Every single piece of content needs to be clear in its purpose.

Recently, Vodafone Australia sent its customers an email titled “Important information on your data charges.” That sounds like a descriptive subject line, but is it?

The email was about Vodafone correcting an issue in its billing system that meant certain internet activity on their mobile phone plans was not calculated correctly. The purpose was to inform, so the subject isn’t wrong, it’s just not the best title they could have used. “Changes to how we calculate your data usage” is only one character longer but tells us instantly what to expect in the email.

Vodafone, in its mobile phone contracts, includes a certain amount of data transfer per month. If their customers exceed that amount of data transfer they will be charged extra. The first paragraph of the email reads:

Vodafone is implementing a correction to its billing systems on 8th July 2011 that will result in charges for three types of mobile handset data usage. The data usage charges are in line with customers’ existing contracts but were not previously billed.

The word “charges” here is, at best, ambiguous. It could mean that customers were, from 8 July onward, going to have to pay extra for those types of data usage. It could also mean that data transfer used for those particular purposes was now going count towards the total data usage when previously it was not.

Ambiguity in a single word is enough of a sign that a piece of content is not clear in its purpose. Here’s a version of that opening paragraph that avoids the ambiguity:

Vodafone will correct its billing system on 8 July 2011 to include three types of data usage. Previously, data used in services listed below were not counted in the data allowance for your plan. As a result, your calculated usage may increase dramatically.

The Big Red Tin version is only seven characters longer than Vodafone’s version. If Vodafone wanted to be even clearer about the changes being a correction and not a new set of charges they could have added the word “incorrectly” into the second sentence so it read: “Previously, data used in services listed below were, incorrectly, not counted in the data allowance…”. It just drives the message home a little clearer that Vodafone’s customers are not getting a dud deal here but were, up until now, getting a free ride.

When a company like Vodafone issues an ambiguous email like that, it causes a great deal of confusion. The forums on the broadband information site, Whirlpool, have at least 122 posts of discussion about what the email might mean. On Vodafone’s own community forums there are another 93 posts at the time of writing.

One of the posts on Vodafone’s website shows exactly the problems that content unclear in its intention can cause. Alcook writes:

This was the worst worded email I think I have ever received. It is completely misleading and basically inaccurate. Thank you for wasting about 45 minutes of my time investigating just what the hell it actually meant…

How does a major company get it so wrong? That’s where content strategy comes into play. At its most basic level, content strategy dictates that every single piece of content needs to be clear in its purpose. Content can be a video, a picture, a manifesto, an email or a text message. Clarity comes about by having clearly stated goals and intentions but also by having someone check that a piece of content achieves its purpose.

The cost of spending an extra hour on making sure an email is clear is minuscule compared to the cost of the ill-will the badly worded email created for Vodafone.


Just for the challenge, I created a version of the message that fits neatly inside a tweet:

We will correct our data usage billing system on 8//7/11. Previously, data used in some services weren’t counted in some plans’ allowance.

The message doesn’t have to be complicated to get a complicated idea across. This tweet could have been followed by another containing a URL providing for a web page with more information.

About Josh Kinal

Josh makes things on the web easy to use and understand. Sounds simple, but it’s not. His understanding of developing engaging content comes from many years of writing for print and radio. You might have heard him on Boxcutters, his popular weekly podcast about TV or years of appearing on Triple J, Radio National and 3RRR. He also holds a science degree and in 2012 was one of Australia’s few panelists at SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas