Learn from my mistakes: Use Internetiquette to win online business!


By Mars Dorian, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Today I am going to help you learn from my mistakes by teaching you a valuable lesson in Internetiquette. No need to thank me.

Internetiquette is like real English, except it’s adjusted for the web. In offline life, you have facial expressions, hand motions and voice intonation to convey style, but online, you lack these. When you communicate online mostly through written messages like me, and you gather new clients by cold-blooded email, you have to re-think the psychology.

The following three tips are based on my crash and burn failures of the past.

1) Sugarcoat your sentences.

When I started my web career, a British friend of mine warned me about working with Americans. He said I’d have to sugarcoat my words or else I’d end up offending them. I thought he was kidding, that it was some kind Brit / American nit-picking taking place.

But later that year, I had a lot of communication crashes because I failed to listen to that lesson. I asked my potential American clients “normal” questions, and either got a negative in return, or none at all. Sentences like:

  • “What do you want?” 
  • “Why do you want to work with me?” or
  • “What’s the matter with your biz?”

These rubbed a lot of Americans the wrong way. In my mind, hearing my own voice, it was perfectly reasonable. But the letters on the screen didn’t carry my relaxed intonation, so the potential client from across the pond thought I was one brash, peeved off something.

Now, putting a smiley face next to your sentence is cute for your friends, but when you’re taking part in biz conversations, and you start poppin’ out those emoticons, the other side will think you’re either a degenerate, or a 14-year-old “Belieber” who’s learned language through viral cat videos.

So instead, I take out my finest textbook English:

  • What can I help you with?
  • Could you clarify that for me please?
  • If you could please do (X), that would be very helpful.

I know, it sounds a bit stilted, as if the queen herself is sipping some breakfast tea while typing away the words with her cashmere glove. But it works, and it results in a harmonic convo that breeds win-win results.

My online conversation style is at least twice as sugarcoated as in real life. And so far, not a single soul has lamented that I’m too nice.

2) Ask, Ask Ask.

Because of the lack of intonation and other subtle gestures, it’s hard to convey style through a written sentence on the screen.
“I hate you” sounds harsh and drastic, but if I say it in real life and chuckle, it means something different. On the web, a seemingly harmless sentence can turn out to be ambiguous.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve worked on an illustration project for weeks, only to realize the client’s so-called project description turned out to be an ironic joke!

I had one client who said he wanted to see the typical “Mars Dorian” on every image. I thought he meant he wanted to see my edgy, Mars Dorian style on the artwork. So I cranked out a dozens of my finest Mars Dorians and showed them to him two weeks later. He wrote back and said they were too “out there” and “edgy” and I thought that’s exactly what he wanted when he asked to see the typical “Mars Dorian.”

In fact he meant he wanted to see my typical Mars Dorian signature on every picture, as proof to link names and artwork together on the accompanying invoice.

Insert facepalm here.

Granted, the client was not a native English speaker (and neither am I), but I was still too afraid to ask for clarification, and I paid for it by working for weeks for free. Ungh.

It doesn’t matter if attention spans are short online, save yourself the future pain. Always ask away. Something is not clear? Ask. Is the statement real or ironic? Ask. It’s better for both sides.

3) Categorize the wants.

Vera F. Birkenbihl, a famous business coach in Germany who unfortunately died recently, came up with a great way to deal with offline / online deals. If you want a conversation to be crystal clear, she said you should always categorize the wants. Meaning, you put every online statement in either of the following categories :

  • “What’s in it for them.
  • “What’s in it for you.”

Now with these two categories in mind, you “scan” your online conversations and put the other side’s message in either one of these categories. And if too many sentences end up in the “what’s in it for them” category, you know…
A) it’s a win-lose deal– win for them, lose for you.
B) You should clarify with more questions to find out what’s in it for you.

Whenever I get a new email offering some kind of joint venture or deal, I use this category approach. Funny side note:  all spam messages end up in the “What’s in it for them’ category, almost 100% exclusively.

Well I hope you have learned from my mistakes today. What kind of of internetiquette do you use?

Mars Dorian describes himself as a creative marketeer with a moon-melting passion for human potential and technology. You can follow his adventures at www.marsdorian.com/

Original illustration by the author.

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  • From a slightly different perspective, it’s also very important to read every word, rather than skim over a paragraph in an email, or online, and assume you have fully understood what someone has written and, more importantly, meant.

    I’ve seen numerous comments, meant as a reply to a previous comment, but were nonsensical because the individual was angered or disagreed with the first sentence and jumped in with a retort without finishing and understanding the full statement.
    It takes more effort to read through text (in my opinion) than it does to listen to someone explain something or express themselves verbally, some people just don’t bother I guess?

    Great article Mars, enjoyed it 🙂

  • Fantastic post Mars. I often struggle with the same thing, so I am not sure if this is so much a cultural thing, as maybe a “comfort level with internet” thing.

    For example, if you send me an email, and i have the answer, my natural tendency is to simply answer. No dear so and so, or hello, so and so, thank you for your question. Due to the high level of requests I get or questions, it all seems pretty efficient to me, you want an answer I send it… I have trained myself to try and reread my email before sending it, and often find i go back and add in a “goodmorning hope all is well” before what ever I have written. – a clear sign that my instinct in using email is far too familiar. I have to step back and formalize often.

    I tend to open relationships or communications with clients formally, and and adapt to their style – normally I don’t see a lot of issues there… However, with a certain population of my staff, this lack of formality worries them. They get put off a little. They don’t understand I’m just trying to give them what they want in the most efficient way possible.

    Over the years I have tried to be very conscious of this. (Or explain to people, don’t take my lack of formality personally – im just trying to be efficient). This has helped. But, as you say, in email, especially with clients or people you don’t know as well, best to be more formal – it makes people feel appreciated when they cant see your smile, or understand your tone.

    The reason that I refer to internet comfort level as a major factor is because if you use the internet to communicate frequently, for example 50 times a day – you don’t feel like a reply or question going out is a big production, it feels to you like you’re just leaning over to someone and saying “hey, what was that color you were looking at for this layout”- or whatever… but get an email like that when you’re not expecting it and not really at ease in the relationship or circumstance- well it comes across as bossy, or demanding.

    *We* feel at ease and like we’re just reaching out – yet the receiver feels like someone just jumped in on them!

    Alternately, I have met a few people who try very hard to put the emotion into their emails, and one gentleman in particular who is in his 80’s. Every email comes with bolds, and underlines and exclamations. Even though I know him, and know he is a very kind man…when I see that my eyes almost make my brain explode 😉 Yet, his intention is simply to convey emotion. It creates *extreme strain* with anyone who has to deal with him by email…it is taken as screaming and ordering …. He doesn’t really see the issue…

    So, I guess it is all relative!

    Being conscious of our differences in communication style helps- relationships are delicate and in the silent communication methods like email – you never really know what is going on on the other side. Better safe than sorry. Loved this post! 🙂 Have an amazing day!

  • Martin

    Really liked it. Thanks for the post. Read more http://socialmediagrow.com

  • Wow, what a reply, Mila, it’s almost bigger than my post 😉
    yes, It’s a big topic, and the article itself is geared towards clients. I tend to be more ‘sloppy’ with friends, where I do use snappy sentences and more smiley faces, just because they know my style from ‘offline’ life. You really have to treat each person differently, based on your relationship to them. But that topic is so grand I’ll think we’d have to fill a book with all the micro aspects 😉

  • I love this topic, Mars. I find conversations can easily be lost in translation, especially when from different companies/cultures and you don’t share the same native language.

    I agree with your advice to ask questions for clarification. It doesn’t benefit anyone to assume – or categorize someone without full understanding on both sides. I think Twitter’s brevity can result in misunderstanding, so sometimes it’s best to take the conversation offline to communicate in longer form.

  • Hey Sarah,
    I used to engage in ‘controversial’ topics on Twitter, and boy, did I regret it later on. Because of the short word limit, I had to leave out words, turning my statements into different meanings. It unleashed a crapstorm of misunderstandings and angry replies. Never again 😉

  • Great post Mars! And, so crucial to today’s online world. Some old tactics are still true (like read you message from the recipient’s perspective before you send) but fundamentally, 90% of human to human conversation meaning is lost when body language, voice tone and other non verbal interaction is lost. So, as you “lose” each, the remaining methods need to be strengthened to counteract the impact of these “losses”.

    In this day and age, with the online communication becoming the norm, people need to adjust their styles to become more effective. Unfortunately, as you found, the benefit of rapid communications through online methods can actually have an adverse impact to effective communications and desired results.

  • I think this article perfectly illustrates the need to be careful about taking the generic advice to “be yourself” and “be authentic”.

    I have, myself, failed many times to communicate effectively, because in real life, my linguistic style depends largely on tone and body language to communicate my true intent.

    On the internet, if we take the same linguistic approach, ie, we engage as we are, or as our authentic self, to your point, it could come with catastrophic results.

    I have plenty of personal experiences to prove my point…and yours for that matter.

    What perky and otherwise personable people fail to recognize, is that some people are not as perky. To follow the advice to be “authentic”, in its truest definition, ie, be truly who you are, could be a recipe for creating a lot of bad press.

    Words matter is really what you are saying. And they matter more when you are unable to engage all of the senses.

    So, be authentic is fine. Just be sure you fully appreciate how your authentic self chooses words, and know that sometimes, those words, authentic or not, are going to kill your results.

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