The great part about the internet is that when companies mess up in 2016, they get the backlash and we get the lesson.
The internet marketing world is ablaze with the recent email from AppSumo – a well-respected company known for its compelling content and for its voice.
In selling a product called the “Pocket Tripod,” AppSumo included the following line:
We’ve all taken a photo or video that looks like Michael J. Fox was behind the lens.
I’m not going to delve into the details of whether or not this was a “career-ending insensitive insult” or “political correctness gone awry” — both of which I’ve seen on various boards.
Instead, let’s look at how this might have happened.
The risk of using “Friend at the Bar” voice
I don’t have inside knowledge of the situation. But, I have worked at content companies similar in size and notoriety as AppSumo.
And the truth is, I’ve narrowly escaped and narrowly not-escaped similar issues (those are stories for another day).
Here’s one way this might have gone down:
- Junior writer tries to get the flippant, fun tone of AppSumo and write memorable content. He makes a joke that in a vacuum or with friends might sound funny.
- Editor misses the 8-word offensive part.
- Tech person reads it the next day, notices, chuckles and thinks… “hmmm… that’s a little over the line, but what do I know, I’m not on the content team.”
- Post goes live
- Shitstorm ensues
- Noah Kagan (AppSumo’s founder) and team are alerted and now have to do damage control.
- Noah takes the biggest action he can think of… forfeit all profits from the debacle even though this product may have unusually high sales.
This is why a rock-solid editorial process is key. When you write alone (as I spoke about in the “tone” section here), no one catches those things that sound ok in your head, but not-so-great on paper.
“Friend at the Bar” is a very effective voice to use, but also poses a risk… you don’t want to be that jerk at the bar.
This is why newspaper articles get looked at by no less than 3 editors before going live. Especially charged articles are reviewed by entire editorial boards or committees.
This was AppSumo’s first mistake. A forgivable one, I believe. And one to which they admitted.
What I want to talk about is the second mishap. The apology letter.
AppSumo’s over-correction: Why abandoning voice was a terrible idea
We need to sincerely apologize for our distasteful joke in yesterday’s email.
Michael J. Fox has long been one of our favorite actors. We deeply admire his will to overcome Parkinson’s and have always respected his ability to bring awareness to his situation through humor.
In our poor attempt at imitative humor, we crossed the line and in the process offended many of you, our Sumo-ling family.
It was by no means in our intention to belittle a disease as serious as Parkinson’s – a condition that affects nearly 10 million people around the world. There were a thousand other ways to crack that particular joke and it’s unfortunate that we chose the one we did.
While we know this is only a first step, we are donating all the profits from the Pocket Tripod offer directly to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
We are also updating our email review process to make sure this never happens again.
Once again, our deepest apologies, and we promise to do better next time.
Ayman and the AppSumo team
So how does this apology letter stack up. And was it effective?
- They are putting their money where their mouth is by not profiting from the mishap.
- They owned up to it and didn’t try to defend themselves, make excuses, or further alienate the audience.
The not-so good:
They could have been a little less “corporate” with the language of the email. When you say “sincerely apologize…” it sounds insincere because companies use this term from everything from outages to overcharging. AppSumo has a very distinct voice and it may have been better received if they leveled with us. Even more so if it came straight from Noah or Ayman. Something like:
Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t think. We made a cheap shot at the expense of another person. Not cool. And we’re going to try harder. Those of you that know me, know that sometimes my mouth moves faster than my brain. And that’s exactly what happened. We’re going to make up for it. I don’t want to make a cent from the extra publicity this post is getting so every penny that would be made from AppSumo is going to further this cause.
Being real and authentic to your voice goes a long way in these situations.
Effective voice is a balancing act. You want to be real without being offensive, and self-aware without being inauthentic.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think AppSumo could have done differently?