Make Your Terms of Service the New Must-Read

August 11, 2013

12:00 pm

How many times have you clicked the little box saying you’ve read a company’s terms of service? How many times did you actually read them?

That’s what I thought.

Those things are about as easy to read as “Beowulf” in its original version, and often almost as long. (Airbnb’s terms of service fill 22 printed pages!) Software companies know perfectly well that users aren’t going to go read those terms of service (ToS), and often, they don’t really want them to in the first place.

Why You Want Users to Read Your Terms of Service

Companies know that if you actually tried to figure out what you were agreeing to, you’d probably give up and ignore their products altogether. But if you’re an Internet entrepreneur, you might rethink this approach of writing an unreadable ToS and getting your users to agree without looking at it.

You have to wonder how long it will be before the courts decide a ToS that’s ridiculously long and chock-full of legalese is unenforceable because the user couldn’t possibly have known what it meant. Writing a user-friendly contract is a proactive approach to protecting your company from having its ToS deemed invalid.

Potential legal issues aside, your ToS should actually be used as a tool to communicate with your customers. A good ToS will let customers know what they can expect from you and what you can expect from them.

For Airbnb, their ToS has really important information — like what to do if there’s a conflict between a host and a guest, and the fees they charge. Making your ToS clear and easy-to-read can actually help your company develop a stronger relationship with its users.

How to Make Terms of Service Readable

Google and MailChimp recently rewrote their ToS so normal human beings could read and understand them, which has inspired many other companies to revisit their own policies. My company, Impact Dialing, rewrote our ToS recently. Here are a few tips from our experience:

1.  Use plain English where you can. Sometimes, you just don’t need legal jargon. For example, we shortened a long paragraph about intellectual property to simply say, “Impact Dialing owns the Dialer, and you will respect our proprietary rights (including patents, trademarks, and copyrights).”

2.  Keep legal words short and sweet. Sometimes, the legalese is actually very important. In those cases, keep the first sentence plain and easy-to-read, and use legalese as sparingly as possible. Here’s how we reworked our section about warranties:

“Impact Dialing works hard to provide a service that our customers appreciate, but we do not make any specific promises about it. The Dialer is provided ‘as is.’ For example, that means (but is not limited to meaning) that we do not promise how the Dialer will work or how reliable it will be. To the extent permitted by law, we exclude all warranties.”

3.  Build off others’ work. When we rewrote our policies, we looked to Google and MailChimp for inspiration. We want to make it easy for others to have a starting point, so we’ve licensed our privacy policy and terms of service under a Creative Commons license that allows anybody to copy and modify the text for their own use (so long as they let others do the same).

4.  Work with your lawyer. You don’t want to get sued and then find out that you messed up your ToS. But make sure your lawyer understands how you want to communicate with your customers — it’s easy for attorneys to slip back into legalese!

Very few people pay attention to terms of service agreements, mostly because they are unreadable. But, as more and more of our lives are lived online, it’s very important that both companies and their customers understand the relationships they’ve entered. Take some time to make your terms of service clear, concise, and readable so your customers know they’re doing business with the right people.

Guest author Michael Kaiser-Nyman is the founder and CEO of Impact Dialing, a service that helps people make phone calls more efficiently. Connect with him on Twitter and Google+

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