It was all going so well…..why you shouldn’t mix up your functional and promotional content

energy image - glowing rings - article about UX writingI’m writing a style guide for a client right now. Every time I write another style guide, I notice how the possibilities have multiplied once again. How does this company express itself in AR and VR, on social media, video, or podcasts? Should it use emojis? It won’t be long before the etiquette of holocasting will be on the agenda.

Some things never change, like the question of British or American spellings, or whether to use the active or passive voice. Also consistent has been the question of what I’ve always called promotional vs functional content.

What’s the difference between promotional and functional content?

Promotional content is about attracting you to an organisation – to become a customer, in many cases, but not always. Promotional content says ‘Hey, look over here. See how lovely we are? Come and find out more.’ You can call it sales content, content marketing, sales funnel content, copywriting, ad copy, whatever you like, but its job is to get you to do what the organisation wants – sign up, register, buy their product.

Functional content, by contrast, is about you getting what you want. It’s about how you interact with the organisation to achieve your goal – whether that’s finding your account details, ordering a new parasol, or resolving a problem.

You could sum up the difference by saying that the purpose of promotional content is to get in your way and grab your attention, whereas the purpose of functional content is to get out of your way and make it easy for you to get shit done.

And while it’s important to be consistent in your communications, it’s also vital to know how your choice of tone and words should differ across these two types. Where organisations sometimes go wrong is by treating them both the same.

An example always helps

I recently signed up with a new energy supplier. I won’t tell you which one, as a) it doesn’t matter and b) I’m not interested in making someone’s day worse. I signed up through MoneySavingExpert’s Energy Club, so I rather skipped most of the marketing journey, but their tone of voice seemed to be quite playful and friendly, and they placed a lot of emphasis on making it really easy for me to switch. One of their first emails had a lovely timeline of what would happen when, and when they might need me to take action (like providing meter readings). They promised to email me each time they needed something from me, so I didn’t need to lift a finger until they asked.

So far, so good. But then there was a problem. When I submitted my gas meter reading, the field on their website asked me to give them ‘ALL the numbers on the meter’. It was quite clear on the subject. So I did, even though my spidey-sense was saying to me ‘don’t energy suppliers normally specifically ask you to ignore the little red numbers?’

Then they sent me an email with the following wording:

Meter reading email screen shot

And with that, they put a big dent in my trust in them. Did they get my meter reading or didn’t they? The first paragraph seems to say that they did, but the second one says they didn’t. Then they tell me they’ve estimated my reading (and we all know about energy company estimates), but the email’s HTML is badly configured so they’re not telling me what it is.(And yes, they spelled ‘independent’ wrong. It might seem like a small thing, but it adds to the perception that they’re not very good at their job, which doesn’t help.)

Then they cap the whole experience off by verbally patting me on the head and telling me not to worry.

And that’s where the promotional tone and message (‘don’t worry, we’ll do it all for you’) collide with the functional tone and message (‘there’s a problem with your account, you might need to take some action’). The promotional message works when the journey is smooth and easy and I can admire the verbal scenery – but as soon as there’s a problem, it makes it more difficult and frustrating for me to take the action I want (work out what’s going on and fix it).

If this organisation had been thinking of this as functional content, they would have included some way for me to take action – click here for help, give us a call, resubmit your meter reading. Any of those options would work. Instead, they left me hanging with a pat on the head and no clear next step.

But here’s the good news

To give them credit, they sorted it out really quickly. I forwarded them the email and said ‘WTF?’ and a very efficient customer service person got back to me and confirmed that the problem was due to my having submitted ALL the numbers on my meter. She tinkered with my account to show the correct meter readings (thank you Nadia!) Not only that, she also said they would improve that field on the website, and the email content. And not once did she verbally pat me on the head – she was professional and clear and made it really easy for me to get shit done.

And to their further great credit THEY ACTUALLY DID CHANGE THE WEBSITE, and really quickly. The reason I didn’t show you a screen grab of the meter reading field further up this piece is that I can’t. They’ve already changed it, so now it looks like this:

Meter reading field screen shot

Well played, Anonymous Energy Supplier: trust fully restored.


Functional content, a.k.a. UX writing

While I was writing this, a colleague shared an article about UX writing which says all of this, but better. Have a read, there’s some cracking examples. But fundamentally, my message is this: be consistent, yes. But don’t mix up your functional content with your promotional content. Help your customers get shit done, and don’t get in the way.


Photo by Jesus In Taiwan on Unsplash

Also published on Medium.