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Content Strategy

How SendOwl Creates Surprise and Delight

Hannah Adcock • 8 minutes

I first came across the idea of delighting people through design while reading Aaron Walter’s great little book Designing for Emotion.

It’s the kind of book you read and just nod your head in agreement and occasional wonderment. It wasn’t that what he said was new to me – I’d worked for years in the secondhand book trade. Surprising and delighting customers was an effortless achievement (life rafts in the basement; gold leaf hidden in a book; ironic health and safety messages warning against potassium poisoning from bananas).

However, what was new to me was the way Walters so comprehensively linked surprise and delight to web design and showed evolving best practice. Walters is director of user experience at MailChimp, which is pretty much the gold standard for surprise and delight moments. It’s hard not to love the way their mascot, Frederick, gives you a high five when you’ve just sent out a newsletter.

There’s solid business sense behind this seeming frivolity too. MailChimp had 1.2 million users in 158 countries in 2012; it probably has more now.

In March this year, I was given a chance to try delighting customers in the digital space myself. I started working with a terrific company called SendOwl, which make it easy for people to sell digital products online.

In this article, I’ll look at why we decided to delight customers, how we introduced moments of surprise and delight, and whether this strategy helped to grow our business.

Joining bootstrapped ecommerce platform SendOwl

SendOwl is four years old, profitable and growing; they have a small, creative and dedicated team. What they didn’t have was a content person. I was it.

It was obvious right from my first glimpse at their website that SendOwl had a good brand. They’d recently rebranded and had a respectable conversion rate. Their website had clean, bright colours; their copy was friendly but still informative. Even better, they had a blue owl mascot that peeked out at you with huge, slightly hypnotic eyes. It was up to me to boost customer loyalty and reach new users.

After brainstorming with SendOwl founder George Palmer, we decided on a workable content strategy. Part of this involved adding small surprise and delight moments that would make customers smile and, with some luck, talk about us to their friends. Our reasoning was:

  1. Surprise and delight moments flowed naturally from our brand. In fact, we got very excited just thinking about it.
  2. Our competitors did not design for emotion – we could use surprise and delight moments as a competitive advantage
  3. Brands need to be memorable when people browse so quickly: better to be ‘the owl people’ than ‘who?!’
  4. We could add surprise and delight moments quickly and cheaply. If they didn’t work, we could get rid of them.

Sticky growth was important to us because we used a subscription model – so we hoped surprise and delight moments would make people feel more of a connection to our brand

What we did before delighting our customers

Before deciding to surprise and delight your customers, we made sure that customers already loved using our product. We knew that unless were already offered a great user experience, our customers would wonder why we were wasting our time and resources on frivolity.

Fortunately, our users genuinely like SendOwl; they particularly love our customer support:


In fact, our customers are often ‘surprised and delighted’ by our baseline product. It works. It’s simple to use but has tons of great features.

“Send Owl was very easy to set up on our shop and customize with our branding. Whenever there was a question George delivered quick and excellent customer service. I love the instant delivery and the feature that automatically emails customers when a previously purchased file is updated. This makes pattern corrections less of a hassle and our crocheters very happy.” – Maggie’s Crochet

This was the firm foundation on which the froth of surprise and delight would be perched.

Our attempts at surprise and delight

Our criteria for surprise and delight moments was quite straightforward. They needed to be achieved on a fairly tight budget and not take up too much time in terms of content production or development. They also needed to make our customers smile, but not get in the way of them completing a task.

Our customers are busy people running their own businesses, so this last point was important. We thought that razzmatazz surprise and delight moments were more suited to brands (with large budgets) that directly targeted consumers.

Here are a few ideas we came up with:

The launch of The Send Owl

Back in March, we had a mascot but he didn’t have a name, a story or any real involvement in the brand. We decided to change this. We named our mascot The Send Owl. We set him up with an email address: [email protected] (email him!). We put him on a diet, slightly worried that a fat owl might not fit in with our promise to get stuff done quickly! We then set about creating a story for him:

The Send Owl is a four year old blue owl from a small wood in southern England. After school, and inspired by Hedwig in Harry Potter, he decided to concentrate on the mail solutions industry. Sadly, he couldn’t find a wizard to work for. However, he did find George and was persuaded by him to set his sights on the digital space, where his sturdy reliability as well as his ability to explain things in clear English would be much appreciated. He hasn’t looked back since. Although quite a shy character when he first joined the company, the Send Owl is now starting to ruffle his plumage. Although always known for his polite, friendly and straightforward character, he’s now beginning to show signs of an understated sense of humour – as well as occasional Monday morning grumpiness. His first book, Descending From the Perch: An Owl’s Guide to the Modern World, will be published in 2015.

This might seem dangerously close to frivolity, but there is thought behind it. Storytelling is a powerful device. It gives your brand depth; it makes people remember you (it’s easier to remember a story than a collection of related facts). It also makes it easy for me, as a content person, to thread narrative through our content in a holistic fashion.

We’ve had some good feedback on the emergence of The SendOwl as more of a personality. People have written into support with “Dear The Owl” or “Owl, I’m wondering if you could help”. We’ve also had some great exchanges on Twitter:


Share buttons that shuffle, wink and dance

How could we get more customers to share our content without resorting to cat videos? It was like the search for El Dorado. There’s plenty of articles that talk about how share buttons will expand the reach of your blog posts. A few even give you some workable tips on how to maximise the benefit from share buttons.

However, there’s been remarkably little innovation in terms of the design of these social share buttons. At SendOwl beautiful design has always been important to us, so we wanted a decent design experience for social media buttons, which normally seem to be slapped on to websites as an after thought.

We decided to create more personal, appealing share buttons. Our idea was to have owlets (the smaller and fluffier relations of our mascot) encourage readers to share through their behaviour. Here they are:


When you are on a page, out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see them wink, or stamp a foot.


As soon as you hover over the buttons, they nod. ‘Go for it,’ they seem to say. ‘You’ll make a little owlet very happy…’


Then, when you share, they start jumping up and down. You feel 100 feet tall.


Or, if you fail to share, they will shake their head. You’ve made a little owlet sad. ‘Perhaps,’ they seem to suggest, ‘you’d like to reconsider?’


The images are gif animations that are changed when the user hovers, shares, doesn’t share or nothing is happening.

Not all networks support all actions – Google+ doesn’t tell us whether the user shares or not so we just display the celebration, and older IE versions don’t work in all situations either. However, most people get a consistent experience. We serve up ‘normal’ share buttons and different micro copy for mobiles, because we thought the owlets would look a bit squashed on small screens.

Content that has a distinct voice: wohoot!

Surprise and delight moments should naturally integrate with your brand.

Early on, we decided on what key qualities we wanted to communicate to customers about our brand. High up the list was reliable, straightforward and friendly – slightly lower down came an understated sense of humour (The Send Owl is definitely British) and detail-oriented.

Most of our copy ideas flowed fairly naturally from this message architecture. When a customer successfully completes an action we wanted to be friendly and celebrate. Wohoo! was the obvious term. Wohoot!, for us, was much better.

We also incorporate owl imagery or references to SendOwl when it feels like a good moment. For a recent blog post celebrating our birthday I called SendOwl ‘a flying concern’ (ahem). As part of an email talking about the referral scheme I wrote that if you signed up more than 5 people ‘Then SendOwl will descend from his perch and give you a (gentle) peck on the cheek.’ Our regular sales report congratulate people for sales spikes in suitable SendOwlian terms.

We probably write at least 10 x more owl references than we publish. It’s easy to get carried away and step over into silliness.

We also commissioned a designer to regularly produce cartoons of The SendOwl to compliment our copy.

This is a screenshot from our indie game designer landing page:


We’ve got more than 20 images of the SendOwl now. I’m looking forward to repackaging this content: It’s a great resource.

For now, our occasionally owl-themed content positions us as a company that is friendly, that works together, and is memorable.

The Million Dollar Club

One of the first blog articles I worked on for SendOwl was an interview with one of their customers, Gaming Company Introversion Software. They’d started the company just after university and had made more than $2 million. Inspired by their success, we decided to launch The Million Dollar Club for SendOwl sellers who reached these great heights of prosperity.


This might feel like a bit of fun, and a reward for our loyal and high-value customers, but there is strategy behind it as well. We charge our sellers a fixed fee per month to use our service (from $9). This is in contrast to some of our competitors who charge a percentage. As a result we like to emphasise why we stick to our pricing model: it is straightforward and our customers don’t pay more when they sell more. In other words, ‘we don’t penalise you for success’.

As a result of our pricing strategy, it makes sense for us to celebrate sellers that make money. We’ve had a fair few sellers join us from competitors once they’ve grown and realised that a % model no longer offers value for money.

How successful have surprise and delight moments been?

Surprise and delight is a particularly good tactic to increase sticky growth

The qualitative information – like the owl birthday cake – suggests that customers enjoy our brand. What we need to do – and are working on – is trying to leverage the many emails we get from sellers saying how much they like SendOwl. This feedback is lovely, but sadly private.

The quantitative data is also promising. Our newsletter list is growing and has a higher than average open and click through rate. Many of our blog posts show that people are spending an encouraging amount of time engaging with the content. More users are finding our website. Our social media presence is also growing, although not fast enough. We’ve only just launched the SendOwl share buttons, but we’ll report back on their reception.

What has been really encouraging though, is our sticky growth. This has been very positive. Customers are staying with us for longer.

Average lifetime:


Customer churn rate:


This improvement in sticky growth is partly accounted for by our commitment to innovation: in the last few months alone we’ve launched video streaming, download folders and a spanking new checkout. However, some of this loyalty and engagement can be attributed to our improved branding, including surprise and delight moments.

It’s not always easy to isolate surprise and delight moments from other factors

Takeaway points:

  1. Surprise and delight moments should naturally integrate with your brand. Don’t force them, otherwise you end up looking silly.
  2. If you are going to try surprise and delight tactics, don’t get in the way of your users performing actions. Also, make sure that you are already offering a great user experience, otherwise your customers will wonder why you are wasting time and resources on frivolity.
  3. Surprise and delight is a particularly good tactic to increase sticky growth, in our experience
  4. It’s not always easy to isolate surprise and delight moments from other factors – this can make measuring their success slightly tricky
  5. Surprise and delight moments don’t have to be on a grand scale or cost a fortune. Start small and see what you can achieve.
  6. Have fun! We do.

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About the Author

Hannah Adcock

Content Strategist, SendOwl

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