Your Terms And Conditions Are An Open Goal: Don’t Miss It


This is an article about terms and conditions!

Wait, where are you going?

It’s fair to say they’re not the most glamorous topic. The common perception is they’re dull as ditchwater, but an unfortunate necessity. People don’t read them, and that’s the way it is. Brands certainly don’t think of them as an essential part of the brand experience. Just a wall of text to scroll through on the way to clicking ‘Accept.’

But the evidence suggests brands might be missing a trick here.

Think of it like this: you walk up to someone’s house, and they have a perfectly manicured lawn out front. But around the back, there’s some dry scrub covered in mouldy mattresses. Which bit tells you what they’re really like?

Ts&Cs are a brand’s back garden. And, by and large, they’re covered in mouldy mattresses. Companies put the effort in with marketing and a glossy website, but don’t invest when they think customers aren’t paying attention.

The thing is, people are paying attention. We did some research into Ts&Cs last year and were slightly startled to find that people spend an average of four minutes 42 seconds reading through them. Now that’s not nearly enough time to read the lot – our research also told us an average set takes 28 minutes to read, and some monster sets could take up to three days (we’re naming no names, Vodafone). But it’s more time than you might expect, and shows people do take an interest.

That’s not all. Some people aren’t only reading them – they’re getting really angry when brands get it wrong. When Spotify changed their Ts&Cs last year, Twitter blew up with accusations they were sneaking through clauses that let them steal people’s data. CEO Daniel Ek had to jump to his company’s defence with a memo titled ‘SORRY’. Suddenly they had a brand problem, not a legal one.

So there’s a risk here – and a big opportunity. Neglect your Ts&Cs, and you might find customers think you’re trying to hoodwink them. But get them right, and you’ll stand out a mile.

Here’s how.

Don’t Leave It To The Legal Team

Writing Ts&Cs usually gets left to the lawyers. And they have to be happy with the content of what you’re saying. But not getting people who care about brand involved can come at a cost: our research showed the average set of Ts&Cs are as tough to read as the Harvard Law Review . In other words, barely comprehensible for the average reader. It’s almost as if they’re designed specifically with a future court case in mind. In fact, in a recent review, the FCA said ‘many provisions [of Ts&Cs] are clearly not written for consumers, but rather are intended for third parties, such as the consumer’s lawyer.’

Reducing risk and covering backs comes first, and clear, useful information seems secondary. Interestingly, that same FCA review said there was ‘no compelling evidence that this was a successful risk-mitigation strategy.’

If making Ts&Cs difficult to wade through isn’t giving you an obvious benefit, but instead is making life tough for your customers, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. So make sure your brand team and customer experience people get a say in your terms, at the very least. Even better, get a good writer to turn the raw material from legal into something that works for the reader.

Treat Them As An Advert For Your Brand

How often do you get nearly five minutes undivided attention? Your Ts&Cs are a chance to show readers what you’re all about, right at the start of your relationship. But more often than not, whatever brand language guidelines exist elsewhere get jettisoned. That leaves you with a big disconnect in your customer experience.

If anything, Ts&Cs are more important than a glossy ad campaign – they’re part of the deal you make with the customer. They mean something in a way an ad never could. If you don’t reflect your values at the moment you’re asking people to agree on a contract with you, why should they think those values are anything but a veneer?

There’s another side to this, too. We often ask people to bring a piece of business writing they really like to our training sessions – and it’s the unexpectedly good bits that they bring. Clever ads are fairly common, but a really well written set of Ts&Cs stands out.

Like O2, who changed the bland, ubiquitous tickets are subject to availability to: ‘When they’re gone, they’re gone.’

Or NetApp, whose entire internal expenses policy reads: ‘We’re a frugal company. But don’t show up dog-tired just to save a few bucks. Use your common sense.’

Be Brutally Brief

If the aim is to get people to read all your Ts&Cs, then be realistic about how much time people will spend. We know the average set takes 28 minutes to read. That’s more time than most right-minded people are willing to invest.

So focus on what customers need to know, and cull the rest. If adding in extra stuff that people might need to know puts them off reading the things they have to know, then it’s counter-productive.

Some canny companies have started putting a summary page at the front which pulls out the main points. That’s a good move, but I’d push them to go further. If you can get those main points into a useful summary, do you really need to go into much more detail later on? (Here’s the FCA again: ‘in many cases, T&Cs provide evidence of an over-disclosure’.)

Save your readers’ time up front, and show you’ve thought about what they need – rather than just covering your back – and they’ll thank you for it.

My Challenge To Brands

Serious about making things easy for your customers? Then get your entire Ts&Cs into something people can read in under five minutes. And make sure it’s no trickier to read than the BBC news website.