare but cherished win for any copywriter), but his favorite responses were the ones that said, “We actually understand what this means now.” Humble, Carter is quick to redirect any praise sent his direction. “People’s experience with Simple is taking something they’re used to feeling unpleasant about and making it fun,” he says, crediting our values of Curiosity, Empathy, Efficacy, and Craft as his guiding lights and the underlying reasons customers appreciate our brand so much.

“[The email] really was the most positive experience I’ve ever had as a copywriter. How do you write what people will actually care about, create stuff that actually adds value to the world and deserves to exist?” says Carter. “To create something that actually helps people understand something they never understood before and to give them a pleasant experience where they weren’t expecting it is nice.”

The wave of positive feedback about the email was a byproduct of doing the right thing. And when you work for a company that empowers its email marketing specialist to be the champion of not sending emails, encourages its Legal and Compliance departments to push boundaries, lets its copywriter run wild, and doesn’t blink when its Finance team approves a line item for a pure white ostrich-feather quill, doing the right thing is easy.

Simple is dedicated to eliminating confusion and worry from banking. Every email, line of code, product update, social post, and support conversation boils down to one fundamental question about the customer experience: How can this help people feel more confident with their money?

“It’s a really, really bizarre thing that so far the shining star project of my career is a regulatory email,” says Esterman. “But I think that’s what innovation in today’s day and age is all about—taking something like banking and making it better.”

Here’s the full email:

Truncated image of an email(click to reveal full email)