Netflix’s Big Goof: 5 Copywriting Blunders in Its Recent Announcement

If you’re a Netflix user, then you’ve probably heard all the outrage about the recent splitting of Netflix streaming from its DVD by mail service, which will soon be known as “Qwikster.” Now, I’ve got an opinion about the decision (and it’s not a positive one), but I’m more interested in dissecting the many mistakes of the email and blog post that announced it. It’s like a spectacular car crash – so awful, you can’t look away.

And the most amazing part? This was supposed to be their improvement from how they announced the separation of DVD and streaming services a few months ago.

If you haven’t read the announcement yet, check it out here. Then let’s take the slip-ups one by one:

Blunder #1: It looks like SPAM!!!

Would you open an email from “Reed Hastings, Co-Fo…” with a subject line of “An Explanation and Some Reflections”? I wouldn’t.

The name is unfamiliar, his title is so long that most email clients cut it off at “Co-Fo…” or “Co-Founder…”, and the subject line sounds suspiciously personal, the kind of language an evil virus might use after it seizes control of someone’s computer and forwards itself to everyone that person has ever emailed.

Open it and you will experience the blue screen of death – no thanks!

Subject line and from name are the keys to a strong open rate, and Netflix failed on both accounts. For a simple fix, have the email originate from Netflix, a name recipients know and trust. For subject line, try something that shows excitement about what’s to come: DVD by Mail Will Be Better Than Ever. Or something that tells you what the content really is: More Info About Recent Changes to Netflix Streaming & DVD.

Blunder #2: It offers an apology that doesn’t really apologize.

Let’s read the opening apology paragraph closely:

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology…

Notice what Netflix did there? Hastings only apologized for the fact that many members felt disrespected and perceived a lack of humility. It doesn’t even acknowledge that the method of announcement was flawed.

Reed Hastings and Netflix only seem to regret that people were unhappy – and they should regret that. But if they want to increase people’s happiness, the way to do it is through a real apology, not a half-hearted one.

Blunder #3: It’s WAY too long.

When it comes to time-wasting, Americans do a pretty good job already, so they don’t need you to do it for them by writing  an email that’s much longer than necessary. That’s why most commercial emails are short or picture-based.

Netflix, however, decided to go another way: 645 words and 13 paragraphs to basically say, “I’m sorry” and “Introducing Qwikster!”

If a similar message had come from a colleague, my response would have been “TLDR,” which stands for “Too Long, Didn’t Read.”

Blunder #4: It contains too Many “I” Statements.

Your challenge as a writer is to find out what the reader wants to know and focus on that, not on what “I the author” or “we the company” want to convey. This goes for content as well as language and sentence structure. Successful copywriters find ways to put the emphasis on “you” rather than “I” or “we.”

Here are just a few of the “I” statements and some suggestions for how they could be reworked:

I owe you an explanation. —> You deserve an explanation.

So here is what we are doing and why. —> Here’s what you can expect and why.

One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade… —> When the site launches, you’ll also be able to receive video games…

Blunder #5: It puts too much emphasis on the negatives.

There’s always a downside, but if you want to keep customers, then you need to find a way to soften the blow. Suggest alternatives, sandwich it between positives or downplay it by putting the emphasis on related benefits.

Unfortunately, Netflix missed the mark when they included this gem:

A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated.

Not only did that sentence fall at the end of a paragraph, but Netflix actually used the word “negative” – not smart. Here’s how you can take a sentence like that and turn it around:

As you may have guessed, the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated, but we’ll make it easy for you to transfer your existing DVD queue when the time comes. Also, maintaining and updating your queue will be easier than ever on the new site.

When it comes right down to it, there’s very little this message got right in terms of email marketing or copywriting. It was a disaster from start to finish, and the majority of news coverage has confirmed as much. But the good news is that there’s much to learn from Netflix’s mistakes. So take head and don’t follow Netflix’s bad example.

Now that you’ve learned some basics, find out how to write with credibility or uncover the copywriter’s secret weapon.

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~ by SFcopywriter on September 20, 2011.

7 Responses to “Netflix’s Big Goof: 5 Copywriting Blunders in Its Recent Announcement”

  1. Yeah, his e-mail sounded like it was written at midnight after a few beers. It just shows his disdain and disrespect for customers. He is only interested in the bottom line and it painfully shows. Most of us that would have made a blunder of this magnitude would want 10 people proofing and editing every word we put into print. Arrogant.

  2. Netflix seriously needs a stronger PR team. But the business moves themselves, I think, will work out.

  3. I can only speak from personal experience, and when I was working in-house, CEOs personally wrote several letters. They always went through certain approval channels before publication including legal (a must!) and copy, but the copy review was limited to grammar/spelling, and we were pressured to not make any changes or give opinions on the content. Unfortunately that kind of close-minded, top-down attitude is what leads to Netflix’s current situation.

    In terms of stats, the fallout remains to be seen, but colloquially many users are ready to defect. They’re just waiting for a viable alternative. Reminds me a little of MySpace, and we all know the outcome there.

  4. IMO, Netflix CEO’s letter is bad just from the pov of copywriting specialists.

    All the errors just underline the fact that it was written personally and not just outsourced to a “specialist” authorized to use his name.

    The higher the rank, the more errors.
    No errors, hence it was not personally written (?)

    Black PR (Public Relations) is frequently the best…

    Are there any numerical data? like to know?
    But what are actual, by fact not by opinion, damages from that letter, I’d like to know?

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